May 18, 2013
Larry Blumenfeld on Ned Sublette’s ‘The Year Before the Flood’
Posted on Feb 4, 2010
Once alight with bulbs that spelled out Armstrong, the large steel archway where North Rampart and St. Ann streets meet in New Orleans was dark, its white paint overtaken by rust. Beneath it, a thick, carelessly wound chain bound two iron gates, from which dangled a steel padlock. The whole assembly looked as if meant to secure some oversized bicycle rather than the entrance to a 32-acre city park named for trumpeter Louis Armstrong and modeled after Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens. Armstrong Park was closed, had been since the flood following Hurricane Katrina. You could see the bronze statue of Louis, trumpet in his left hand, handkerchief in his right, but only from a distance through iron bars.
Armstrong in prison. That’s what it looked like, in early 2006. Or maybe Louis was on the outside. Maybe it wasn’t he but the city—its residents and those of us who are drawn to New Orleans for music or love or just escape—locked away. I remember something author Ned Sublette said around that time, in an interview: “We’re not watching history disappear, history is watching us disappear.”
A cobblestone plaza behind the park’s closed gate marked Congo Square, where two centuries ago enslaved Africans and free people of color drummed and danced to the bamboula rhythm each Sunday, exerting their right to free expression as their masters prayed at church, seeding the beat of the earliest jazz and just about all New Orleans music to follow. Nowhere else in the North American colonies had slaves been allowed to play their drums, let alone freely assemble. For anyone with even a passing knowledge of New Orleans culture, Congo Square was sacred ground long before drummer Luther Gray lobbied successfully for a listing on the National Register of Historic Places in 1987, including even the period from the late 19th century through 1971 when the spot was officially named Beauregard Square in honor of a Confederate general.
Not everyone in New Orleans knows the word bamboula. But beat out the rhythm and folks nod in recognition, clap correctly (on beats two and four) and get their shoulders and hips moving in knowing dance. That sort of cultural response spans generations and contexts: Listen to Louis Armstrong’s jazz or Fats Domino’s rock ’n’ roll, the Neville Brothers’ funk or Lil Wayne’s chart-topping rap and a straight line emerges, through most of the city’s history, via music, undisturbed by two prior levee failures in the 20th century alone and a fire that destroyed most of the city’s structures in 1788.
What about after 80 percent of the city was submerged for two weeks, when the clearest mark of connection was the scum line left by floodwaters? What about now, more than four years later? The gates to Armstrong Park are freshly painted and lit each night, Congo Square open daily. Yet also, according to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, some 6,500 homeless are living in abandoned buildings and rents have risen 40 percent since Katrina; some 4,500 public housing units, razed despite much protest in 2008, are yet to be replaced.
“Let’s not lose sight of these as what they are: homes,” Marshall Truehill, pastor of the First United Baptist Church and former chairman of the city’s planning commission, told me then, nine months before his passing. “When you destroy neighborhoods, you tear apart a culture too.”
Which brings us back to the flood, and its prehistory. “The destruction of buildings in 2005 was fearful, but so was the loss of something intangible,” Sublette wrote in his 2007 book, “The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square.” “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.” If that volume attempted to restore some of that information, Sublette’s new “The Year Before the Flood: A New Orleans Story” explains how he got his hands on the encyclopedia in the first place, just before the cruel winds blew, and what it means to him.
Sublette tends to begin at the beginning. For his first book, the sprawling and essential “Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo,” he took as a starting point Cadiz, circa 1104, and spent 600 pages just to get to 1952, when mambo was still a craze and Fidel Castro a rabble-rousing lawyer. He tempered such ambition with the last volume: “My story begins in 1492,” he wrote, “in Roman Catholic Europe.” His goal? To explain “how New Orleans got to 1819,” drawing that date from a traveler’s description: “On Sabbath evening, the African slaves meet on the green, by the swamp, and rock the city with their Congo dances.” Along the way, he detailed how those Africans got to that green, what their dances probably looked like, why they were identified as “Congo,” and how we came to say that they “rocked” in the first place. Sublette, a musician, music producer and, above all, a crafty and diligent scholar, constructed a social history staked to the course of the slave trade in the Western Hemisphere with a backdrop of musical development. In “The Year Before the Flood,” music jumps to the front seat, but the legacy of slavery rumbles along throughout the ride.
“New Orleans presents a peculiar challenge for a writer,” Sublette writes. “Because it moves not only in linear time but also cyclical time. … [E]ach year is the same as the last—as in ancient Egypt, where the years weren’t numbered. Cyclical time relies on an elaborate schedule of festivals associated with the calendar to reinforce its timelessness, creating a rhythm that propels the year. Cyclical time is pagan, and local; it is the time myth takes place in.”
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