NEW ORLEANS From her rebuilt but not yet fully furnished home, Irma Thomas anchors her faith in the rebirth of New Orleans to the return of the Essence Music Festival.
The festival, which started Friday and runs through today, celebrates black music and culture and moved to Houston in 2006 after Hurricane Katrina smashed New Orleans. It returned in 2007, and organizers say Essence is now re-establishing its place in the city.
An estimated 200,000 people attended the festival last year, supplying a needed injection of business into the city's hurricane-hammered tourism industry.
"The festival is so special to New Orleans," said Thomas, who's still trying to find furniture to replace the pieces lost when Katrina sent floodwater crashing through her home in August 2005.
Essence headliners this year include Jill Scott, Mary J. Blige, Chris Brown, LL Cool J, and Morris Day and The Time as well as Maze featuring Frankie Beverly. Maze has closed out the festival each year since its inception in 1995.
This year there will be a tribute to Patti LaBelle, the soul diva whose career spans four decades. Patti LaBelle released 10 solo albums and six with the group that bears her name, LaBelle.
Saturday night's tribute on the main stage of the Louisiana Superdome will include performances by two original members of LaBelle Sarah Dash and Nona Hendryx as well as performances by Chaka Khan, Angie Stone, Ledisi, Chrisette Michele, Ruby Amanfu and Thomas.
"This honor is just a reflection on the life she has given, the time and efforts she has given to the music world," said Dash of Patti LaBelle in a phone interview from her home in Trenton, N.J. "I can't think of a better person who deserves the recognition. She's done so much for humanity and for the industry. This tribute exemplifies how much we love and respect her."
"Patti has a beautiful personality and is a real, real nice person," Thomas said. "It's going to be a lot of fun to celebrate her in this way."
Michelle Ebanks, president of Essence Communications Inc., which owns the festival, said a lot of thought went into the decision to honor LaBelle.
"It's an important part of what we do at Essence, to celebrate and recognize those icons within the African-American community," she said. "Their music, their art has been a part of our growing up and our culture."
The tribute, Ebanks said, "will be an emotional, thrilling 75 minutes."
Besides concerts at the Superdome, Essence includes a series of seminars with speakers such as actor Tyler Perry, actress Keisha Knight Pulliam, the Rev. Al Sharpton and comedian-activist Bill Cosby.
A session Saturday will focus on black families, particularly children and education.
"The majority of black households are headed by a single parent," Ebanks said. "It's critical to think about how do we ensure that black children are getting the same levels of education and access to opportunities as children all over America. There are challenges in the community."
Thomas said Essence is a welcomed break from the exhausting rebuilding process still affecting thousands of New Orleans residents.
"I'm trying to put my house back the way it was, and it's taking me some time to find what I like and what I'm used to," she said. "I want my house to be like it was."
"LaBelle's reunion is going to heal. We have a music that we're recording that I feel is going to be healing."
Besides taking part in the LaBelle tribute, Thomas will deliver a performance of her own today in one of the festival's "super lounges," created as mini-concert halls within the Superdome.
Thomas, who won a Grammy last year for best contemporary blues album for "After the Rain," was among the performers at the first Essence Festival held in 1995 as a celebration of the 25th anniversary of Essence Magazine.
"I was there in the beginning, girl," Thomas said.