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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Crescent City Blues

The roots of New Orleans

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NewOrleans has been in the news often in the past three years, and most of the headlines have not been good. Despite gradual reconstruction, much of it undertaken by private groups in the face of governments stymied on all levels, portions of the city remain in ruins and its population scattered. New Orleans has become a symbol of relentless nature overwhelming under-funded public programs, a catastrophe of poor planning, a failure of the national imagination.

As Ned Sublette implies in his latest book, New Orleans could never have been conceived by the American imagination in the first place. The Crescent City was a Caribbean port swallowed whole and only gradually digested by Manifest Destiny. It was a collaboration between French and Spanish slave owners, free people of color and slaves from Congo, Senegal and elsewhere in West Africa. New Orleans was thriving before the Stars and Stripes were hoisted overhead and remains America’s most unique city even today. The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square (Lawrence Hill) is a kind of follow-up to Sublette’s previous book, Cuba and Its Music. Sublette was known as a musician and producer of the syndicated radio show “Afropop Worldwide” before becoming an accomplished writer. Music was the main theme of his Cuban book, but he showed a remarkable aptitude for discovering the wider social and cultural context, drawing on everything from the legacy of Islamic Spain to theories of racial inequality fostered by Western science.

He performs similar feats of cogency in The World That Made New Orleans. Although the coda concerns the survival of the city’s culture after Katrina, Sublette focuses on the three centuries beginning with Spanish exploration in the 1500s and ending in the early decades after the United States purchased Louisiana from Napoleon in 1803. Because of commercial ties with Havana that flourished until the U.S. embargo against Cuba in the 1960s, a Latin tinge has been present in the city’s music. New Orleans was compounded from creolized French language and culture, rhythms from many parts of West Africa and a particular form of African religion called voodoo before Anglo-American influences became important. New Orleans was probably the birthplace of jazz because the city’s more tolerant Mediterranean overlords permitted drumming, which British colonists and their American successors outlawed.

Sublette doesn’t romanticize New Orleans before it was incorporated into the United States. There was much brutality visited on the slaves whose shoulders sustained the economy, yet the French-Spanish slave system allowed more wiggle room for its victims, more opportunities for autonomy than the American version.

Through the sustained and unique mixture of cultures, stepping stones were laid in earlyNew Orleans that led to Louis Armstrong, the Neville Brothers and many other contributions to the culture of America and the world.
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