It's hard to write about music without writing about history. It was a lesson Ned Sublette, a musician and writer who grew up in Natchitoches, La., Texas and New Mexico, learned while working on his first book, Cuba and Its Music. 'I realized it was nonsensical to talk about the music without correlating it with the history, especially given that people in the United States wouldn't know anything about Cuban history," he says. After the book was published in 2004, Sublette turned his attention to another area of the world in which music and history are intertwined, one his work on Cuba had already led him to think about: New Orleans. 'In the 19th century, certainly the three great cities for music in the Western world were Havana, New York and New Orleans," Sublette says. 'I wanted to cover the making of that." His latest book, The World That Made New Orleans Famous: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square, does exactly that, tracing the first 101 years of the city, from its early settlement up to 1819, the date of the most extensive surviving record of Congo Square. 'This book is about how New Orleans got to 1819," Sublette writes in his opening chapter, crystallizing the colorful and nuanced history that unfolds in the following pages.
Although music is not the primary focus of the book, it's certainly a large part of the journey, which incorporates the cultural, economic and political forces that help shape the way New Orleans is today. With the help of a 2004/2005 research fellowship from Tulane University, Sublette reported and wrote much of the book in New Orleans, returning to his home in New York just three months before Katrina. While he didn't begin the book with a political agenda, the storm and aftermath of the flood changed the way he thought about the project. In writing about New Orleans history, he says, 'You are implicitly defending the city's right to exist, because you're pointing out its importance to people who don't know it."
In the readings he's given since the book's January 2008 publication, Sublette has noted strong audience interest in the city and in history in general. 'History has this bad rap as a boring subject, but I find there is a great thirst out there to know why things are this way." The author appears in New Orleans March 29 as part of a panel presentation on New Orleans' Caribbean influences at the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival.
Perhaps because it is so different from the rest of the country, New Orleans has often been written about comically " as 'this eccentric, weird, peculiar place," Sublette notes. In public readings and in the book itself, he works to show how the city's unique qualities are in fact 'the logical outcome of competing international forces." In particular, the book highlights the impact of three successive colonial periods, the influence of Havana and Saint Domingue, and the introduction, through slavery, of myriad African traditions to New Orleans.
So profound was the first century of such influences that by the time Louisiana became the 18th state in 1812, 'New Orleans was already the city we would recognize today," Sublette says. 'The essential elements of its personality were already present, and the things that make it distinct from other United States cities were already fully in place."
Sublette makes an especially strong case for the influence of Spain, the first of two historical bookends suggested by the work's subtitle. 'The Spanish period is the most underrated, under-explored moment in New Orleans history," he explains, 'because it was then that New Orleans became a city." Although the period was brief (on paper, from 1762 to 1800; in practice even shorter), New Orleans made important strides during that time, developing a local governing body and growing in its status as a port city.
It was also a hugely significant period in African-American history. Unlike the French and (later and especially) the Anglo Americans, the Spanish allowed slaves certain liberties " including the right to purchase their freedom, to speak their ancestral languages and to play drums (unheard of in the stricter British colonies). Such small liberties made a tremendous difference for Afro-Louisianan cultural inheritance, Sublette argues, allowing enslaved people both the possibility of a future and the preservation of their past. In this way, such freedoms were probably 'good for music," he writes.
During both the Spanish and French reigns, slaves were allowed to congregate on Sundays to dance and make music, practices that would be curbed under American rule. The most detailed account of Congo Square, written by civil engineer Benjamin Henry Latrobe in 1819, marks the second bookend to the period Sublette addresses. Through its detail and sense of astonishment, it documents how rare such a gathering was at this time in the United States.
Latrobe's description aside, Sublette ran into a frustrating lack of documentation in his attempts to understand New Orleans' black music of the period. 'No one bothered to write about black music. If they did, they wrote about it as something that they happened on or as something incidental to a dance." Coming to view this aspect of his research as a kind of detective work, Sublette drew on historical records and his knowledge of the Gulf region, the Caribbean, the Antilles and the Caribbean coast of South America to surmise what might have been.
The coda to the book takes the legacy of Congo Square into the present day, with a focus on the Mardi Gras Indians. 'I had to put the Indians in the book," Sublette explains, 'in part because the Indians are so insistent about connecting their culture to Congo Square."
The link he draws, although perhaps less literal, is deeply moving. 'Anglo-American slavery was designed to erase African-American history," Sublette writes; yet, in New Orleans in particular, aspects of that history prevailed. Likewise, the Mardi Gras Indians and others who were able to return for the first post-Katrina Mardi Gras 'refused to cooperate in their own erasure."
The book Sublette is currently working on touches on some of the same contemporary ground. 'I had to kind of choose what went in which book," he explains. Tentatively titled 'The Year Before the Flood," his work-in-progress takes a more personal turn, beginning with his childhood in segregated Natchitoches and moving to his year in New Orleans and the aftermath of Katrina. 'It's kind of an arc of lived history from Brown v. Board of Education to the Convention Center, via the music of New Orleans in the last year before the flood," he says.
- Ned Sublette researched the music and history of New Orleans while at Tulane on a research fellowship.