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The World That Made New Orleans

Jeff Wright's picture

For anyone interested in American musical history, as well as the roots of our racial discomfort currently so visible, I want to recommend a book: The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square by Ned Sublette. It’s not a study of New Orleans music per se. For that I recommend Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans (Thomas Brothers) and Up From the Cradle of Jazz (Jason Berry, Jonathan Foose, Tad Jones), among others. Rather, Sublette’s book is a socio-political history of early New Orleans and its Afro-Caribbean influences, stronger in significant ways than those of the three nations that successively owned it (France, Spain, France again for a few weeks, then the USA), written by a musician/musicologist with some penetrating things to say. Here’s one of them:

“Geographically ubiquitous, (the Kongos) were the strongest single influence on African culture in the New World. The largely uncomprehended legacy of the Kongo permeates the popular music the world listens to today.”

Yes, the lineage is clear, if uncomprehended. James Brown and Beyonce, of course, but Hank Williams Jr. and Ted Nugent are also, to a degree, musical descendents of those enslaved Africans who gathered on Sunday afternoons in Congo Square, New Orleans, two hundred years and more ago, to play polyrhythmic music and dance. So is every artist whose music is directly or indirectly related to or influenced by the Blues, Jazz, Gospel, Rhythm & Blues, Rock’n’Roll, or any of the variations thereof. Congo Square was not the only place where slaves in the American colonies and the subsequent USA made music, but as Sublette displays in this well-researched chronicle, New Orleans was the most fertile ground for germinating new musical forms due to its social-cultural-racial complexity, of a sort entirely unique in North America, and Congo Square, the only place in antebellum America where slaves were allowed to gather and play drums, was the seedbed from which grew the rhythmic, sometimes raucous, soulful American music that has indeed spread around the world.

The World That Made New Orleans emphasizes the widespread acceptance, supposed economic necessity, longevity, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery in the Americas. It will disabuse you of a number of convenient myths you learned from your U.S. history textbook. It’s a painful read sometimes, but a timely one, furthering insight into how and why the legacy of slavery still plagues this country. But it also demonstrates the emergence of art out of chaos. From indescribable suffering and the most confusing blend of cultures at the time in the USA was born such phenomenal music – sacred music, I would say.