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In New Orleans, New Homes Built for Musicians Displaced by Katrina

Standing outside his new mint-green house, Fredy Omar hears the rumble of construction trucks, the buzz of drills and the thud of hammers. It's all an overture for something far sweeter — the sound of music.

Maybe it'll come from Omar, himself, rehearsing a soaring Latin love song on the piano in his living room.

Or Michael Harris, his neighbor across the street, plucking his bass, humming a hopeful tune he wrote about unity.

Or Dan Oestreicher, who lives just around the corner, improvising on his saxophone from his porch.

This is not a band, but a community in the making, a community mostly of musicians — a jambalaya of singers, drummers, and trumpet, piano, guitar, harmonica and even washboard players who'll be living along the same streets, practicing and maybe even performing together a few blocks away.

It's the new Musicians' Village, the inspiration of two New Orleans-born luminaries — singer-pianist Harry Connick Jr. and saxophonist Branford Marsalis — who decided in the post-Katrina ferment that something was needed to help musicians stay and play in the city.

Two years after the hurricane, their vision is quickly turning into a rainbow-colored reality. The village — a tidy cluster of about 80 brightly painted homes — is just a small glimmer of hope in a scarred city, but it already has given Omar and others a roof over their heads and a chance to make music once again.

"If I can have another round of New Orleans, give it to me," Omar says, his arms outstretched as if to embrace all of North Roman Street. "I feel at home here."

Omar, a native Honduran, came to New Orleans 15 years ago to sing at a festival and decided to stay. His pulsating Latin rhythms have won him fans in local haunts such as Tipitina's and Cafe Brasil. When Katrina roared in, he fled to California, then to Texas, but was eager to return to a city where a club is always open and a band is always playing.

"As a musician, it's like a kid being in Disneyland," says Omar, wearing an infectious grin and wraparound shades. "Every night of the week, you can go and find music. There's always something new. ... You never know what you're going to get but whatever you get, you know it's going to be good — or different, at least."

Omar is resigned to his storm losses — his treasured musical compositions, masters of his recordings, awards and other possessions ended being dumped on the street, he says, after a long-distance dispute with his landlord. "As a musician, you just create new things," he says with a shrug. "It's an opportunity to start from scratch."

As one of the first new homeowners, Omar has seen a parade of politicians, presidential contenders and other dignitaries make a beeline to the Upper 9th Ward to put on a tool belt, pick up a paint brush and be photographed among the orange, blue, green, pink and purple homes. The village, which is being developed by the local branch of Habitat for Humanity, depends heavily on volunteers.

Omar also was photographed with President Bush and first lady Laura Bush when they visited last summer. The American flag he was given at the time now flutters outside his home.

But what Omar really looks forward to is seeing new neighbors move in, such as Michael Harris, a bass player whose lists among his credits performances or recordings with musicians including Dr. John, Buddy Guy, Art Neville and Leon Russell.

Harris, now 53, is a two-time hurricane survivor. His rented house in the Lower 9th Ward was submerged in Katrina's floodwaters. He was on tour in Brazil as the storm approached and didn't get back in time to salvage anything. Forty years earlier, he was a kid when his family's home was severely damaged by Hurricane Betsy.

It's not the past, though, but the future that's on Harris' mind as he sits on his unfinished porch steps, clutching a wooden cross signed by Habitat volunteers who wanted to bless his gray-frame house.

"This is going to be really, really sweet," he says, a row of identical houses reflected on his oval sunglasses. The chance to be a homeowner with everything new, inside and out, Harris says, instills a communal pride.

"Everybody out here is watching everybody else's back," he explains. "Everybody had a vested interest, so everybody only wants the best."

Harris, who'll share his house with his teenage son, also says being able to perform again is therapeutic. "Music is my tonic," he says. "It's my medication, my release."

He's already anticipating porch jam sessions with Omar and other neighbors. "I just hope there's no noise ordinance," he says with a sly smile.

Like most residents here, Harris helped build his 1,100-square-foot house. Habitat requires 350 hours of sweat equity; those who aren't physically able can do office work or have friends or families help.

Thousands of volunteers, including faith-based groups, college kids and music students from across the country, have journeyed to the village to pound nails, paint and do other work. Professionals handle the electricity, plumbing and sheetrock.

Musicians make up more than 70 percent of the village. But not everyone who wants to can live here. Only 10 percent of the applicants meet the requirement that residents have an income of at least $18,620 a year and have good credit or no credit history.

Those rules have upset musicians who've been rejected, but Habitat officials say they don't want to set up anyone to fail.

Each home has a financial sponsor — a corporation or family — donating $75,000 to build the house. The new owner gets an interest-free loan and makes monthly mortgage payments of about $550. That money is then funneled into building other Habitat homes in the area.

The centerpiece of the village will be the $6 million Ellis Marsalis Music Center, — named after the jazz pianist and patriarch of the Marsalis family — that will include a performance hall and practice rooms. It will also serve as a place for musicians of different ages and genres to mingle.

Jim Pate, head of the New Orleans area branch of Habitat for Humanity, said performers in the Musicians' Village are already sharing stories, offering advice and calling on their neighbors to fill in for each other on gigs. "This sort of symbiotic vision that Harry and Branford had is actually coming together," he says.

Both Connick and Branford Marsalis have helped raise funds.

So far, more than half the homes are occupied, with four generations of musicians. At the senior end is Peter "Chuck" Badie, a bassist who played with legends including Lionel Hampton and Dizzy Gillespie. At age 81, he still performs regularly. There also are several twentysomethings, some with deep roots in New Orleans, such as Troy Sawyer, a trumpeter whose great-grandfather played double bass with Louis Armstrong.

"There's so much history that lies within New Orleans and now I'm ... carrying on in the tradition and the music of my people and my ancestors," says Sawyer, a 27-year-old who says he enjoys hearing both the wild stories and sensible tips from older musicians.

Sawyer, who has played venues from New York to Spain, hopes his music will contribute to the renaissance here.

"People around the world are going to be looking for something new to come out of New Orleans," he says. "It's going to be a rebirth."

That's what Dan Oestreicher, a 24-year-old saxophonist from Pittsburgh, is counting on as he settles into his new house.

Oestreicher says having an affordable place to live is a tremendous boon to him and other lower-income musicians, though he still is adjusting to the post-Katrina landscape.

"I had to reconcile myself to the fact that old New Orleans was dead and it's not coming back," he says. "The new New Orleans can be a positive experience for me, but I have to figure out what that is. I can't go back to my old life. I can't go back to my house. I can't hang out with my same friends."

But Oestreicher, who performs with several acts, including Irving Mayfield & the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, can go back to the music scene. And that, he says, is reason enough to give the city another shot — though he does have some trepidation.

"I'm aware that it's a risk to be a homeowner in New Orleans and I'm aware that to stake your life on it yet again is a risk," he says. "But no risk, no reward, I guess."

He then hoists his saxophone above the knee-high weeds in his backyard and the hot summer air fills with cool jazz.