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Documenting New Orleans in Transition

ED GORDON, host:

New Orleans writer Kalamu ya Salaam calls himself a new kind of storyteller who works with text, audio, and video. Now he's taken on his most ambitious project: videotaped oral histories of people who once call New Orleans home.

NPR's Farai Chideya caught up with Salaam at his house on the West Bank of New Orleans.

Mr. KALAMU YA SALAAM (Writer and Educator, New Orleans): My name is Kalamu ya Salaam. I was born March 24, 1947, in New Orleans, Louisiana. Reared in the lower Ninth Ward, the area that was most devastated part of New Orleans.

FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:

From his home and from the road, Kalamu ya Salaam communicates with thousands of people each day. He runs the E-Drum, an email newsletter for black and African Diaspora writers. He also co-directs a local program called Students at the Center (SAC), which teaches writing and filmmaking to New Orleans high school students, even after Katrina.

KALAMU YA SALAAM (Co-director, Students at the Center):

Our program continues. We now have two programs. We have SAC that we're doing in New Orleans and we have SAC in Exile. Back in October, we had a retreat in Clemson, South Carolina in which we brought people together from seven states. They then dispersed all over the place, and as we identify them, we try and work with them.

CHIDEYA: Just give me a rundown of some of the other hats that you wear and, of course, a writer as well.

SALAAM: People come and say, 'Well, oh, you're a filmmaker. Oh, you do radio work. Oh, you produce records. Oh, you produce books. When you do all this -'

I'm just a neo-greo(ph), greo coming from the West African. Most people know it as a storyteller or historian/musician. The advent of digital technology makes it possible that, just as you learn to type, just as you learn to write, you can learn to record. You can learn to edit. You can learn to shoot video as a writer and use those medium and that technology to express yourself.

CHIDEYA: Kalamu ya Salaam is traveling the country to videotape oral histories of Katrina survivors. Some of the subjects are strangers. Others, like sculptor John Scott, are colleagues and friends. From his daughter's kitchen in Houston, Scott spoke with Kalamu about passing on his craft.

JOHN SCOTT (sculptor/taped interview):

I have an incredible need, man, to make art. I don't think it's a choice at this point. I can't possibly imagine life without working.

The other thing is, about going back, all of my life is based on passing stuff on, and I really feel there's still some young people out there somewhere that [I'm going to] pass these traditions on to.

Mr. SALAAM (taped interview): Couldn't you find some young people here in Houston?

Mr. SCOTT (taped interview): I'm not a Texan, man. You know, this is a nice place and all that, man, but the friendship, the camaraderie, the spirituality - It's like I often say about New Orleans, man: it's the only place I've ever been where, if you listen, the sidewalks will speak to you. And over here, man, all I hear is echoes. You know. It's not the same.

CHIDEYA: Sculptor John Scott and Kalamu himself are part of a coterie of artists, including their friend, jazz man, Ellis Marsalis, who make New Orleans vital. Kalamu points out that Katrina cleaned out more than the poorest city residents.

Mr. SALAAM: Television gave us the impression that the people who suffered in New Orleans were the poor black people. This disaster has affected the entire community and the areas that were flooded represent the entire spectrum of the black community.

If you're a physician, you're gone. I think there are only two, three black physicians still in the city. My brother's a cardiologist. Flood insurance caps at about $200,000. He's got over a million dollars worth of equipment in them. You understand what I'm saying?

So these kinds of details and stories, that doesn't make interesting copy. It's not the fat black woman with children hanging off of her, tears rolling down her face. Here you have a cardiologist who cannot come back in the city. A professional who helps to anchor the community, provides health services [unintelligible].

CHIDEYA: What's possible for New Orleans now?

Mr. SALAAM: People who have not been to New Orleans and have not seen the extent of the devastation, they cannot understand. We're talking about over 100,000 residential units have been flooded out. You can drive for miles and there's nothing but empty houses.

CHIDEYA: Are you, in a way, doing a eulogy for New Orleans that will never be the same?

Mr. SALAAM: I'm just doing what I think is my responsibility as an artist, to talk about and to document the history of our community and to offer a social commentary about our community.

Our city is not and will not and cannot be the same. We saw the end of an era.

CHIDEYA: And as New Orleans enters a new and still uncertain era, cultural historians like Kalamu ya Salaam, will not only record the past, but shape the future.

ANNOUNCER: That was NPR's Farai Chideya. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.