A Tale of God’s Will: A Requiem for Katrina
By Terence Blanchard
…I was so frustrated and in rage. I wanted the trumpet to scream on every track, but I feel that God is using me to speak for all the souls in New Orleans.
So spoke musician-composer and New Orleans native Terence Blanchard, who lived through the horror of Hurricane Katrina. The words may well sum up the artist’s approach when he put together the score for Spike Lee’s documentary, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, and expanded on that work for his own personal album, A Tale of God’s Will: A Requiem for Katrina. The film itself is must-viewing for any American citizen, and its resulting album is an ambitious, far-flung, sometimes vexing work that requires several listens (plus a viewing of the film) for one to get the full effect. I have come to respect it increasingly and, while it still has major flaws, I do notice more and more subtle gems emerging with each cycle through.
Those gems didn’t come cheap. To hear Blanchard tell it, the creative process this time was much more arduous than any of his extensive work with Spike Lee had been before. Usually, someone scoring a movie can take breaks to pace on the patio, sip a cold Heineken, etc. But Blanchard explains that his “breaks” consisted of tracking down his family, shepherding them through their crises, and relocating them and himself. Having seen the devastation up close, Blanchard felt just about every negative emotion possible, and doubted whether he could convey them all adequately. Ultimately, he focused on the duty he felt to speak out for himself and other victims, both spiritually and artistically, and the creative process followed.
The theme that Blanchard consistently brings up in interviews is that he wants the album to function as a prayer, both for aiding the souls of those who died and for uniting and healing the survivors (hence the titular references to both God and Lee’s film). “That’s what this story is about,” Blanchard asserts: “God’s will be done. We can’t understand why things happened, but we can trust that we can learn something from it.” Nor should anyone interpret the statement as passive acceptance of the folly of powerful humans. When he told NPR, “This is not about New Orleans,” Blanchard unequivocally linked the personal to the political. Really, his album is about more than New Orleans. It’s about his traumatic personal experience (during Katrina as well as Hurricane Betsy of forty years earlier, as we shall see), and it’s also about his wish that people take better care of each other – even his demand for better care. One of his interviewers remarked that a requiem is traditionally a prayer for the salvation of the souls of the dead. Blanchard clearly wants some salvation for the living, too.
Which brings us to the music itself. How does an artist translate a plea for accountable government, equitable distribution of resources, and community harmony into music? The short answer is that he doesn’t. He best makes his plea (and is thus best heard) in conventional language, and Blanchard has made admirable use of conventional language in interviews. Absent lyrics, music works best as a vehicle for what we can’t say with the spoken word. (The album does have seven words on it, but more on that later). In saying the unspeakable, Blanchard has also been solidly successful. Perhaps the great flaw of the album is that it does not seem to communicate quite the raw rage that the movie does in its candid footage of Louisianans. Indeed, the movie’s four musical themes, which Blanchard rearranged and elaborated upon for the soundtrack, are melancholy and dignified, never lashing out in fury or squealing in panic. They are called “Levees,” “Water,” “Funeral Dirge,” and “Wading Through,” and the last of the four turns up enough to get pretty repetitive. In the context of the film, the emotional restraint is actually very appropriate, because the crying, shouting interviewees give us all the immediate angst we need, right up to the man on the street who famously railed at visiting veep Dick Cheney to “Go fuck yourself!” (We actually get to meet that man – he’s an ER doctor who works along the Gulf Coast). Overall, the music serves the storytelling with great subtlety and is hardly ever intrusive.
However, one is still surprised at the subdued emotional range of the album material. There definitely is a range – it’s just not quite as wide as one would expect. There needs to be some compensation for the absence of the people in the film if the album is to feel emotionally complete. As it is, the range we hear spans from utterly numb shock to mounting indignation, just at the shouting level. Blanchard actually said that he intended for the wailing trumpet to simulate the cries of people stranded on rooftops and floating refrigerators. The album’s great strength, if anything, is in its aesthetic range, because the sheer variety of orchestration, tempi, and textures shows great care and thoughtful collaboration.
“Ghost of Congo Square” starts the album very strongly with a hauntingly dark, Blakey-ish cymbal crash, leading into a vigorous, multilayered Afro-Caribbean rhythm of drum set, cowbells, and clave, with only a bass to weld the beats to Blanchard’s mighty trumpet lead. Voices sing over and over, somewhat forbiddingly, “This is a tale of God’s will.” Blanchard invokes two other past cataclysms, Hurricane Betsy of 1965 and the Flood of 1927, with “Ghost of Betsy” and “Ghost of 1927,” respectively. “Ghost of Betsy” holds up the center and “Ghost of 1927” is just near the end, establishing three huge pillars that prop the rest of the album and are some of its strongest numbers. All of these pieces consist of drums, bass, and two horns at the most, sometimes with drums dropping out. The effect, for the most part, is delicious – organic, pulsating jazz at its austere best. However, the synthesizer pad sounds on “Ghost of 1927,” though brief, are deeply offensive. Pad sounds, Mr. Blanchard? You’re not going to go all “smooth jazz” on us, are you?
Anyway, around these tunes, we get a mixed bag – mostly meat, and pretty juicy meat at that, but also fair amount of fat. Blanchard has been scoring movies since the 1980s (you’ve heard his work in virtually every Spike Lee film, from Mo’ Better Blues to Clockers), and while he is generally good at avoiding schmaltz or cliché, some melodies scream “Movie music!” a lot more loudly than others. A full orchestra, after all, creates as many pitfalls as it does opportunities. To use scoremeister John Williams’s work for comparison, there are a few passages in Katrina that boast an arresting simplicity (think of the unbearable dread of Jaws’s two ruthless notes sawing back and forth across a double-bass) and also a few passages that narrate what needs no narration (think of some treacly passage that we hear when Superman reflects on his existential crises). This apparent overplaying is ironic when one considers how well the music works in the movie. It is probably the way the strings swell that threatens to push some of the tracks into Sunday-matinee banality. Most troublingly, when Blanchard plays over the strings, there are two parallel universes of “lush strings” and “refined jazz quintet” playing side by side – technically synchronized, but not of a piece.
Internal contradictions aside, many passages could work just as well in other movies…and one of them did. Spike Lee mentions in his director’s commentary for When the Levees Broke that he really liked one of the themes Blanchard wrote for the thriller Inside Man, for a scene when a group of hostages are marching onto a bus, and so Lee decided to use it wholesale for Levees. That would be the oft-repeated “Wading Through” (though Blanchard claims, perplexingly, that “Wading Through” is actually in remembrance of his childhood experience with Hurricane Betsy). This re-use does seem a little bit cheap; at least the artists are stealing from themselves. Reading between the lines, we can guess that perhaps Blanchard was physically and emotionally overextended and truly stuck for ideas during and right after the disaster, and turned to recycling material (albeit recycling intelligently) to buy some time until he could recharge. Maybe we’re not in a position to blame him.
If we can back up a step here, it is actually rather fascinating how the particular instrumentation of strings and solo trumpet, plus a dignified, thoughtful mood, sometimes combine to evoke cowboys on the prairie at sunset, until an obvious blue note jerks us back into the jazz world. Again, I doubt Blanchard intended this, but it reveals some important conventions of movie music. His previous film work is “slick” in the good and bad senses of the word – lyrical, and reflecting plenty of composing and arranging effort, but often predictable in its obedience to conventions. When he plays live, he plays for jazz enthusiasts, and gets down without apology or hesitation. One might even say that his jazz is jazzier live, pushing boundaries and exploring new territories the way jazz is supposed to, while his film compositions stay politely within the recognizable boundaries of straight-ahead bebop, or just outside them. This cinematic over-restraint is not widespread in the album, but it makes its presence known.
As for individual tracks, there are some truly haunting ones, and the democratically-minded leader bid each side player in his quintet contribute one tune when he saw they too were trying to distill their Katrina demons into quarter- and eighth-notes. The players all bring something solid to the album, and some of it is fantastic. Perhaps the two best melodies are, yes, Blanchard’s infamous “Wading Through” and pianist Aaron Parks’s “Ashé” (“Ashé” is the Yoruba equivalent of “Amen”). We hear gorgeous, lyrical themes played, restated, and expanded upon in an open (but hardly random) structure. Intriguing, but too long and a little aimless, are “Mantra Intro” and “Mantra” by the drummer, Kendrick Scott. Here the writer borrows a morsel of the mystical east in the form of Indian tablas, so we can all meditate together properly. It’s hokey, but he no doubt wanted to keep with the spiritual theme, and, thankfully, a beautifully textured (and meditative) electric bass solo comes in and provides a decent amount of direction. Best of all, the piece morphs into a very satisfying, vigorous group improvisation. The eerie melancholy of the opening lines of “Levees” actually carries a whiff of Johsua Rifkin’s treatment of “Albatross” for Judy Collins. Two similar tunes show how much writers working together can influence each other: bassist Derrick Hodge’s “Over There” shuffles in two or three key notes of “Ashé,” just enough that one can hear the similarity, but with some camouflaging in between.
There is much to recommend Katrina, mainly some great melodies and musicianship. Still, the work suffers from a kind of emotional hesitancy, even ambivalence. The lion’s share of material sounds somber and wistful, which makes sense – but the anxiety and even nostalgia and hope seem to be cramped in the margins. Conspicuously absent are raw rage and indignation. Here and there we can hear the tame, simmering anger of someone with a fair amount to lose. This might describe Terence Blanchard; if the musicians who succeed in the cutthroat record industry learn anything along the way, it’s how to bide their time politely in the face of very degrading treatment. The documentary, and most of the outside interviews, shows Blanchard remaining rather philosophical about his experience, rarely moving into rage. Spike Lee gives Blanchard more airtime than most of the interviewees in When the Levees Broke. This is fair, since he contributed the music, but Blanchard doesn’t say anything particularly surprising. As with most of the people discussing their trials, we don’t learn as much from Blanchard’s actual words as we do from his dazed plodding, his slow shakes of the head, his vain attempt to choke back a tear. The audience gets its most poetic glimpse at Blanchard’s inner world (through Spike Lee’s eyes, of course), when the camera tracks Blanchard walking through the rubble between gutted buildings, playing his trumpet in stoic, calm defiance.
Stoicism is admirable. It is still troubling to think of what an ulcer Blanchard might have given himself holding back that rage. In a revealing statement, Blanchard remarked that “I had to keep catching myself during the recording process because I didn’t want to sound angry over the entire album.” He may well have over-compensated. Now, it may seem presumptuous of me to question the authenticity of someone’s response to a devastating and very personal loss. Even so, it seems that any work of art about Katrina should arouse a little more indignation and even rage in me than this album arouses. The movie certainly made me indignant. In fact, I can get indignant just reading objective, measured news articles about the whole debacle. If nothing else, I submit, it would have been good to give the album’s listeners (especially those not acquainted with the documentary, though they should be) a sense of the mad fury of people in the Gulf Coast – not necessarily Terence Blanchard or his family and friends – who got the very short end of the stick when it came time to repair the damage.
When it does come to Blanchard, one of the great strengths of this body of work (both soundtrack and album) is the obvious sincerity of his faith. He has faith in God, humans, and his ability to overcome hardship through tenacity and creativity. This comes through most, of course, when one views the film. (Like I said, see the film.) What is really astounding is many of the people’s ardent faith throughout the ordeal – not just a basic faith that God will make things all right in the end, but a seeming conviction that He was actually doing them some kind of favor. “Father,” says one local minister in an onscreen prayer, “You troubled that water for our protection.” But there is a logic behind such jaw-dropping statements, best explicated here by the Reverend Al Sharpton, of all people. In Sharpton’s own prayer, he suggests that the storm was a “wake-up call” that brought privileged Americans face to face with their country’s too-well-hidden miseries. (Indeed, Blanchard has spoken of such a “wake-up call” in interviews). Sharpton can reach many people with painful truths precisely because he’s the loose cannon of the western world, and thus has some protected status as an unreliable narrator; the lefties who tolerate him come for painful truths, and get them, while other people come for a few laughs, and get painful truths.
Certainly, an honest look at our country right now is going to hurt. Art is there to soothe, but also to agitate people – that is, to remind them why and how much they hurt in the first place, and who did the hurting. If anything, the album mostly soothes where the film agitates. There is no inherent contradiction there, because Blanchard’s statements clearly indicate a desire to do both. And he succeeds in both. Even so, I hope that he will find a way to exorcise more of that simmering rage in the next album. Whether he calls up images of cowboys at sunset or the cries of disaster victims stranded on rooftops, if he does it with grit and panache (and I’m sure he can), I will be happy.
David Meadow lives in Los Angeles, where he plays music and writes. He is currently working on a book of teachers’ perspectives on overcoming cultural barriers in the K-12 classroom, and, if the fates are in good humor, he will soon be teaching English as a Second Language at a community college