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.”

book cover

The World That Made New Orleans

By Ned Sublette

Lawrence Hill Books, 368 pages

Buy the book

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. For his book on Cuba, Sublette took as his starting point Cadiz circa 1104; he ended up in the mid-20th century. He’s tempered such ambition a bit here: “My story begins in 1492,” he writes, “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, Sublette details just how those Africans got to that green, what their dances probably looked and sounded like, why it’s both interesting and significant that the dances were identified as “Congo,” and how we came to say that they “rocked” in the first place.

Sublette’s Cuba book would have caused great injury had it landed on your head. This one, at 360 pages (with notes), would be more likely to cause pain from inside the skull — density, not heft, lends power to its impact. There’s a meticulousness that comes at you without pause in long stretches. Still, Sublette brings genuine humor to the task too. “By 1744, Britain and France had resumed their normal status of being at war with each other,” he writes at one point. In describing the French and Indian War, he begins: “The twenty-one-year-old George Washington started a world war. At least, the French said he started it.” And throughout, he projects wonder enough to summon up questions such as, “Did a slave — or a free person of color — ever get to play a clavichord?” His keen eye for detail occasionally dovetails nicely with a deadpan delivery: After noting that New Orleans has thoroughfares named for slave-owning presidents Washington, Jefferson, Jackson and Taylor, he reports: “Lincoln Avenue in the adjacent, unincorporated town of Metairie is a double dead-end, three blocks long.”

Sublette’s history of New Orleans focuses on the city’s three colonial eras, which occurred in rapid succession: French, Spanish, Anglo-American. Each, through its approaches to the slave trade, brought a distinct black population, creating “an increasingly cosmopolitan African culture of New Orleans,” he writes, “which from the earliest days of slavery in Louisiana had its own personality.”

“Brief though it was, the Spanish period in New Orleans was crucial to the creation of Afro-Louisianan culture, and constitutes a singular moment in African American history,” he explains. In part this is due to the repeal of the French Code Noir, which allowed enslaved Africans greater rights and privileges. “They could speak in their ancestral languages and play their drums: they had a past. With the right of self-purchase, they had a future. Enslaved people in English-speaking America were not permitted to have either one.”

Sublette is right to elevate the significance of the Haitian revolution: It forced France’s hand with respect to the Louisiana Purchase; set the stage for a fresh wave of Africans of Kongo descent to come to Louisiana; and, Sublette argues, set in motion both abolitionist sentiments in the North and harsh, paranoid treatment of slaves in the South. In Sublette’s telling, the fear of a slave uprising gave rise to a protectionist strategy in the United States. Perhaps Sublette goes too far in calling Jan. 1, 1808, “one of the most important dates in American history”; still, there’s little doubt that the Slave Trade Act, enacted that day, closed the door on African imports of human capital and set off a speculative bubble in the domestic slave trade for the following half-century, fed in large part by the needs of Louisiana plantation owners. This was big business for New Orleans, Sublette writes, “and greatly affected the demographics and culture of the city.” Those demographics would change yet again upon the arrival of exiles from Saint-Domingue in the wake of the Haitian uprising, exiles who arrived largely via a stay of several years in Cuba. And this rapid and unique transformation of the population of New Orleans in the first half of the 19th century, involving slaves shipped from the upper South and more “recent” Africans from the Caribbean, has a lot to do with the drum, the dance and the rhythm of justice and daily life in the city even today.

Sublette cracks the whip of scholarly re-evaluation with particular force on Thomas Jefferson, whose annexation of Louisiana made him a key figure in American slavery’s expansion, creating, as Sublette puts it, “a major industry in domestically raised humans.” He quotes Jefferson’s only book, “Notes on the State of Virginia,” published in 1784, on how black-white relations “produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or other race,” and argues beyond defenses of historical context and any romantic notion of the former president as a conflicted soul. “He disseminated blatantly racist ideas,” Sublette writes, “and as a politician, he fought to secure the grand expansion of the institution of slavery.”

Yet elsewhere Sublette generally avoids diatribes or polemics, and his analysis of demographic shifts in New Orleans — at one point he cites not just census figures but accounts of slave populations by African ethnicity — serves to explain and delineate differences between the black population of the city and rest of the country. The uniquely horrific characteristics of the sugar plantation business, which didn’t exist further north, distinguish the black experience in New Orleans as yet more stark and atypical.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.


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