Early on, Sublette explains that his book “is not about music per se, but music will be a constant presence in it, the way it is in New Orleans.” Changing colonial flags and subtle shifts in slave populations are indeed guiding forces in this narrative too: What, for instance, was the effect of the drum, which was prohibited everywhere else slaves were held in America, on social and political organization, not to mention the force and direction of American musical innovation? It’s no accident, Sublette argues, that jazz grew from this muddy soil or that Roy Brown’s “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” which he identifies (arguably) as the first rock ‘n’ roll record, was recorded at Cosimo Matassa’s rudimentary studio on the edge of the French Quarter. These are hardly new ideas, but rarely are they advanced in such hardy detail. Less well understood is the “bamboula” rhythm that was the heartbeat of the dances of enslaved Africans at Congo Square, along with being the name of pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s signature 19th-century composition. (Bamboula can be located clearly in nearly every modern variant of New Orleans music). Sublette walks us through this lineage and its connections to the four-note habanera, or “tango,” rhythm that is the signature Antillean beat to this day.
Inevitably, Sublette’s story leads us back to Congo Square, “the only place in the antebellum United States where enslaved African Americans were allowed to hold public gatherings to dance, play ancestral drums, and sing in ancestral languages, albeit under police supervision,” he writes. “Those Sunday dances must have been avant garde, if you will: a site not only of memory and tradition, but of culturally encrypted communication, and a laboratory where a new musical and lyrical vocabulary evolved.”
But the site of the former Congo Square, just off the present North Rampart Street, on the fringe of the French Quarter, sits behind a gate that’s been nearly always locked since Katrina. Sublette quotes Christian Shultz, a traveler who in 1808 noted Congo Square slave dances: “These amusements continue until sunset, when one or two of the city patrol show themselves with their cutlasses, and the crowds immediately disperse.” As Sublette accurately observes, “the last sentence would have been almost perfectly applicable in New Orleans as I knew it in 2004, when the Sunday afternoon second lines were closed down at five on the dot by squads of police who were sometimes downright rude, even provocative, in doing so.”
Things have grown far worse. In April 2007, a federal lawsuit on behalf of a consortium of social aid and pleasure clubs, assisted by the American Civil Liberties Union, protested the city’s hiking of police security fees—triple or more from pre-Katrina rates—for second-line parades held September through May. The suit invoked the First Amendment right to freedom of speech and expression, claiming that parade permit schemes “effectively tax” such expression. “Should the law not be enjoined,” the complaint stated, “there is very little doubt that plaintiff’s cultural tradition will cease to exist.” The task force found itself back in court—victorious again—when a restraining order threatened a parade planned for Lundi Gras, the day before Mardi Gras.
A little more than a year earlier, on St. Joseph’s Night, one of three times each year that Mardi Gras tribes gather en masse, the intersection of Washington Avenue and La Salle Street was packed with Mardi Gras Indians, decked out in feathers and beads. Across the street, A.L. Davis Park, named for a minister and civil rights activist, was filled with FEMA trailers housing displaced families. Looking fierce in his African-inspired green-and-red mask, Big Chief Victor Harris of the Fi-Yi-Yi shouted: “They spit us all over this land. They told us we had to evacuate. But they didn’t say we had to stay away.” Spy boys led the way. Flag boys bore identifying colors. Chiefs haltingly greeted fellow chiefs. Suddenly, sirens and flashing lights overpowered drums and feathers. Police cars drove straight through the procession, enacting their own now annual ritual. Some officers wore uniforms emblazoned with SWAT team logos. Representatives of the ACLU and the National Lawyers Guild signified too, with armbands marked “Legal Observer.” It was true that post-Katrina street life had been punctuated by shootings and that each en masse gathering might well pose risks, but there was also growing opinion that the city’s hard-line challenges to these assemblies just then meant to send a message to participants: You’re not welcome back.
Were they ever welcome, or valued? Sublette’s book suggests not, and hints that they may well never have been more embattled, or more essential as both historical record and empowering act, than in the present moment—not even at the height of the plantation business or the interstate slave trade. Erosion of our coastal wetlands may have paved the way for the natural disaster that hammered New Orleans. But the least-mentioned aspect of the resulting devastation—the erosion of what ethnographer Michael P. Smith once called “America’s cultural wetlands”—need be of primary concern. Erasure of these wetlands exposes many to the types of ill winds that shatter souls and negate past truths. Sublette’s scholarship lends sturdiness and cohesion to a historical record that otherwise might be washed away through carelessness or intentionally erased. The secrets of history contained in Congo Square may be locked away behind the gates to Armstrong Park for now. Yet they hold keys to both the past and future of a city stuck in an uneasy present.
Larry Blumenfeld is working on a book about cultural recovery in New Orleans based on his research as a Katrina Media Fellow with the Open Society Institute. His writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Village Voice and Salon and in the essay collection “Music in the Post-9/11 World” (Routledge). He is editor at large of Jazziz magazine.