Mar 10, 2014
Larry Blumenfeld on Ned Sublette’s ‘The Year Before the Flood’
Posted on Feb 4, 2010
As she points out, it’s the capricious enforcement of such policies, especially noise ordinances, that makes matters worse and threatens the spontaneous culture Sublette celebrates in his book. The kids in Tremé that Sublette describes picking up instruments (or just cardboard boxes and cans) to follow in the footsteps, real and metaphorical, of older musicians saw trombonist Glen David Andrews and snare drummer Derrick Tabb hauled off like criminals when police broke up a 2007 memorial procession there. (The charges—“parading without a permit” and “disturbing the peace by tumultuous manner”—were dropped some months later.) But I recall Andrews, earlier that year, after a flurry of murders had shaken the city, following a march to City Hall. He stepped up to a lectern and led a chant: “Music in the schools!” Tabb was recently in the running for a CNN “Heroes” award, for his “Roots of Music” program, which brings instruments and instruction to more than 100 public school students.
Late last year, a revised citywide noise ordinance was raised within the City Council, then quickly tabled. A newer version has surfaced, scheduled for a council vote later this month. The proposal originates from French Quarter residents and business owners who take issue and offense with the sonic barbarity of Bourbon Street. (In his book, Sublette refers to Bourbon Street as “an alcoholism theme park,” with “live cover bands playing high-volume crap-rock at 3:30 on Monday afternoon.”) Yet there are deep suspicions among musicians and their supporters that the proposed noise ordinance changes will further inhibit live-music presentation in general and greatly embolden police and even civilian regulators to clamp down more tightly on street culture. Both sides agree on one point: The present ordinance is essentially unenforceable.
“We want infrastructure not alms, not even funding necessarily, to nurture and promote our sophisticated, treasured, living culture,” clarinetist Evan Christopher wrote me in an e-mail recently. Christopher, who moved to New Orleans more than a decade ago, has mastered the technical aspects of his instrument’s Creole legacy; he’s studied just as rigorously the social purpose and context embedded in that music’s development. “Infrastructure means protecting the participants and practitioners, and helping them benefit economically from their efforts by removing obstacles that hinder the vitality of our culture and the transmission of indigenous forms of expression to the children of our community.”
As New Orleans gears up to elect a new mayor—a primary election is scheduled for Feb. 6—expectations for meaningful change regarding cultural policy have been raised. Where Luther Gray worked two decades ago to amplify the voices of ancestors in Congo Square, he’s now focused on Artists in Residence NOLA (AirNOLA), a consortium of his fellow contemporary culture-bearers, consolidated though monthly roundtables, in the hopes of achieving a place at the policy table. Jan Ramsey, publisher of the monthly music magazine Offbeat, is one organizer of a campaign, “Music Swings Votes.” Both groups are among the more than 80 that contributed to a 21-point election platform focused on indigenous New Orleans culture. Most significantly, “21 for the 21st Century” calls for: the creation of a city department or office of cultural affairs and economy (a notable lack in “jazz’s birthplace”); and a dedicated funding source for the city’s cultural economy (New Orleans grants roughly $350,000 annually to arts organizations; San Antonio, Texas, by contrast, provides some $6 million). In the largest sense, what’s called for is clear: the sort of recognition Sublette’s latest book offers that both the brightest promise and darkest ailments of New Orleans must be dealt with via local culture. From a purely practical standpoint, if a city built on culture is to be rebuilt on culture, the moment has arrived to confront the ill will and illogic embedded within noise and live-music zoning ordinances, and to more effectively market its jazz tradition without selling it out. Some positive focus on these ideas from mayoral candidate James Perry and an ongoing dialogue along these lines fostered by Louisiana Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu (the mayoral campaign’s front-runner) offer real promise. Among Landrieu’s related efforts, his World Cultural Economic Forum initiative has attempted to restore Louisiana’s international prominence when it comes to the arts. [Editor’s note: Shortly after the publication of this review, Landrieu won the Feb. 6 mayoral election. He will be New Orleans’ first white mayor since his father held the city’s top post a generation ago.]
Not long after Ned Sublette settled into his Irish Channel apartment but well into his immersion into the local culture, he began making music again. “I was inspired,” he writes. “When I got back to our house, I pulled out my guitar and started to sing. I was singing a little more relaxed. I had found something new in my old, ragged voice.”
That reminded me of a moment at one of Landrieu’s cultural economy forums: Denis G. Antoine, ambassador to the U.S. from Grenada, said, “If we’re taking about rebuilding New Orleans, we have to ask: Which New Orleans are we talking about? We have to talk about social values and an ancestral past. There is an anthropological aspect to the nurturing of a new New Orleans and this will help direct what is appropriate and what is not. New Orleans is a perception. It’s about how safe do you feel to be you?”
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