Larry Blumenfeld on Ned Sublette’s ‘The Year Before the Flood’
Posted on Feb 4, 2010
“Reconstruction era carnival was the fine-arts wing of the campaign for white supremacy and removal of black people from the political process,” Sublette writes in a chapter on Mardi Gras. Lest we ignore the present-day vestiges of this legacy, he unpacks enough history to clear up any doubt about the meaning of an 18-foot-tall statue of King Kong that rolled along in the Comus krewe parade in 2004, glowering fiercely, arms upraised as onlookers pelted it with beads. “Was I really seeing what I thought I was seeing?” he asks. He suspends disbelief by harking back to the krewe’s 1873 spectacle “The Missing Links to Darwin’s Origin of the Species,” identifying the gorilla as a clearly recognizable caricature of recent ex-Gov. P.B.S. Pinchback, the first African-American governor in the United States.
The great body of New Orleans culture defies not just calendars but categories. Therefore Sublette offers a convincing argument that “key elements of rock’n’roll came out of New Orleans, in an open circuit with Memphis, just up the river,” and devotes two chapters to the hip-hop that these days, as much as brass-band music, is the sound of New Orleans’ streets. “The usual way of dealing with hip hop when people write about New Orleans is to ignore it,” he writes, “or alternatively to focus only on hip hop as if none of the rest of it existed. Either one is a mistake.” After rapper Soulja Slim is murdered, his mother, a member of the Lady Buck Jumpers Social Aid and Pleasure Club, dances her grief away at the group’s second line that weekend as the Rebirth Brass Band plays, supporting Sublette’s correct notion that “on the porous, sinking ground of New Orleans, styles and tunes coexisted in the same house, the same family, and even in the same body.”
One thing that is clear: The changing population of the city has affected the body politic. A 2008 Times-Picayune piece by Michelle Krupa cited a study by University of New Orleans political scientist Ed Chervenak, based on voter turnout in the 2003 and 2007 gubernatorial elections. The results, Krupa wrote, “confirm what election-watchers have suspected since Hurricane Katrina: The number of voters in the New Orleans area has fallen sharply, with African-Americans and registered Democrats losing the most ground.” As Sublette says in his coda, although the city is still majority-black, the City Council is majority-white for the first time in decades. (That balance may adjust yet again after this week’s election.)
Jason Berry put it succinctly in a new epilogue to a reprinted “Up From the Cradle of Jazz”: “The history of New Orleans in the wrenching aftermath of Hurricane Katrina can be telegraphed in one sentence: Politics failed, culture prevailed.” The culture that Sublette celebrates remains a primary means of social justice activism. Last Aug. 31, a second-line parade more than 1,200 strong traced the 25-block chunk of the historic Lower Mid-City neighborhood now threatened by the latest hot-button issue: the fight over Charity Hospital, the city’s largest health care provider for the uninsured, which has stood vacant since Katrina. (Louisiana State University, which governs the hospital, has proposed a controversial $1.2 billion plan for a new medical complex that would raze a chunk of Mid-City, leave the old building as one more blighted architectural treasure, and further delay the resumption of critical medical services. A recent federal arbitration ruling awarding $475 million in FEMA reimbursements makes this prospect all the more probable, though hardly definite or desirable.) Parading in New Orleans is about taking control of the street.
Yet the city of New Orleans has always held an odd, dysfunctional relationship with the culture it prizes and promotes. Sublette’s book can help prime one for an appreciation of the current situation. Making music in New Orleans has, for the most part, always meant a marginal living. In the three years since Katrina, it’s become a losing proposition. Right around the second Katrina anniversary, a “Musicians Solidarity Second Line” featured dozens of musicians carrying but not playing their instruments. Not a note played, not a step danced. A slow, steady rain lent dramatic drips to homemade signs that read: “Living Wages = Living Music” and “Imagine a Silent NOLA.” “Historically, musicians have been taken for granted here because it’s so common and pervasive,” said Scott Aiges, a director at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation. “When we hear a brass band it’s just another day. But these musicians are the working poor, making an average of $21,000 a year.”
In late August, Jordan Hirsch, executive director of the nonprofit Sweet Home New Orleans, pored over results of his latest “State of New Orleans Culture” report: More than 80 percent of those identified as “culture bearers” had returned to New Orleans; musicians reporting a 62 percent decrease in their income from music compared with their pre-Katrina earnings. Meanwhile, costs of living have risen 11 percent. Hirsch scratched his head. “What type of value is placed on this in a real sense?”
City ordinances and policies are a central part of the problem, leading to unpleasant ironies. In September 2005, Angeli on Decatur, a modest restaurant and bar on a French Quarter corner, began inviting in some of the musicians who’d begun again to play on the street outside. “Live music at Angeli at that moment was like medicine,” civil rights attorney Mary Howell recalls. “You felt like you could breathe again.” The live music at Angeli lasted for nearly a year—until the city of New Orleans put a stop to it. The place wasn’t zoned for live music. Another post-Katrina bright spot was Vaughan’s, where trumpeter Kermit Ruffins still holds court on Thursday nights: They were burning wood outside the place to kill the awful smell still lingering in the air, Ruffins recalls, but the music was back. A piece in the Nov. 23, 2009, edition of New Orleans City Business newspaper explains that although the club’s owner, Cindy Wood, would now like to expand those offerings, she’s barred from presenting music on any other night.
“This ridiculous city zoning ordinance that prohibits live entertainment in the city of New Orleans is breathtaking in its vagueness and overbreadth,” Howell says, “and is so badly written it prohibits live entertainment everywhere except where it’s specifically permitted.”
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