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Last Updated: Thursday, 30 August 2007, 09:02 GMT 10:02 UK
Musicians' Village brings new hope
By Caroline Briggs
BBC News, New Orleans

JD Hill
JD stayed in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit
Standing on the porch of his Caribbean blue home, Jerome "JD" Hill has every reason to smile.

The 51-year-old harmonica player may have been made homeless when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans two years ago, but, for him, things are looking up.

JD was one of the first people to be rehoused in a new Musicians' Village being built in the city's Upper 9th Ward.

The candy-coloured timber constructions will eventually become a lively community of musicians, most of whom were affected by the storm in August 2005.

"Everyone is starting to move in around here and that's good," says JD, whose lives in the house with his partner Pauline and their dog, Lucy.

Construction on the village started in March 2006
About 80 homes will be built in total on the eight acre site
Musicians and their families will make up 70% of the community
Applicants must have an income of $18,620 (9,385) per year, and have a good credit history
Only 10% of applicants meet the requirements to live in the village

"Some of them are good buddies and I won't have to go too far if I'm looking for a musician. I won't have to get on the phone, I can just knock on the doors."

The village is the brainchild of musicians Harry Connick Jnr and Branford Marsalis. They went to charity Habitat for Humanity with the idea in the weeks after Hurricane Katrina.

Construction on the site began in spring 2006, and JD moved in just months later.

"I honestly feel that I'm really lucky to be the first person to get a house here," said JD.

"I hope to see more musicians come in, because we don't have steady incomes. It's like the old joke, what do you call a musician without a girlfriend? Homeless.

"We are together here, trying to patch up enough money to live here, and things have been going good so far."

'Feeling blue'

Originally from upstate New York, JD has been living and working in New Orleans "off and on" since 1981.

The musician has performed with all the New Orleans greats: Daniel Lanois, Deacon John, Cyril Neville and the Uptown AllStars, and at clubs like Tipitina's, Maple Leaf, Apple Barrel, and Benny's Bar.

Musicians Village
Each home is partly funded by an individual sponsor

Memories of the night Katrina visited his city are still fresh in JD's mind. He says it affected him deeply, and admits to still "feeling the blues".

He and Pauline had decided to ride out the storm in their apartment block, only streets away from where Musicians' Village now stands.

"We were the only ones in this apartment building so we decided to leave the apartment we were in and go somewhere more solid, so we got into another vacant apartment," he says.

"I was sleeping, but got up after I heard the train noise... and I opened up the back door and thought 'whoa look out!'.

"It was shingles flying through the alley, and some of them hit the wooden fences and it was like pow-pow-pow. That noise was something else.

"There was a big old tree out the back that fell over. The roof came off the apartment we were living in and sheet rock and wood landed on the very bed I would have been sleeping in.

JD Hill
JD plays regularly with his band, JD Hill And The Jammers

"We lost a lot of stuff, it just plain looked pitiful up there. Oh boy, I wouldn't want to relive that again."

Percussionist Gabriel Velasco, 27, is hammering and drilling in the humid August heat to get his home ready for Christmas.

He is putting in the required 350 hours of "sweat equity" to live in Musicians' Village - 250 hours on your neighbours' houses, and 100 on your own.

Velasco, who waved goodbye to New Orleans shortly after the storm, cheerfully admits the chance to come back is a labour of love.

"It's going to be very interesting and exciting to live here," he says, reeling off the names of his neighbours. There's Kyle the trumpet player, Thomas the bass player in the pink house, and Latin singer Freddie Omar in the mint green one over the road.

"The combination of musicians and styles of music is going to be unique.

"New Orleans has always been a melting pot of cultures and musically speaking as well. There will be Zydeco musicians with Latin musicians, and jazz musicians with rock musicians, so it will be really interesting to see the outcome."

Music fusion

It is a musical vision shared by Jim Pate, executive director of New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity.

"It will be a place for musicians from all kinds of musical traditions to add New Orleans' musical style to their work and also to develop new fusions of music," he explains.

"Freddie Omar is living directly across the street from Michael Harris, who is a traditional jazz guitarist, next to JD Hill, who is a traditional R&B musician who plays harmonica, and near Bob Harris, another guitarist.

"Those guys get together and sit on Bob's front porch to talk music, and sometimes pull out their instruments. Very soon you've got some very fascinating music coming from over there.

Gabriel Valesco
Gabriel Velasco plays drums with the band EOE

"What we anticipate is that these musicians will be sharing their knowledge with the young people and other musicians in the community."

It is a bold ambition, but one Mr Pate thinks can be achieved partly with the development of the Ellis Marsalis Music Centre in the heart of the village.

It will serve as a centre dedicated to the education and development of the next generation of New Orleans musicians, and the preservation of the city's musical heritage.

The centre will have a performance hall, with teaching facilities, rehearsal spaces, recording studios and computers.

"It will be a place that is a completely vibrant and alive, and that will in turn expand to the other rebuilding neighbourhoods," says Mr Pate.

"We hope the Upper Ninth Ward will become an epicentre of New Orleans music."

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