Less than a week before Mardi Gras, which this year coincided with “Super Tuesday,” I was on the phone with Donald Harrison, jazz saxophonist and Big Chief of the Congo Nation. In that latter role, Harrison keeps alive what is perhaps the most elemental and least understood New Orleans tradition: Mardi Gras Indian culture. He didn’t have much to say about Super Tuesday primaries or presidential candidates, who, aside from John Edwards and until the Democratic delegate count got especially tight, had equally little to say about New Orleans residents like him. That’s just fine, Harrison said: He was busy still rebuilding his home and, just then, sewing beads onto fabric.
All politics is local, Tip O’Neill famously said. Hell, every single thing is local in New Orleans—the city that author Ned Sublette calls “an alternative American history all in itself.” Big Chief Harrison figures in the coda to Sublette’s new book, “The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square.” “They refused to cooperate in their own erasure,” Sublette writes of Harrison and his fellow chiefs in their elaborate beaded and feathered suits during the first Mardi Gras following Hurricane Katrina. “They were still men, and these were still their streets.”
The World That Made New Orleans
By Ned Sublette
Lawrence Hill Books, 368 pages
Make no mistake, what’s happening in New Orleans today—often by virtue of what’s not happening or despite what mustn’t—is an erasure, growing increasingly willful-seeming as the disaster grows more manmade and less natural. If things go as HUD has ordered and as the New Orleans City Council approved late last year, most public housing units in the city will be bulldozed away. Gone, at least for now. Among the striking images in my two years of post-Katrina reporting from New Orleans was the black Ninth Ward family I came upon during the second anniversary of the storm who stood by and watched as a TV anchorwoman held her microphone in front of their devastated home. “The producer said he doesn’t want us in the picture,” the father told me, holding his baby in his arms. Most Americans can’t see what’s actually in the frame in New Orleans anyway, and how could they without a working knowledge of local culture steeped in history? Where is the outrage down there, the resistance? Listen to Mardi Gras Indians chant “We won’t bow down!” Or fall in behind a brass band as part of a Sunday second-line parade. These are the protests, assertions of future and past in a present barely there at all. New Orleans is two cities now—one inching toward renewal, the other still caught in what, shortly after Katrina, David Winkler-Schmidt of the local Gambit Weekly called “the horrible unending of not knowing.”
Sublette, keenly knowing the role of music and culture in explaining the city’s past, animating its present and foretelling its future, puts it this way: “The destruction of buildings in 2005 was fearful, but so was the loss of something intangible: African America took a blow when the collective knowledge of black New Orleans was scattered to the four winds. Dispersing that population was like tearing up an encyclopedia in front of an electric fan. This book is dedicated to the people who are trying to put that book back together.”
I’m not sure that encyclopedia had been adequately distributed to anyone outside New Orleans in the first place, or maybe it’s just been too long hidden away. Meanwhile, Sublette has created an essential, heretofore nonexistent supplemental text. Those Mardi Gras Indians are a suitable place to begin or, in Sublette’s case, to end. What one takes away from witnessing Mardi Gras Indian masking rituals—the intricately hand-sewn feathered-and-beaded finery, the Congo and West African-derived drumbeats, the chants of pride, power and purpose, the mock battles (once, these were real fights) and the overwhelming sense of radiant love (unconditional, familial, the kind that carries both promise of protection and a sense of responsibility)—can’t be clutched and then easily possessed like the beads thrown from uptown Mardi Gras floats: It’s far subtler, as easy to miss as an Indian’s “coming out” is hard to find, and generally difficult to grasp without generations of bred-in knowledge. And it applies to all aspects of life and music, or to the very musical life, of New Orleans.
Sublette unpacks a good bit of that knowledge, much of it centering on the bloodlines and machinations of history behind that very breeding. His previous book, “Cuba and Its Music” (2004), took 600 pages just to get to 1952, when mambo was still a craze and Fidel Castro just a rabble-rousing lawyer. But it was worth the journey: Sublette, a musician, music producer and, above all, crafty and diligent scholar, constructed a social history that fleshed out—through facts, not myths—both the primacy and allure of Cuban music. “Popular music history written in the second half of the twentieth century typically described American music in terms of black and white,” he wrote, “but mostly failed to see the elephant in the room: Cuba.” Sublette identified the island as a primary source for a wide range of Western music: the “Habanera” in Bizet’s “Carmen”; the “danzon” implied by Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer”; the cha-cha underpinning the rock ‘n’ roll classic “Louie Louie.” Sublette argued for Cuban music as “the Other Great Tradition, a fundamental music of the New World,” and made a convincing case. More than any other guiding principle, his detailed prehistory of Cuban music was staked to the course of the slave trade in the Western Hemisphere.
And so it is too here, his new book telling interlaced tales of cultural development and colonial slave trades that, as one, interlace again with that of Sublette’s previous volume (and reflect the complexity, not duality, of race in America). I remember a Time magazine piece, not long after Katrina, by trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, perhaps this generation’s most visible icon of New Orleans culture. “We should not allow the mythic significance of this moment to pass without proper consideration,” Marsalis wrote. “Let us assess the size of this cataclysm in cultural terms, not in dollars and cents or politics. Americans are far less successful at doing that because we have never understood how our core beliefs are manifest in culture—and how culture should guide political and economic realities.” In an interview with BBC-TV, the trumpeter went further, describing the black faces on CNN looking for lost mothers and fathers as calling up a historical memory of Southern slave families torn apart. Sublette details precisely how and why those families were torn apart and what’s threatened by a fresh severing, making of Marsalis’ allusion much more than the metaphor it seemed then.