Before Katrina, Rasheed Akbar made a name for himself in the clubs and on the streets of New Orleans. They called him the “Ambassador of Decatur Street”- a regular at world famous Cafe’ Dumonde.
His sax- a safe haven that, he says, not only soothed his soul but made for a good living.
“That’s what I did,” Rasheed reflects. “That’s all I did. I had a great life as a musician.”
For 30 years, NOLA was home. It’s where he met his wife, Patricia. With music on every corner, he was living his dream.
Then came Katrina.
“We were actually on vacation when Katrina came. We actually had visited here to see the kids and then we were touring Hilton Head. When we left, the storm wasn’t even coming. So, we didn’t board up the house. We didn’t do any preparation for a hurricane,” Patricia recalls.
Katrina washed away everything they once knew.
“Usually, after a hurricane alarm, you get back into the city right away,” says Patricia. “But that morning, we cut on the television and we knew. It broke my heart so bad. I had never. Just visualizing it on the television was so distressful to me. My heart sank. I lost it. Rasheed had to comfort me because I could see all that water and I could see there was no way we were getting back into that city quick.”
It would be six months before their return.
“When we got there, it looked like a nuclear bomb had hit it. It was horrible,” Patricia says.
“It was like death and everything was deserted,” Rasheed chimes in. “It was like a deserted town. I couldn’t believe it. New Orleans was a very alive place. It had its own distinctive style- brand of people, language. It was another world.
It was pretty hard just trying to survive the mental emotion. I went to the ninth ward to see for myself and it was unbelievable. Houses were literally missing.”
And so was the music. Silenced by the storm.
“A lot of the musicians who were there before Katrina, didn’t come back,” says Rasheed. “So, the whole street scene changed. The whole music changed.”
Musicians were scattered. Rasheed and Patricia left New Orleans for Memphis to live with family.
But they couldn’t escape Katrina. Just six months later, Rasheed was diagnosed with liver disease- a condition doctors believe could have been connected to the mold left in Katrina’s wake.
Liver disease became cirrohsis, then cancer- and two transplants in less than a year.
Back in his hometown of savannah in 2010, friends and family held an all-star jazz concert to raise money for Rasheed’s medical expenses.
All the while, Rasheed held onto his music. Hoping to eventually play again in the birthplace of jazz.
Today, that’s no longer the plan. Rasheed is healthy- and so is Patricia after a recent battle with breast cancer. They now own a home in Savannah and are happy with their careers- and the direction of their lives. He was grand fathered into an old job at the ILA. Recently, Patricia completed the Practical Nursing Program at Savannah Technical College with honors.
They say time heals all wounds, but as the Akbars count their blessings, they can’t help but think of those who still hurt… struggling to pick up the pieces… a decade later.
“You know, I think about a lot of people that were lost,” Rasheed says. “A lot of friends that died because of it. Every time I go back, I always go through the neighborhoods and there’s still a lot of despair… and you can see that in a lot of them. They’re moving on. But it’s different now. The impact is definitely apparent in their eyes to me.”
Over the weekend, music brought the Akbars back to the Crescent City to mark the official release of a CD Rasheed and other musicians had just completed before Hurricane Katrina hit. The name of the CD is “Kirk Joseph’s Backyard Groove: Sousafunk Ave.”