Where Music and History Make a Big Splash
When the Bayou Boogaloo starts tomorrow, hundreds of music lovers will crowd the banks of Bayou St. John. Some will even be floating on it. But few will know the story behind the popular festival – or the historic waterway itself.
Like many other local musical events such as French Quarter Fest or Wednesdays at the Square, Bayou Boogaloo is produced by a nonprofit organization: Friends of Bayou St. John. The group’s mission is to “promote stewardship, cultural appreciation, responsible recreation and initiatives that support a clean, healthy Bayou St. John that is accessible to all.”
While the festival and the organization are rightfully associated with sunshine and good times, their origins are found in a much darker period.
“I was watching the aftermath of Katrina on TV in a hotel in Birmingham,” recalled founder and Friends president Jared Zeller. “That image of a Coast Guard helicopter on the Bayou, people being rescued, was so powerful. I wanted to do something to help, but I was far away.”
Zeller had also dreamed about being part of the local music business and promoting local artists, and the unlikely connection popped into his head. “I was influenced by Super Sunday, inspired to use that space for an event. It all clicked.”
As a Mid-City resident, Zeller had a strong attachment to Bayou St. John. “The history of the Bayou, its impact on New Orleans, is so rich and so deep,” he said. “It means so much to so many people.”
Once resettled in the city, Zeller began pursuing what he called “a far-reaching dream. I had no experience in nonprofits, I probably had no business starting a nonprofit. But I was trying to copy models that seemed to be working in our city.”
Zeller originally named the organization the Mothership Foundation. “But I realized the name didn’t mean anything to anybody. We needed to more closely align with where our energies were focused.”
After some consultation with nearby residents and neighborhood associations, the first Bayou Boogaloo debuted in May 2006. While small in scale, its success motivated Zeller and his team to keep it going. Further, the revenues – augmented by some sponsorship funding – were enough that the organization was able to plant a number of oak trees along the banks of the Bayou, replacing those lost to Katrina.
While restoring and preserving the waterway’s tree canopy was an initial priority, the group’s work today has expanded considerably, including monthly Bayou cleanups.
“We organize volunteers to help,” Zeller explained. “Litter clean-up is a big part. And we remove the invasive giant salvinia [a fast-growing water weed].”
Another project has been rounding up discarded Christmas trees and placing them in the Bayou, which creates improved fish habitats. Friends of Bayou St. John has a close partnership with the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, which helps guide a lot of the work.
Most recently, the Friends have commissioned a visioning study to consider the future of the Bayou, especially as relates to its infrastructure. Zeller pointed out that many of the bridges and bulkheads were installed by the Works Progress Administration some ninety years ago, and repairs are badly needed.
Preliminary results of the study will be accessible to the public at this year’s Bayou Boogaloo, at the Friends booth, and Zeller hopes many attendees will take a look and provide comments. “It needs a lot of community input,” he noted. “This asset needs a lot of love.”
There will be some other new aspects to the Boogaloo this year. Responding to increasing safety and litter concerns, water access to the festival will controlled via entrances at Dumaine and Toulouse streets, and people on the barges, boats and floats will need tickets. Food trucks will augment the food booths for the first time, supplied by a power grid so that they won’t need to run generators. Vehicle access to the surrounding streets will be limited. And in a nod to current unfortunate realities, all attendees will have to pass through metal detectors.
To top this all off, there will be a new floating stage this year, a “Brass Barge” in the Bayou that will feature top local brass bands.
“The festival is going to feel bigger and less crowded,” Zeller said. “It will feel like there is more space.”
Now in his sixteenth year of producing the Boogaloo, Zeller is ready to pass the torch. “After this year, I hope someone else will take over,” he said. “These things are a labor of love.
“I see it as a vehicle to promote Bayou St. John, and take better care of it,” he continued. Recounting all the work the Friends have done over the years, he added, “Whether or not I live to produce another festival, I’m most proud of that.”