Nick Spitzer and his New Orleans-based nationally syndicated American Routes radio program are calling Lafayette home ' for now.
The opening piano notes are both familiar and strange. It sounds like Professor Longhair's New Orleans anthem "Tipitina," but it's a bit slower and plaintive. It's a paradoxical reminder of the New Orleans before Katrina and the new reality of the city that care forgot. In fact, the song is a different version of "Tipitina," played in a minor key by another New Orleans piano great, Allen Toussaint.
On the radio, the song fades into the background. A voice says, "I'm Nick Spitzer. This is an American Routes 'After the Storm' program for all of you who are suffering the effects of Hurricane Katrina. We've had to abandon our French Quarter studios, for now, and have found refuge with our friends in French Louisiana's cultural capital ' Lafayette. It's 140 miles west of New Orleans. â?¦
"This isn't the first storm to hit the Gulf Coast, but it is the deadliest and the largest natural and cultural disaster in American history. And so we've got music of solace and celebration of life for our third coast on American Routes."
The song ends, and Randy Newman begins to play "Louisiana 1927."
Since 1998, Spitzer's American Routes (pronounced "roots") public radio program has blended an eclectic mix of American music ' from country to Cajun, gospel to jazz, field recordings to modern music, and all points in between. The thread throughout the show is an unabashed perspective that lays claim to New Orleans, Louisiana and the Gulf Coast as the birthplace of America's music. The show is heard on 225 radio stations across the country and XM Satellite Radio, reaching 750,000 listeners every week.
After Katrina, Spitzer and his four staff members found refuge on the campus of UL Lafayette. They set up shop in makeshift offices in Dupré Library and are using the recording studios of local recording engineer Ivan Klisanin, as well as the public radio station KRVS 88.7 FM.
"It's one of the premier public radio programs in the country," says KRVS General Manager Dave Spizale, who was also interviewed on the "After the Storm" program about his experiences with the volunteer flotilla that rescued New Orleans residents in the wake of Katrina ("Search and Rescue," Sept. 7). "The show features Louisiana music. He'll bring in musicians from all over the world to enhance what he's talking about, but the program so often features Louisiana musicians, folklore and vernacular that it just fits with what KRVS has been trying to do for a long time. When that program was first offered [in syndication], we were one of the first adapters of it. No questions asked. That's a program we wanted to have."
Spitzer's no stranger to Lafayette; he lived here in the late '70s and worked as a folklorist, recording the likes of Delton Broussard, John Delafose and the Ardoin Family Band. His doctoral dissertation focused on the Creole music of southwest Louisiana. "I speak enough of the language to get myself in and out of trouble in southern Louisiana," he says. He's grateful for all the courtesies that have been extended to him, his family and his staff, but it's difficult to tell whether American Routes will permanently call Lafayette home. "I'm not going to know for a while," he says. "I certainly want to help with the rebuilding of New Orleans, but there are both personal and professional issues that face us in going back there too soon." In addition to those concerns, there are other offers on the table from at least three other universities to play host to American Routes, but nothing is set in stone.
For now, the show will go on from Lafayette as a series of six shows called "After the Storm." With $18,000 in underwriting from the Lafayette Convention and Visitors Commission and the Lafayette Economic Development Authority, the show will originate from KRVS through 2005. "It's such a great opportunity for us to showcase what we're doing in our part of the state," says LCVC Executive Director Gerald Breaux. "And to have someone else with the reputation of Nick and his group say those words for us is a lot more credible than us trying to say it."
During the "After the Storm" shows, Lafayette will be referred to as Louisiana's Crossroads, alluding to both the city as a hub for culture, entertainment, tourism and technology, and the local music concert series directed by Todd Mouton. The first in the series, titled "Allons à Lafayette," will air on KRVS on Friday, Oct. 21, with excerpts from the Band Together concert in downtown Lafayette that benefited victims of Hurricane Katrina.
"We're going to be in Lafayette for a while," Spitzer says. "It feels as good as it could feel to be here. It's difficult for people here because we're all disoriented and lost a little bit. But by focusing on the work and having friends and the music, it makes it possible to feel like you can live for a while and do OK. We've all been thrown into a kind of maelstrom. This is what's happened. This is life. We're all in it in one way or another, and the future will reveal itself."
To hear Nick Spitzer and the American Routes radio segment "After the Storm," visit www.americanroutes.com or www.krvs.org. The series "After the Storm" will continue throughout 2006, with the next segment "Allons à Lafayette" airing at 1 p.m. Friday, Oct. 21, on KRVS 88.7 FM.