Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Voice of the Wetlands Festival 2008, Part 2: Passion for Music and the Wetlands

I am continuing now with the series of articles I wrote about the threatened Louisiana wetlands and the related annual Voice of the Wetlands Festival, commencing in late October of 2008 for

(To see Part 1 of the Mosquito Blog version, click here.)

Voice of the Wetlands Festival 2008, Part 2: Passion for Music and the Wetlands

By Mac McKinney

(Original Content for Part 2 is here)

Welcome to Houma, southern Louisiana

What is the Voice of the Wetlands Festival exactly? Well, the details are a little obscure, but the story starts with Tab Benoit, the well-known Cajun Blues singer who won the 2007 Contemporary Blues Male Artist of the Year and B.B. King Entertainer of the Year Awards. He grew up in the middle of Cajun country, Houma, Louisiana to be exact, although he was born in Baton Rouge on November 17, 1967, a passionate Scorpio for the astrologically inclined. He attended venerable old Vandebilt Catholic High, although school must have seemed secondary to his two true loves in life: the guitar and the wetlands. He started taking to both at an early, early age, including rope-swings overhanging the bayous, and has remained committed to both to this day, excelling with the one and struggling ferociously to save the other. And out of this intense emotional cauldron of music, art and deep love for Louisiana's wetlands was born the organization, Voice of the Wetlands.

Tab Benoit on guitar at the VOW Festival 2008, with Leon Medica on bass, right. CLICK ON THE IMAGE TO SEE THE ENTIRE PHOTO.

Vandebilt Catholic High on S. Hollywood Road, Houma, Louisiana, where Tab Benoit went to school.

Here are Tab's thoughts on his transformation to a wetlands activist:

Have you ever loved a place so much that you dedicate your life to saving it? You know, I believe that my highest calling is to be a steward of the environment. My first job was as a pilot. From up here the awful truth hits you: these wetlands are disappearing right before our eyes. The wetlands we've lost just since my parents were born is bigger than the whole state of Delaware. You see, coastal erosion in Louisiana picks everybody's pocket. (quoted from Hurricane on the Bayou)

This devastating realization drove Benoit to found, along with other concerned citizens, the Voice of the Wetlands in 2003, a nonprofit group dedicated to spreading the truth about Louisiana's disappearing coastline through, primarily, music. VOW, as they are also known, held their first music festival in 2004, well before Katrina struck, so they were already struggling to raise awareness about the relationship between hurricanes and wetlands loss. In fact, Tab was actually working with director Greg MacGillivray as one of the individuals highlighted on the 2006 IMAX documentary Hurricane on the Bayou, which was to be a critical look at what might happen if a large hurricane hit New Orleans. Just as they were wrapping up the movie, monstrous Katrina did hit New Orleans, life imitating art, compelling them to rewrite and reshoot the film to include Katrina as a living example of what can happen when the wetlands are dramatically reduced in a storm-prone region.

Here are the first paragraphs of Voice of the Wetland's mission statement:

"By redirecting the Mississippi River from it's natural flow, south Louisiana's wetlands are being taken over and destroyed by the stronger current of the Gulf of Mexico at an alarming rate. The loss of south Louisiana's wetlands contributes to the loss of our unique culture, our heritage, our wildlife, our people and their livelihood."

Voice Of the Wetlands (VOW) is an organization (click here for their website) that is made up strictly of volunteers who dedicate their talent, time and resources to bring global attention to south Louisiana and the world's coastal erosion problem.

Benoit expounds on this more fully in Hurricane on the Bayou:

"Well, basically what went wrong is that in the 1930s, well-meaning engineers (the Army Corps of Engineers) built levees or walls, so-to-speak, along the banks of the Mississippi to protect the farms from yearly floods. Those annual floods deposited the soil that rebuilt the wetlands. Now with those levees, that soil gets flushed into the ocean. All that brown in the ocean (aerial shot of brown-colored stream in the Gulf), soil that could be rebuilding the wetlands the way it used to, before we interfered with Mother Nature.

We also made a mistake by digging canals for boat navigation. These canals brought in saltwater from the ocean, killing the marsh grass and the trees. This whole forest (footage of wetlands forest) is now dead. Without the tree roots, erosion speeds up." (ibid.)

Tab is really referring, without naming names in the movie, to, primarily, the giant oil and gas companies and related industries, Shell, Exxon, Texaco, to name a few of the "land barons" in Louisiana who are responsible, according to the Gulf Restoration Network, for 40% to 60% of the wetlands loss, companies that for decades have been paying scant attention to the havoc they are wrecking on the environment while they pursue the bottom line, much like Great White Sharks swimming around in the ocean mindlessly devouring everything within sight and smell.

In fact, the Voice of the Wetlands itself has been criticized by another, older organization (which now calls itself, in a flash of jealousy rivalry, the "True Voice of the Wetlands") for being too timid in attacking these "sharks", the oil and gas companies, head on. This group is better known as SOWL, Save Our Wetlands, and one thing they are not is shy:


Voice of the Wetlands is Save Our Wetlands and Save Our Wetlands is the true Voice of the Wetlands and the real Voice of the Wetlands. SOWL ( since 1974 has been fighting Louisiana politicians, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Levee Districts, and their corporate masters from developing wetlands into low lying areas extremely susceptible to hurricane tidal surges.

In the 70's-80's SOWL was a Voice of the Wetlands against the Eden Isle and Oak Harbor Subdivisions constructed over 5,200 acres of wetlands on the North Shore of Lake Pontchartrain, St. Tammany Parish, Slidell, Louisiana. SOWL lost this litigation, and thousands of homeowners were wiped out from the flood waters of Katrina.

SOWL was a Voice of the Wetlands against the Corps' and Orleans Levee District plans for their bogus Lake Pontchartrain and Vicinity Hurricane Barrier Project, which under guise of hurricane protection was actually going to destroy 28,000 acres of New Orleans east wetlands into the Orlandia Subdivision. SOWL won this litigation and saved on August 29,2005 over 60,000 future homes and over 100,000 families from flooding as a result of the Corps' disastrous Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MR-GO). The September 28, 2005 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report stated 'if the barriers had been constructed the flooding in New Orleans would have been worst."

SOWL has always been a Voice of the Wetlands against Shell and its greasy allies from walking away from their obligation to remedy the coastal erosion caused by their 10,000 miles of oil company canals and navigational channels. SOWL in 1980's filed suit against Corps for refusing to conduct an Environmental Impact Study under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) before issuing permis for oil canals. SOWL lost this litigation and in 2005, thousands of Louisiana citizens in St. Bernard, Plaquemines, Terrebonne, and Lafourche Parishes were flooded Hurricanes Katrina-Rita as a result of oil canal erosion........

SOWL is a Voice of the Wetlands against Shell's America's Wetlands spearheaded by its chairman R King Milling taking over as chairman of Coastal Protection Restoration Authority (CPRA) of Louisiana, and pushing an oil company propaganda campaign thru the coastal-political bowels of Louisiana. And so it goes. (Reference)

SOWL, we might say, is a get-in-the-trenches, lawsuit-filing, long-time political activist outfit, as distinct from VOW, the newer kid on the block, which prefers to spread its message primarily through education and music and hasn't chosen, as far as I know, to get heavily into the political/legal/lobbying arena. Whether they are going to feel compelled to in the future is another question. Logistically, this may be impossible since Benoit, president of VOW, is on the road performing most of the year, either with his own band or the Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars. In fact, being on the road is Tab's way of spreading his message. Everywhere he goes, he asks his audiences to get directly involved in learning about and then saving the wetlands by calling, not just writing, their government representatives. He invites you, me, everyone to come to Louisiana and see what is really going on, and then speak out about it. And just to show you how far Tab's voice has carried, he actually briefed a Congressional committee on Capitol Hill on the plight of the wetlands this past June, hammering home the point that the situation in southern Louisiana is a crisis for America.

Regarding both SOWL's and VOW's efforts, they are both important voices of the wetlands, and both are raising awareness of the devastation taking place in Louisiana and beyond in their own ways.

Solutions Anyone?

What is the solution to the wetlands crisis? Well, this is not rocket science. Tab explains what has to be done rather succinctly in Hurricane on the Bayou:

(Katrina) washed away another 100 square miles of soil. We should have been ready in New Orleans and we should have been ready down here. But we can do better. We already know how.

We'll have to plant hundreds of acres of mangrove and other soil-retaining plants, and some places it will take stone walls, and other spots, rebuilding with sand, sometimes again and again. And most importantly, engineers can use flood gates like this one (aerial shot of flood gate shown) and special pipe-lines and other innovative solutions to allow the muddy Mississippi to once more naturally replenish the wetlands. And as the huge cost of Katrina shows us, good stewardship of the environment is good economics too. (quoted from Hurricane on the Bayou)

There is also other huge problem that must also be addressed: the dramatic loss of barrier islands fronting the Mississippi River delta plain that reduce the effects of wave erosion, salinity intrusion and tidal currents on the wetlands themselves, as well as serving as a first defense in the path of a hurricane. The barrier islands must also be restored.

Just remember something else Tab says in the documentary: "Every three miles of wetlands reduces the height of a hurricane's storm surge by one foot." (ibid.) A couple of feet these days can mean the difference between life and death for thousands of people during a hurricane, so there is no time to waste in rebuilding what has been lost.

Encroached upon wetlands in Houma, Louisiana. Will America save them or let them be destroyed? CLICK ON THE IMAGE TO SEE THE ENTIRE PHOTO.

The big question now is, will an Obama Admininstration be willing to accept the challenge of restoring the wetlands? Let us hope so. I personally think something on the scale of the great 1930s Tennessee Valley Authority project would be in order to salvage the Gulf states.

Mighty Fine Music

Now let's pick up where I left off in Voice of the Wetlands Festival, Part 1, watching great bands play. On this warm to hot, sometimes cloudy, sometimes sunny Saturday, October 11, the sounds of rock, blues, and Cajun music roared or cajoled through the atmosphere all afternoon and into the night with bands such as Freddy and the Freeloaders:

Freddy and the Freeloaders, with Fred singing. The band has been around a long time, wowing crowd for decades across America with blues and country music. CLICK ON THE IMAGE TO SEE THE ENTIRE PHOTO.

During the intermission after Freddy left the stage, Congressman Charlie Melancon, 3rd District, Louisiana, got up and addressed the crowd. He was one of the few invited politicians who actually showed up, which is not a great omen for government involvement right now, but nonetheless, Charlie had some solid things to say about saving the wetlands. I talked to him briefly later about Ecuador's new Constitution and its Bill of Rights for Nature, which he hadn't heard about but was quite interested in, promising to have his staff look into it.

Congressman Charlie Melancon addressing the crowd about the wetlands

After Charlie was done, the spectacular Josh Garrett Band hit the stage. Josh was a real guitar magician Saturday, wailing away with his band on some hot and heavy Blues numbers.

Josh Garrett pouring it on with his guitar. CLICK ON THE IMAGE TO SEE THE ENTIRE PHOTO.

After Garrett's intense and sweat-filled performance, the Mike Zito Band from Nederland, Texas, took the stage. Actually Mike was raised in St. Louis, where he was exposed to all those powerful southside Blues influences, but gradually developed his own unique style, eventually settling in Southwest Texas. He has a classic Blues voice.

Mike Zito on the left, belting out a song. CLICK ON THE IMAGE TO SEE THE ENTIRE PHOTO.

Zito was followed by one of the longtime Bluesmen in American music, Jimmy Hall, out of Nashville, Tennessee, originally singing and playing with famous Wet Willie in the 70s, then solo performing for a time, then working with Hank Williams Jr. and Jeff Beck, and now varying his performances and recordings between different groups and his own bands.

The great Blues singer, harmonica player and sax man, Jimmy Hall, with dynamic guitarist Ronnie Fruge to his right. CLICK ON THE IMAGE TO SEE THE ENTIRE PHOTO.

Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars

At this point my wife and I left the festival for a couple of hours to have dinner with some friends, and when we came back, the last big gig of the evening was just starting, the traditional Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars set. The Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars was also created in 2003 by Benoit as an artistic vehicle for spreading the word about the Wetlands as they tour, near and far. The illustrious, official members of the band, beyond the many guest performers who play with them, are Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, Waylon Thibodeaux, George Porter, Jr., Johhny Vidacovich, Anders Osborne, Dr. John, Cyrille Neville, Tab Benoit and Jumpin Johhny Sasone. Click here for more info about the All-Stars.

Tonight the famous band, Louisiana's LeRoux, best known for their song, New Orleans Ladies, actually led off the final set, but never really left the stage, instead merging with the players representing the Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars during this festival, who began filtering onto the stage one at a time: Jumpin Johnny Sasone, Tab Benoit, Jimmy Hall and others, and, in a sweepingly grand entrance, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux of the Mardi Gras Indians, dressed in fantastic Indian attire and headdress. Southdown Plantation was rocking madly in the night by the time Big Chief finished his number, and so it went until the end of the set.

Tab Benoit left, Jimmy Hall center, Leon Medica right. The VOW All-Stars had Southdown Plantation rocking Saturday night. CLICK ON THE IMAGE TO SEE THE ENTIRE PHOTO.

More of the VOW All-Stars: Hall on sax, Terry Brock (Louisiana's LeRoux) singing. CLICK ON THE IMAGE TO SEE THE ENTIRE PHOTO.

This would be the end of the festival this year for my wife and I, because we were going to have to fly out of New Orleans early Sunday afternoon, and with the festival reopening at Noon, there was no way we could hang around that late. Besides, I had to drive back to the Lower Ninth Ward, but more on that later.

I would also meet, driving back up highway 90, a very interesting Cajun gentleman by the name of Lee Richoux. More on him in Part 3.

By the way, if you would like to look at my photo album of the Voice of the Wetlands Festival, 2008, plus some interesting shots of southern Louisiana, click here to go to my Kodak Gallery webpage. Once there, just click on VIEW SLIDESHOW. You do not have to sign in.


No comments: