Wednesday, August 26, 2009

An interview with Ned Sublette author of The Year Before The Flood

Interview by Chris Becker
Photo of Ned Sublette by Jennifer Kotter

Writer, historian, and musician Ned Sublette is the author of two incredible books that IMHO every musician should have on their bookshelf: Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo and The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square. The World That Made New Orleans is a meticulously researched history of the Crescent City beginning with its Spanish and French colonization, continuing on through revolutions both near and abroad (most significantly the Haitian revolution), and concluding in the early 19th century when - in what was now one of this country's wealthiest port cities - African American music was coming into existence. There is final chapter - a coda titled We Won't Bow Down - describing the return of Mardi Gras Indian tribes to New Orleans less than a year after hurricane Katrina. It’s an unexpected and sobering postscript pointing the way to his next book The Year Before The Flood: A Story Of New Orleans.

The Year Before The Flood describes the year Ned Sublette spent in New Orleans researching The World That Made New Orleans. During that time, Ned and his wife Constance (also and author) lived in the historically tough working class neighborhood known as the Irish Channel. After ten months and a brief return visit to take in Satchmo Summerfest, Ned returned to his home in New York just ahead of hurricane Katrina which hit Louisiana on August 29th and - thanks to decimated wetlands and an inadequate levee system - destroyed so much of a city he had come to know and love.

The Year Before The Flood resonates with me on a number of levels. I lived in New Orleans for five years (1994-1998) meeting and collaborating with many incredible visual artists, dancers, and musicians. I met my wife in New Orleans and we were married there in a ceremony that brought family and friends together from as far away as Texas, Minnesota, Florida, and Atlanta. My CD project Saints & Devils – a five year recording project inspired by stories and icons of the deep South with performances by musicians from New Orleans – was mastered just two weeks before hurricane Katrina hit the gulf coast. As artists, we sometimes find that the purpose of our work is to bear witness to a history we do not control.

This month (August 2009) I chose to spend a lot of time meditating on the history of New Orleans, the experience I gained as a result of living there (1993 to 1998), and the possibilities for its still uncertain future. Ned graciously took time to answer some questions for me:

Chris Becker: Your book describes several inspiring musical performances you attended including second lines, a show at the Funky Butt by the Wild Magnolias, and a Halloween house party with Big Sam’s Funky Nation throwing down in the living room. What are some the qualities of New Orleans’ indigenous music that separates it from music heard elsewhere in the U.S.?

Ned Sublette: The music you hear in New Orleans has all the depth of the city’s unique 291-year history. As far as I can tell, New Orleans had its own peculiar personality from the earliest days of the colony.

The indigenous music of the region would be the music of the Choctaw, the Houma, etc. I don’t think that’s what you were asking but even so, I’ll take your question as an opening to underline the importance to Louisiana culture of the indigenous people, who first showed European and African alike the secrets of survival in the peculiar environment of the cypress swamp – even if we hear little direct influence of them in the sound of modern-day black New Orleans music. (If you don’t believe me, ask the groups of African American men known as Mardi Gras Indians.)

I don't know what differences might have existed between the indigenous music of south Louisiana and indigenous music elsewhere on the continent, but I think it’s safe to assume that at the time when Native Americans were a political power in the region, their music was along the generally known lines of Native American music up and down the hemisphere – drums, shakers, voices, pulse, spirit.

There's a description of a celebration with the Houma Indians in the March 20, 1699 journal entry of the French-speaking Canadian founder of the Louisiana colony, Pierre Le Moyne, sieur d’Iberville, which I reproduce in The World That Made New Orleans:

“To the middle of the assembly were brought some drums and chychycoucy, which are gourds containing dry seeds, with sticks for handles. They make a little noise and help to mark the beat. A number of singers made their way there. Shortly afterwards came twenty young men, between twenty and thirty years old, and fifteen of the prettiest young girls, splendidly adorned in their style, all of them naked, wearing nothing except their braguets, over which they wore a kind of sash a foot wide, which was made of feathers or fur or hair, painted red, yellow, and white, their faces and bodies tattooed or painted various colors, and they carried in their hands feathers that they used as fans or to mark the time, some tufts of feathers being neatly braided into their hair.

The young men went naked, wearing only a girdle like the girls, which partly concealed them. They were prominently tattooed and their hair was well arranged with tufts of feathers. Several had kettles shaped like flattened plates, two or three together, tied to their girdles and hanging down to their knees, which made noise and helped to mark the beat. They danced in this way for three hours, appearing very merry and frolicksome.”

Does this not sound a little like a description of the party esthetic of New Orleans, already in effect when the colonists arrived?

But when we talk about the music of New Orleans we’re talking about a powerhouse of black culture -- the layering of Afro-Orleans: Senegambians, Kongos, English-speaking African Americans, Saint-Domingans, arriving in successive waves to a series of different colonial environments and an urban space compressed by water and muck on all sides. The decades-long importance of Congo Square, a place of memory and a laboratory where a new African American music was created, every Sunday. The divide between Catholic and Protestant forms imposed on African spiritual practices. All that’s in the music, if you can hear it.

If you visited New Orleans and heard a random sampling of bands in the clubs, parties, and streets, you might conclude that what they have in common is that whatever style of music they’re playing, it’s what we recognize as funky. The way I heard it the year before the flood, funk – one of the great American musics, IMHO -- was the lingua franca of the city.

More: lurking in back of New Orleans music is the parade, most importantly including the funeral parade. And then there’s the observance of a wide range of annual festivals, saint’s days, holidays, anniversaries, et cetera. One thing that sets New Orleans apart is the intensity of its devotion to a calendar rhythm of celebrations.

CB: You describe New Orleans as a town “…where you need a different verb tense to describe a past that hasn’t ended.” I knew immediately what you were talking about. And I personally feel that this is one of the most endearing as well as frustrating things about the city. With this in mind, who in New Orleans (be it an individual or organization) is currently taking the lead to create better future?

NS: I don’t know if it’s for me to evaluate that, since I don’t live there. But I will say that I went on the Tamborine and Fan Super Sunday this year, and it was a mighty event [Editor’s note: Inspired equally by the civil rights movement as well as New Orleans street traditions, Tamborine and Fan is an organization hosts an annual pan-tribal parade.]. Which is not to say that everything’s fine. The working-class black population was devastated by the flood of 2005 (and the concomitant forced evacuation) and many have not been able to return. Nonetheless, the community that is there knows what the stakes are for the survival of the culture. Social and Pleasure Clubs are going strong – Black Men of Labor, Young Men Olympians, Prince of Wales, too many to name. A second line these days in New Orleans is a powerful experience. And then there are the Mardi Gras Indian groups.

CB: New Orleans has a long history with the island of Cuba. You write about this history in great detail in your previous book The World That Made New Orleans. Would lifting the U.S. trade embargo with Cuba have positive repercussions for New Orleans’ economy?

NS: It would be a great game-changer, in Cuba as well as in New Orleans and all along the Gulf coast. I say this every time I have a platform: the embargo of Cuba is also an embargo of New Orleans. For more than 190 years, definitively ending with the imposition of the embargo of Cuba by President Kennedy in 1962, Havana was New Orleans’s great trading partner. With restored relations with Cuba, Houston might ultimately wind up with the major airlink because it has the connecting flights, but beans from North Dakota are gonna come down the Mississippi. There’s a reason Kathleen Blanco went on a trade mission to Cuba when she was governor in 2005: Cuba imports something like 80% of its food. They can get US agricultural products way cheaper than they can from anywhere else, and a lot of that would pass through the Port of New Orleans.

Meanwhile, we need to get the Havana-New Orleans cultural link reactivated right now. New Orleans should jump out in front on this. I’m a firm believer that cultural engagement between Cuba and the US should not wait for full commercial engagement, but should light the way. There’s a marvelous organization in New Orleans, the CubaNOLA Arts Collective, that’s been doing great work. My last trip to Cuba, in 2003, was a CubaNOLA trip with a big group of New Orleanians. A lot of progress had been made before the Bush administration slammed the window shut on cultural exchange and travel at the end of 2003. It looks like that window may be about to start opening up again, though it’s hard to say how fast.

CB: Many of the homes and families who bore the worst of the levee breeches after hurricane Katrina were part of a community dating back at least to the late 1940’s if not before. A home in the Ninth Ward might have been built from the ground up in the mid 50’s with ownership being passed from one family’s generation to the next. I bring this up because I know many New Yorkers do not understand why people chose to live in New Orleans in spite of the threat of flooding, as well as other fundamental problems with that city’s infrastructure and politics.

As a non-New Orleanean, do you yourself understand why someone who isn’t Allen Toussaint or Fats Domino would want to remain in New Orleans?

NS: I don’t live there, but I hope I can keep returning there and that it can always feel like home when I do. Which, I guess, is to say that I hope New Orleans will remain.

It’s like Cuba, in that it’s not hard to see why someone would want to leave, and it’s not hard to see why someone would want to stay. It’s a hard town to live in, and it can be a wonderful town to live in. But it’s not for everyone. It’s a tough place for older people, because of the scarcity of medical resources and the ordeal that the annual hurricane-evacuation madness represents for the aged. A lot of older folks have simply died under the stress. It’s a younger town now. There’s been a move to the city in the post-flood period of single adults, some of whom are activists, trying in good faith to contribute to the community. Meanwhile, there are still many families who formerly lived in New Orleans that can’t get back, and the more time passes, the less likely it is that they will. Nor is it at all clear that the city has adequate protection from the water.

CB: You spent a year in New Orleans doing research for The World That Made New Orleans. Literature, poetry, and drama are vital components to New Orleans’ cultural life. Did you and your wife find New Orleans to be particularly conducive to the process of writing?

NS: Not exactly. It was the most remarkable year, which was why I had to write a book about it. I started writing what became The Year Before the Flood before the flood, during the Thanksgiving weekend of 2004, because I had this sense that our mundane activities felt like they were somehow part of history. And they were: the last year the city was whole. Amazon’s category for the book, which I like, is “21st Century History.”

But I found New Orleans less conducive to writing than to researching, at least since what I was researching was the city itself. I had a great working situation, with my own office in the Howard-Tilton library at Tulane. Constance was not as fortunate, because she was working at home, in a house we’d rented, subject to all kinds of interruptions, including a crew of – well, it’s in the book.

Upcoming 2009 Ned Sublette book readings and concerts:
Reading: September 2, 7 p.m., Barnes and Noble, 82 & B'way, NYC
Reading: September 23, 5:30 pm., Garden District Book Shop, 2727 Prytania Street, New Orleans
Party: September 24, 6:30 p.m., Mother-in-Law Lounge, 1500 N. Claiborne Ave., New Orleans
In concert: November 20, Joe's Pub, 425 Lafayette Street, NYC


Doris Murdock, Houston said...

Thanks, thoughtful questions and full and complete and educational -in the best way!-answers. I'll have to read the Year Before the Flood now and maybe go back to parts of The World That Made New Orleans. It would be great if he'd visit Houston, Brazos Bookstore.

Dave Soldier said...

cool interview, just too short! keep up the great work guys!

Trista Hill said...

Just wonderful questions / answers.

Chris Becker said...

Thanks everyone for reading. I appreciate the comments.

citylights17 said...

great job chris. i have both of mr. sublettes books they are treasure troves of musical and cultural information. thanks for the interview to add some insight to this writer and his subject matter.
michael johnson SF

Chris Becker said...


And people reading this might want to check out to view citylights17's beautiful portfolio if photos which include several images taken in Cuba.

brumune said...

Buena entrevista, lastima que haya sido tan corta. Es fascinante todo lo que Ned ha vivido y trabajado , dandonos a conocer tantas cosas maravillosas y sobre todo la amplitud tematica, hay mucha sabiduria de su parte. Ned you are of the indespensables! Thank you so much.