NEW ORLEANS (AP) - More than five years after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans' music scene remains vibrant and lively, despite the fact that some musicians forced from their homes haven't returned and the doors to many places where they used to entertain remain closed.
Still, soul singer Irma Thomas said most changes are so subtle they've mostly gone unnoticed thanks in part to national exposure through television shows like the HBO series, "Treme," events like the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and charitable efforts like Habitat for Humanity's Musicians Village.
"And, that's a good thing," Thomas said in an interview. "New Orleans is one of those places that doesn't take well to extreme changes."
But ever since Aug. 29, 2005, when Katrina struck land and broken levees caused massive flooding that wiped out entire neighborhoods, change is exactly what the city's undergone. It's visible from the altered cityscape to the number of people who have yet to return. As of July 2009, the latest Census figures available, there were 354,850 people in the city, which means New Orleans has recovered 78 percent of its pre-Katrina population.
Margie Perez, a vocalist who fronts for several bands in the city, said she believes the return rate for musicians is generally on par with the city's overall repopulation.
"It's hard to tell, though, because musicians here are at so many different levels," she said. "There are street musicians who don't do clubs and then there are people like Irma Thomas who get the great dates in the clubs. There's probably a good amount who have returned, but there's also a whole lot who moved on after the storm."
Perez said Katrina took everything she had, forcing her to start over from scratch.
"For a few years after, the gigs were few and far between," she recalled. "It was really tough-going."
She said she wouldn't have made it without help from the Tipitina Foundation's Music-Artist Co-Op, which helped link her with disaster aid groups, provided free recording studio time and tips on how to redesign and market her CDs.
"The co-op empowered me, gave me hope and a spirit of camaraderie to let me know I wasn't alone," she said.
Five years later, she said being a musician here isn't as hard.
"There's gigs to be had, if you're willing to look for them and work hard enough for them," she said.
Bass guitarist Donald Ramsey, who was born and raised in New Orleans, agreed. In fact, he recalled getting a gig shortly after the storm. "A lot of club owners on Bourbon Street didn't suffer damage like those with businesses in the inner city. Just after Katrina, maybe 20 to 25 percent of the clubs I played were available. It's much better now. I'd say 99 percent of them are back and running. Music wise? It's on and poppin'.
"If you're proficient on your instrument, then naturally you will get a lot of calls for gigs. How busy you are is all according to who knows you and how well you play," he said.
Ramsey said before the storm he played at Tipitina's, Sweet Lorraine's, House of Blues, Maple Leaf and Snug Harbor to name a few. "All of those places are operating now, and there are a bunch of new spots in place too."
Renard Poche, a 40-year veteran guitarist also from New Orleans, said he noticed a slight slowdown in business shortly after the storm that appears to have since normalized. Even with that hiccup, he said, he barely felt it because most of his playing time is spent outside the city.
For the past two years, he's been performing with pianist Allen Toussaint and only a handful of dates are usually played in the city. "The majority of my income is from the road," he said.
That kind of road exposure and being featured in shows like "Treme" or on late night talk shows can only help the city's comeback, Thomas said.
"People may not be aware that the musician they're hearing is from New Orleans or that they got their start in New Orleans," she said. "But that kind of exposure, for them and the city, is priceless. And when we're represented in the national spotlight, it just shows that New Orleans as a whole is a city of survivors."
Ramsey said it's unexplainable how the city's culture and style are so well nurtured and loved all over the world.
"Anywhere you go, there's something in another city that caters to New Orleans, be it food or music," he said.
Thomas acknowledges Katrina forever changed the city.
"We'll never be the same, but we will go down fighting to keep the same atmosphere, the same energy, that we've had for generations," she said. "If that's maintained, we'll be alright."