Storytellers abound in New Orleans. Take, for example, a 95-year-old man dragging a suitcase down St. Claude Avenue in midday heat. Nursing student Freya Zork offers him a ride and gets an earful about the old days. “The Street of My Life,” Zork’s recording of the interview, details the man’s personal history of the neighborhood.
This is one of more than 200 recordings on OpenSoundNewOrleans.com, the website founded by media producers Heather Booth and Jacob Brancasi in March of 2008. With the intent of making the authentic, unedited sounds and voices of New Orleans more accessible, the mission is also to show the Big Easy in a more positive light.
“New Orleans and her people have been impacted by a long history of problematic and often damaging media portrayals,” Booth says. Demonized as “cockroaches” by the media during and after Hurricane Katrina, and blamed for crime in a number of American cities, New Orleans residents get back the respect that they deserve with Open Sound.
The beauty of Open Sound is in its accessibility. Anyone can suggest a recording for the site, and recording equipment is provided on loan where needed. The site reveals a unique soundscape of New Orleans while documenting a city that still is picking up the pieces and holding on tight.
Aware that journalists were working within the confines of traditional media, Booth and Brancasi created Open Sound to show that every story in the city is multidimensional and complex. “We knew that locals would recognize these sounds and voices as distinct to particular places around New Orleans, where every conversation has a part in constructing the city, both imagined and real,” Brancasi says.
“Most importantly, we have implemented a new model for collaboration with our community.”
“It makes me feel like I live in a small place,” says Zork, a Dallas native who moved to New Orleans in 2004. Despite Katrina, Zork stayed to pursue her nursing degree. Before she had even heard about Open Sound, she carried a recording device around to capture “spontaneous storytelling.”
Zork was one of the first to upload her recording on the site, and “The Street of My Life” spoke to the spirit of the project. Booth notes that Zork’s recording achieved one of the best outcomes of cooperative technology in converting present knowledge into deep memory. “It was the first of many exhilarating moments for us,” Brancasi recalls. Dozens of contributed sounds followed, and some contributors adapted sounds in music and art pieces.
After a year of pro-bono work, Booth and Brancasi sought funding in an effort to make the site more fulfilling. To date, Open Sound has received grants of support from the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and Maker’s Quest 2.0. Now redesigned with an interactive sound map that geo-locates each sound posted, the site offers greater accessibility and ease of use.
“Most importantly,” Booth says, “we have implemented a new model for collaboration with our community.”
Recorded sounds range from the everyday to the politically charged. One can listen to Darlene Wolnik’s recording of rain falling through the gutter at Tulane University Square or Rick Tippie’s recording of the brassy jams of Baby Boy’z performing outside Café Du Monde.
Meanwhile, local pride and research are uncovered by Hilairie Schackai’s recording of a couple’s “priceless stories” about pursuing the American dream on the “other” side of the line in the suburb of Pontchartrain Park. Through her interview, Schackai discovers that water is not intuitive in New Orleans; it flows to areas where one wouldn’t expect. “The recordings have a spontaneous nature,” Schackai notes, “but they also document all these details that make up the fabric of New Orleans.”
Open Sound showcases the vibrant sounds of a city still rich in character after the storm. It’s homey, a bit melancholy, and resonating with life force — in all senses, New Orleans. And it’s a way to keep pushing forward.
“We’re definitely still recovering, and I feel like Katrina keeps taking,” Schackai says. “There’s still a lot of healing to be done.”