Vineyard Gumbo makes connections

Bandleader Benny Jones Sr. and his award-winning Tremè Brass Band lead an impromptu second line parade through the Campground. Photo by Ralph Stewart
Bandleader Benny Jones Sr. and his award-winning Tremè Brass Band lead an impromptu second line parade through the Campground. Photo by Ralph Stewart

By Pat Waring - July 27, 2006

Last week's ambitious Vineyard Gumbo Festival was as rich and spicy as any Creole stew. Colorful, compelling and many-faceted, the jam-packed five-day celebration of New Orleans featured music, food, and some eye-opening education about the history of the Crescent City and the harsh difficulties its residents still face nearly one year after Hurricane Katrina.

From the upbeat second line parade through the Campground and rollicking kick-off buffet party at the Oyster Bar Grill, to cooking demonstrations by top New Orleans chefs, to a two-hour program of film and discussion of rebuilding the city at the Island Theater, the message rang out loud and clear: New Orleans is still struggling and needs help to survive and rise again. Coupled with that was the spirit of hope and determination from those who are fully committed to doing all they can to make sure that historic city lives on. And the New Orleaneans urged those who would help to visit, eat at the restaurants, check out the clubs, all to help bring the city alive again.

Eddie King and his trombone. Photo by Ralph Stewart
Eddie King and his trombone.

The festival was the creation of local artist Steve Lohman and his brother, Jon, a Virginia folklorist, who share the bond of a love for New Orleans. Along with the Lohmans, countless Island volunteers got on board, doing everything from manning T-shirt and book tables, helping at cooking demos, and driving musicians to gigs, to opening up their homes across the Island to house the southern visitors.

Those who made the journey to Martha's Vineyard for the festival - musicians, chefs, human service workers, National Public Radio personality Nick Spitzer, physician/photographer Justin Lundgren - had all seen and experienced the devastation firsthand. Plucky and hopeful though they were last week, virtually all had been evacuated, lost homes, businesses, belongings - and friends and neighbors. Many echoed with disappointment and anger their feeling that the United States government failed - and continues to fail - to help them, their neighbors, and their city.

At 83, Leah Chase is looking forward to re-opening her famous eatery, Dooky Chase. Despite losing her home and restaurant and living in a government trailer after the levees broke, Ms. Chase has a gleam in her eye and a determined hope in her heart. She invited us to New Orleans, promising, "My restaurant will be opened by September, then I can really cook for you!"

Jamelle Williams of the Tremè Brass Band. Photo by Ralph Stewart
Jamelle Williams of the Tremè Brass Band.

Some more fortunate restaurateurs, who were able to operate soon after the disaster, dedicated their kitchens to feeding relief workers.

Jessica Harris, a food historian and writer with homes in New Orleans and Martha's Vineyard, is devoting time and energy to helping chefs survive. Like the musicians, it is chefs who carry on the rich tradition of New Orleans, she said.

According to Steve Lohman, many of those who came are still living in FEMA trailers. Pianist Henry Butler is staying in Colorado until he can return to his home.

Bethany Bultman, a writer by profession, began working several years ago with the New Orleans Musicians' Clinic, which aims to provide medical care and preventive services to the city's many uninsured musicians. As needs soared after Katrina, Ms. Bultman and others are striving to help musicians simply survive, finding ways to provide housing, meals, and paid work.

Grand Marshall Alana Jones was front and center at the parade. Photo by Ralph Stewart
Grand Marshall Alana Jones was front and center at the parade.

Steve Lohman said the festival did well financially, although final totals have not been calculated. Funds raised through the various events and T-shirt sales will go to several organizations including the New Orleans Musicians' Clinic, and the New Orleans Restaurant Relief Fund.

"It's more than money," said Mr. Lohman, still exhilarated, if exhausted, this week, recounting the many benefits of the event. "We brought musicians here, paid them well, gave them a break from stressful conditions. We got a real dialogue going. We got people thinking about New Orleans, reminded people that everything is not okay. We have a city in ruins and we have to rebuild it in a way that brings back the unique character that is New Orleans."

For more information, or to make a contribution, visit vineyardgumbo.com.