Listening to History, Ned Sublette's New Orleans
Ned Sublette, The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square (Lawrence Hill Books, 2008)
A tough read can be the result of thorny words, tedious rationale, off-putting content. But it’s not language that’s at issue in The World That Made New Orleans—even though obscure regional words such as lagniappe (a merchant’s gift to a customer) make rare appearances, historian and musicologist Ned Sublette hoes a smooth row. In an interview, he spoke of his work scripting Afropop Worldwide radio broadcasts, not knowing who’d be tuning in: “If you use any word outside the very general experience, you get in the habit of defining it immediately.” In The World, Sublette also extends such courteous accuracy in presenting his ardent, logical case for New Orleans’s importance in the early history of the United States.
It’s the stuff of Sublette’s book that can make significant sections in The World appalling and important, to read. By analyzing the sometimes intertwined, sometimes oppositional, empires (French, Spanish, British) that held sway during New Orleans’ first hundred years—and examining how conditions altered for its black population—he constructs an overview that can be as tough to endure as it is compelling. (For decades, writers have been unraveling material similar to that found in The World or in Marcus Rediker’s recent The Slave Ship, but it remains confounding how the United States casts a blind eye on history.) The era The World explores coincides with the French, American, and Haitian revolutions, when political liberation was regularly followed by savage repercussions. The U.S. Constitution came out mum on slaves, but it bulked slave-holders’ sway with the three-fifths clause (providing them representation for their human property). In 1803, after over a decade of struggle, the hemisphere’s second colonial revolution—and first successful slave revolt—wrested the nation of Haiti from the French colony of Saint-Domingue. Haiti was then blockaded by its former masters and wouldn’t be formally recognized by the U.S. for sixty years, but the earlier reality of Saint-Domingue is impossible to read painlessly. Amassing “the densest concentration of Africans that had ever been assembled” to drive vastly profitable sugar and coffee industries, some forty thousand colonials worked their half-million slaves pitilessly, deeming it cheaper to replace the dead than to rear the young. Sublette writes of shotgun houses built from Louisiana cypress in a land “deforested to clear room for plantations and to stoke the boilers of the sugar mills,” and concludes a chapter thus: “cypress is highly flammable, and the houses in Saint-Domingue were about to burn down.”
Louisiana and the backwater town of New Orleans were exchanged between French and Spanish Bourbon regimes (thus Bourbon Street), and as a harbor its important bond was with Havana. The World’s focus remains sociopolitical, but when Sublette addresses cultural matters, especially music and dance, he does so with authority, enthusiasm, and an exploratory passion for things African. The town’s slave ship records show that most captives originated in the Senegambian region, whose people played “a bardic, melismatic, swinging music, influenced by Koranic chanting, with a less polyrhythmic texture, favoring portable stringed instruments.” They brought traditions of bowing fiddles and plucking banjos with them, key sources for New Orleans’ indelible contributions to popular music. Two ships brought voodoo practitioners as well as a man freed only later to become the town’s executioner, Louis Congo. His name recalls the region most slaved to the Caribbean and South America (which, sonically, became very different worlds than British colonies) while nodding towards Congo Square, the legendary New Orleans spot where African Americans practiced their ceremonies and music.
When Jefferson banned slave importation in 1808, it was declared a shield against Haitian-style insurgency. The effect, though, protected interstate slave trafficking, boosted breeding, and ensured fortunes for Virginia and Kentucky slave-owners marketing humans to the Deep South. Cane had been industrialized there after the Louisiana Purchase (Haiti’s massive production had collapsed) and the provision for self-purchase—coartación—extended to slaves under the Spanish system was abolished in favor of U.S. slavery’s singular oppression. The result, Sublette writes, was a labor force “raised from birth to have no past and no future…whose great-grandchildren would be born into slavery.”
Sublette researched much of The World during a year’s fellowship at Tulane. He and his wife had just relocated to New York City when the levees were breached after Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, and the book’s moving coda, “We Won’t Bow Down,” is a paean to the Mardi Gras Indians. His first book, Cuba and Its Music, came out in 2004, and the New School invited him to open a series on music writers. The evening’s host, critic Robert Christgau from The Village Voice, said that he’d spent his career reading social histories of music and Sublette’s volume was the finest he knew. An essay in last year’s anthology, Listen Again (Duke University Press), displays Sublette’s analytical bravado. “The Kingsmen and the Cha-cha-chá” lays out Cuba’s overt impact on rock before the States’ post-Fidel clampdown. In the 1950s, hotels touted their Latin bands in the New Yorker listings, and Richard Berry recalled writing “Louie, Louie” (which became the Kingsmen’s hit) when “everyone was doing the cha-cha-chá.” “Rock Around the Clock” bumped Perez Prado’s “Cerezo Rosa” from No. 1 in 1955 (Bill Haley’s follow-up? “Mambo Rock”). The influences lasted well into the next decade, as Sublette hears the Beatles’ “And I Love Her” as a bolero, with bongós and clave sticks, and “Day Tripper” as a mambo, its chorus modeling the clave rhythm’s “1-2-cha-cha-chá.” Jagger shakes maracas in early Stones footage, then Davy Jones of the Monkees brought them to TV land. Sublette suggests that the new guitar quartets couldn’t swing—“they rocked, but they didn’t roll”—then tracks congas in proto-funk sides (check out the timbale licks on Funkadelic’s “One Nation Under a Groove”). It’s like an ace home-makeover for the dance floor in the downstairs den, and Sublette efficiently corrects a critical and cultural myopia: when rock was seen “as having a history, Cuban music had vanished from North American consciousness.”
Sublette’s own musical work must be shortchanged here for space. Among other highlights, he wrote Willie Nelson’s iTunes hit, “Cowboys Are Frequently, Secretly (Fond of Each Other),” produced Luaka Bop’s landmark 1991 Cuban compilation Dancing With the Enemy, and released searing rumba and timba on his Qbadisc label. In an email, Robert Farris Thompson, Yale’s prime Africanist (see my interview with Thompson in the May 2006 Rail), wrote that Sublette’s research “is on the money, has got us lapped. Who discovered, in New Orleans, the oldest known attestation of the word ‘tango’? Sublette. If you can’t dig reggaetón, you’ll feel better when you learn it brought back the beat of habanera [tango and mambo’s root rhythm]. You guessed it—Sublette was the first to notice and alert the world.”
In a Long Island City bar near his office, with snow falling outside, Sublette recently spoke of being a boy in Natchitoches, the first European settlement in Louisiana (now “a little racist town,” in his words). “When New Orleans was under water [in 2005] and the news anchors were trying to summarize it, it was clear not many people had a concept of what New Orleans is,” he said. “New Orleans is as fundamental to the existence of the United States as Philadelphia or Boston. To explain why, you have to unpack the world of the eighteenth century. For 190 years, Havana was its closest trading partner, until the embargo [in 1962]. And United Statesians don’t think of the Haitian revolution as important in the evolution of the hemisphere, but it was, and New Orleans had an profound Caribbean moment in 1809 and 1810, when refugees who’d fled the bloodbath, maybe 10,000 of them—a third white, a third free persons of color, a third black slaves—came from eastern Cuba, doubling the size of the town.”
“The heart of The World That Made New Orleans is its Spanish period,” Sublette said, “which we might call the Cuban or the Congo period, for the largest group of Africans introduced then. I track it through this image of the drummer sitting on the drum. We don’t see this in Havana, but in eastern Cuba, it’s the tumba francese, the drum and dance societies descended from Saint-Domingue. We see him in Benjamin Latrobe’s drawings in New Orleans in 1819 [Latrobe designed the U.S. capitol].” Sublette called today’s Mardi Gras Indians the nation’s most important manifestation of traditional culture, and his baritone flow hit its only lurches when he reflected on their survival. “What they do predates jazz, back at least to the 1880s. Indians I talk to stress the connection to Congo Square: The only place in antebellum America that African Americans were allowed to gather, play drums in public, and dance.”
With the interview concluded, Sublette requested more tape. “I’m angry about the lies we’ve been told about our own history,” he added, “the way that slavery has been sanitized, how its effect on our evolution as a nation continues to be minimized to this day. And I’m angry about what happened in New Orleans in 2005.” He said that Donald Harrison Jr., the brilliant alto saxophonist, Mardi Gras Indian and educator, told him recently, “If we have enough musicians, we’ll be alright.” Harrison’s sister, Cherise, is also an Indian and also teaches youth skills “with which they can be somebody.” In New Orleans, Sublette said “music is the frame. If you can be a well-trained musician, you have something that you can do battle with. And in this society, you do need to do battle. Especially if you’re born poor and black.”