September 19, 2002 - "Steamboat Music"

What happens when 16 pounds of steam pressure collides with 32 brass pipes? In the hands of this artist, they commit music.

She came, she heard, she conquered. Thirteen years ago Debbie Fagnano was lured to the river by the sound of the steam calliope on the top deck of the paddle-wheeler Natchez. "What they say about steamboats -- once you ride one once, it's in your blood," says Debbie. "That's what happened. I came down, heard it, played a couple of songs, and I've been here ever since."

It's circus and merry-go-round. It's cotton candy and caramel apples. And it's the siren song of the Big Muddy, this calliope. "It's unique," adds Debbie." "It's a piece of plumbing with a few electronics, and it makes music."

It's patriotic anthems and old favorites. And it's loud. Ask Debbie, who wears ear plugs during her concerts. "I know people who live in Gentilly, I know people that live up in the warehouse district that can hear the calliope being played."

Do they ever phone in any requests? "Yes they do! People in that red condo across the river, when they're having a special birthday or something, sometimes they'll call. People in the offices around here will call and say, "It's my parents' 50th anniversary. Play a special song." And we'll play it."

Hot steam and sounding brass -- get down to the levee. The riverboat's here! Here's a surprise. In her "day job," Debbie is director of pastoral music at Our Lady Of Perpetual Help in Belle Chasse. And, yes, she has belted out a few hymns on the calliope!