"...Ned Sublette is kinetic energy made flesh- researching, lecturing, & performing... He performs music, produces radio programs, writes books & articles, emails the news of the day, especially Cuba- & New Orleans-related, & loves to dance up a storm to a good Latin band..." (Thanks to H West for the referral to this article!)
All rights reserved. © Bomb Magazine, New Art Publications, and its Contributors.
BOMBSITE - THE ARTIST’S VOICE SINCE 1981
by Garnette Cadogan
Left: Ned Sublette, Race and Religious. Right: Ned Sublette. Photo by Jennifer Kotter.
Ned Sublette is kinetic energy made flesh. He is not only energetic in movement—living in New York City and traveling over the hemisphere researching, lecturing, and performing—but also in speech—talking, and thinking, it seems, at near Mach 3 speed. He also performs music, produces radio programs, writes books and articles, emails the news of the day, especially Cuba- and New Orleans-related, and loves to dance up a storm to a good Latin band. His exuberance extends to the page; his spirited storytelling passes on centuries of history and cultural activity to the reader with such liveliness that one can’t help but imagine that the act of writing is just another musical activity for him. And Ned, the writer of the Willie Nelson-performed “Cowboys Are Frequently Secretly (Fond of Each Other),” always grounds his energy in good humor, buttressing his braininess with a grin.
His first book, Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo, is a monumental study of Cuban music, and his recent The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square dives into the early history of the “Crescent City,” with a deft mix of erudition and irreverence. Ned continues to explore the relationship between sound and history that characterizes his first two books, while venturing into (for him) the hinterland of memoir, as he writes his next book, The Year Before The Flood, an account of modern New Orleans history and culture. He has been awarded various distinctions for his work: most recently, he was named a 2005–06 Guggenheim Fellow; a 2004–05 Rockefeller Humanities Fellow at Tulane University; and a 2003–04 Cullman Center Fellow at the New York Public Library.
Our conversation took place one windy afternoon on a balcony adjoining his office in Long Island City, Queens. For a few hours, as the wind ripped through us, our conversation, our laughter, Ned Sublette was not, for once, the most energetic object around. Just barely.
Garnette Cadogan: In The World that Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square, you said New Orleans was an “alternative American history all in itself.” How so?
Ned Sublette: New Orleans is as essential a part of the history of our nation as, say, Philadelphia or Boston, and yet it has a completely different culture than those cities. In particular, New Orleans being at the northern edge of what I call the Saints and Festivals Belt—which some people erroneously call the Caribbean, though it reaches across the Gulf of Mexico past the Caribbean to Brazil—was the valve through which a whole world of culture and music entered the United States as it was forming. It made a music that always affected the music of the United States, but was never the mainstream.
GC So you’re saying it’s at the heart of American history, yet also perched at the margins?
NS It was also a major urban center, when the rest of the United States was mostly rural. In the 1830s, New Orleans was almost tied for second-largest city in the United States with Baltimore, with which it did much business. It was relatively dense, because its expansion was constrained by the swamp. Before electrical pumps came in the 1890s, New Orleans couldn’t expand outwards. Old maps refer to it as the “Isle of Orleans.” So early on, before it was part of the United States, it was already urban, and it was a majority-black city for most of the 18th century, up through about the 1830s, and again beginning in the 1970s. In its early years, the city must have rung from one end to the other with the music of black people, which functioned as vital communication.
GC People often tie the city’s unique difference to its racial composition. How significant was New Orleans’s majority-black population to shaping its history and character?
NS So many ways. First of all, New Orleans had a three-tiered society. There was a large category of free people who provided a significant percentage of the population of New Orleans. This was a relatively well-educated class of people, a property-owning class that in spite of laws restricting their rights and privileges were a very significant part of the city’s culture and economy. No other town in the South had a free population of color anything like that of New Orleans in terms of size and influence. That’s one thing. Another: I confirmed through years of painstaking research what might seem obvious at first blush—that from the very beginning, New Orleans culture was unique and distinct. Because of its peculiar physical situation, because it was so isolated and hard to get to in its early days, the first African populators, the ones the French brought—two-thirds of whom were from the Senegambia—had to form alliances with the native population in order to survive. As did the whites. Being isolated by themselves for decades before slave importation began under the Spanish some decades later in the 1770s, the French- and Bambara-speaking population became more and more confirmed in its own original personality. Gris-gris didn’t come into New Orleans voodoo from Haiti; it was there as soon as Africans were. By the time the Spanish began bringing in Africans decades later, the largest single group of them being Kongo, those Africans had to fit into an already well-established and defined Afro-Louisianan culture.
This culture kept acquiring new layers. The largest by far, which came in from the beginning of the 19th century all the way through the days of the Civil War, were those English-speaking Protestants trafficked from the upper South through the interstate slave trade, which brought about a million people to the Deep South, two-thirds of them by traders. Slave-trading was one of the largest industries of the South, and New Orleans was the largest single slave market.
But there were others who came in. For example, the large influx of people from eastern Cuba in 1809–10, who were twice-transplanted refugees from the bloodbath in Saint Domingue (Haiti), French-speaking for the most part—again, another layer of culture that made New Orleans completely different from everything else in the United States. And finally, Africans were trafficked in during the 1810s by Jean Lafitte and his men, robbed off slave ships headed for Cuba.
Then there’s something else: the first black populators of New Orleans were brought in by Catholics. This had a whole host of implications, because the Catholicism of Spain and France as practiced in the colonies had much different regulations and possibilities for the enslaved people. Enslaved people in Spanish New Orleans had Sundays off. They could own property. There are even documented cases of slaves in Spanish Louisiana owning other slaves, whose labor they could then appropriate to purchase their own freedom. Enslaved women controlled a fair amount of the marketing that went on in New Orleans, an important commercial sector of the town’s economy. The Spanish implemented—and this is very, very important—something called coartación, which otherwise they only implemented in Cuba. Coartación gave the enslaved person the right of self-purchase. You could insist on a hearing with the slaveowner—at least, in theory—which the slaveowner was not legally at liberty to refuse, to go before a board and set a price for the purchase of your freedom based on your level of skills. The more skilled you were, the more expensive it was to ransom yourself. Slaves could then, by the various ways possible to earn money, purchase freedom in installments. A significant proportion of the black population of Spanish New Orleans managed to do this. More than 1,000 were manumitted during the Spanish period, which is pretty considerable when you consider that New Orleans’s population at the time was only around 5,000. So with this path to freedom, an enslaved person could think in terms of a future.
That changed dramatically when the Virginians came in. In its early days as a United States territory, New Orleans was in effect a colony of Virginia, a fact that I think hasn’t been sufficiently appreciated. The Virginians had surplus slave labor to dispose of. If you were an enslaved person in Virginia, you knew that not only did you have no future, your children and your grandchildren would be enslaved. In Spanish Louisiana, although enslaved people were treated badly, there did at least exist a path to freedom. And because enslaved people in Spanish Louisiana were also allowed to play ancestral drums and to dance in public and gather en masse by the hundreds, they had a past. They had an identity and a future. Imagine the difference in morale between those two populations.
Ned Sublette, Big Chief Donald Harrison inside Saint Augustine’s, Mardi Gras morning, 2006.
GC And that different sense of self is especially potent among Creoles, that cultural group that has significantly shaped New Orleans history and culture. The word—the term, really— “Creole” has become a slippery metaphor. What exactly do you mean by it?
NS Well, the word “Creole,” which can almost function as a red flag, has multiple meanings. Especially in Louisiana, where words often don’t mean the same things they mean elsewhere. The word Creole, from the Portuguese or Spanish criar — to raise, as in a child — became crioulo, a person born in the New World. It doesn’t imply anything about the skin tone of the person. The criollos in Cuba were the people born in Cuba at a time when the concept of Cuban nationality didn’t exist, as opposed to the peninsulares, from Spain. The idea of creolization is a fundamental concept of New World cultural theory. Certainly, writing about Cuban culture would be meaningless without it. In Louisiana this word got flipped around to where it meant something rather different. It came to mean French-speaking people. Some Louisiana historians of a bygone era insisted that Creoles were only white. More typically, the word has come to mean a lighter-skinned, and often more highly educated, person of partly French or Spanish, and partly African descent, versus the darker-skinned people of English-speaking descent. For example, Jelly Roll Morton, whose real name was Ferdinand LaMothe—a classic example of a New Orleans Creole. This was the successor class to the free people of color of slavery days.
In New Orleans, it’s a very confusing word that reaches directly into one of the fundamental dramas of the city: racial mixture.
GC Certainly, the word “Creole” is fraught with misunderstandings, and the way in which people argue over it’s meaning—especially in New Orleans, where that argument has been going on since the early 19th century—spotlights the central role of race in New Orleans. Indeed, it reveals something you hinted at: New Orleans is both a place and idea. Moreover, as place and idea, people like to think of it as difference. You, however, insist that it’s both a peculiar and representative American spot.
NS Not merely a peculiar spot, but the logical outcome of competing international forces.
GC Your argument, then, is that New Orleans is at the crux of America’s…
NS At the absolute crossroads of American history! Over and over again. Including now.
GC New Orleans—distinctly American and singularly un-American!
NS I use the word “American” in its larger sense, always, so I think it’s extremely American. It’s the most American city in a lot of ways.
GC Other cities can justifiably make that claim. Your fellow New Yorkers, among others, will surely take you to task. How is New Orleans the most American?
NS The most fully realized, in that it participated in all of the waves of culture that rolled across the hemisphere, practically. The French, the Spanish, the Anglo-American, each of which was associated with a different black wave: the Bambara, the Bakongo, the Baptists. From 1769 to 1803—that was a transcendental moment in history, the last third of the 18th century—Spain held Louisiana during the American, French, and Haitian Revolutions, three events of maximum impact on world history, and each of which affected Louisiana vitally. During the Spanish period, New Orleans became a city. It became a port of importance. I think that there are a variety of reasons, which I discuss in the book, why the Spanish years in New Orleans have been so consistently underplayed in importance, but I see them as absolutely crucial to understanding the town.
GC And New Orleans itself is crucial to understanding America. After all, its history is replete with the perennial American themes and struggles: self-making, liberty, equality, immigration, pluralism, religion, the tension between Europe and America, the influence of the South, and so on. And, of course: frontier.
NS New Orleans was the Wild West! In many ways, it never stopped being the Wild West. A place where you might see a gunfight on a main street. You still might see that. It had that image from very early on. When Thomas Jefferson annexed it, it went from being El Norte, the northernmost edge of the Saints and Festivals Belt, to being the West. We often think of it as the South, but you have to think of the Civil War in terms of both the South and the West, because a primary determinant in forcing the issue of civil was whether or not slave traders could expand their markets into the new western territories, the ones beyond New Orleans. DeBow’s Review, the Fortune magazine of the slaveowning South, published in New Orleans, was DeBow’s Review of the South and the West. New Orleans was the South and West.
Ned Sublette, Silence, 2006.
GC Picking up on your idea of perception…there are few ideas as central to the American character as renewal and transformation—as Ted Widmer brilliantly shows in Ark of the Liberties: America and the World, “[W]hat idea has been more powerful in [America’s] history than the hope that something wonderful…waits over the next horizon?”—and what is New Orleans if not a place of renewal and transformation? (Though I can already hear a host of people objecting that this Babylon of a place is anything but!) In your book you emphasize how music is crucial to the city’s formation and renewal; for you, music is a skeleton key that unlocks New Orleans’s history and reveals its character.
NS Absolutely. I look at music as a key to understanding history. In my books I use music as a tool for reading history, and vice versa. The great music capitals of the hemisphere in the 19th century—the three cities with opera companies—were Havana, New Orleans, and New York. They were in frequent maritime contact with each other and had much more in common with each other than with cities in the American hinterland. It was way easier to get from New Orleans to Havana than to get from New Orleans to various points inside the American continent, given that you had to go upriver to get anywhere, and upriver was not easy to travel until Henry Shreve cleared the Mississippi and the steamboat reached a certain level of development, at which point New Orleans experienced its great peak of development. There was sort of a sweet spot in history for New Orleans’ economic development between the advent of the steamboat and the coming of the railroads, which pushed New Orleans back down. That sweet spot didn’t last too long—fifteen years, maybe—but for 190 years, until the imposition of the Cuban embargo by President Kennedy, New Orleans’ number one trading partner was Havana. Havana is, as far as I’m concerned, the fundamental capital of music in the western hemisphere, and New Orleans had a relationship with it that was constantly active by a steady maritime traffic.
GC Havana? The fundamental music capital in a hemisphere with musical nodes and fountainheads like New Orleans and New York City?
NS Yeah. Our political culture came from New England and the east coast and moved west and south, but our musical culture, and certainly what we think of as American music now, comes from the South up to the North, in the same way that Europe’s musical culture flowed upward from Iberia, and in the same way it now flows not from the penthouse to the street, but from the street upward.
GC As New Orleans music infiltrates northward and shapes the sound of America, New Orleans itself becomes more Americanized. America Southernizing as the South gets Americanized! If I’ve understood you, then, New Orleans is the product of three different regimes, of which Anglo-America won out.
NS Sort of! Uneasily. Canal Street was practically a national boundary for decades after New Orleans became a United States city. The migration of the twice-transplanted, mostly French-speaking refugees from the final bloodbath of the Haitian Revolution—10,000 or so who had relocated to eastern Cuba and were kicked out, who came in a span of four months in 1809 and 1810, at a time when the population of New Orleans was only about 10,000—that probably retarded the Americanization of New Orleans by another two generations. And it’s no accident that the big jams at Congo Square lasted about as long as that community maintained its power. Because Congo Square wasn’t opposite the English-speaking part of town; it was opposite the French- and Spanish-speaking part of town.
GC And as Shirley Thompson argues in her soon-to-be-published, splendid book on New Orleans Creoles, Exiles at Home: The Struggle to Become American in New Orleans, the Creoles, and much of New Orleans for that matter, struggled to come to terms with the Americanization of the city.
NS Not the white Creoles. They were about resisting it. The Creoles who were free people of color, on the other hand…
GC ...tried to face down Americanization, and struggled against being erased in the face of Americanization. A careful look at the history of Creoles of Color reveals that the idea of Creoles as a celebrated mixture, a favorable melting-pot intermediary, is a myth whose burial is long overdue. But as you were saying, as New Orleans was being shaped politically from the north down, it was also culturally shaping the country upwards. (And, of course, shaping the Americas outward; just consider Jamaican music.) In other words, New Orleans was a crucial part of what I could call the Southernization of American culture
NS It was fundamental to it. And this peculiar population that came from Saint-Domingue via eastern Cuba in 1809–10 also provides a model for something that happened many years later: the Haitian Revolution and the Cuban Revolution of 1959 are a very interesting study in comparison and contrast. They’re not at all unrelated, especially given that both the Cuban war for independence in the 19th century, as well as the revolution of Fidel Castro, came out of this part of Cuba next to Oriente, where refugees from the Haitian Revolution had fled to and remade the economy. The waves of revolution in Cuba blew from east to west.
This 1809-10 migration by these Domingans — people who had previously been in Saint-Domingue, the white people, the free people of color and the enslaved as well — transformed the culture and economy of New Orleans. It is sometimes reported that they “brought voodoo,” but that’s way too simple, because there was an Afro-Louisianan spiritual practice already, though they certainly transformed it. Domingans pretty much invented the profession of journalism in New Orleans. They dominated the profession of law, writing the state’s laws with French as the legally binding language, thereby guaranteeing themselves work for generations to come. They exercised a cultural power for which there is a curious later parallel: Miami in the 1960s, when a large number of refugees from the Cuban Revolution started showing up in Miami.
Ned Sublette, Kirk Joseph and his sousaphone, Jazzfest 2005.
GC Scholars usually focus on Haiti’s influence on New Orleans, and you’re no exception, but you pay significant attention to Cuba’s influence, too. You’ve argued, especially in Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo, that Cuban music has stamped just about every major 20th and 21st century popular music form. You’ve also insisted that the Cuban clave is more ubiquitous in contemporary music than most listeners assume (and you point to Richard Berry’s “Louie Louie,” a rock ‘n’ roll milestone with a Cuban undercurrent, as the perfect example). More recently, you’ve argued for the dominant influence of the tango, the cha-cha-chá, and the danzón rhythm, along with a host of African rhythms, in New Orleans music. What did those African rhythms sound like at Congo Square, which, by your telling, is Ground Zero for New Orleans music?
NS By the time Louisiana became the 18th state in 1812, New Orleans was a city we would recognize. We don’t know what Congo Square sounded like. We don’t have recordings. But I suspect that if I were dropped down in Congo Square, I might not find it any stranger than if I were dropped down in Vienna to hear Mozart play his own cadenzas. I think we can find musics today that provide models for at least some of what was going on at Congo Square, but what was going on at Congo Square was diversity. And I really do believe that something new was created at Congo Square; an African American music was being formed.
GC What do you mean by “diversity”? That word has now become mutable and, in effect, meaningless…
NS I mean they would be dancing a contredanse here and a bamboula there, a European dance here and an African dance there. At some point, there were probably Bambaras dancing here and Kongos dancing there, in separate circles, challenging each other. When I interviewed Donald Harrison, he suggested that the different African nationalities would challenge each other in song and dance, and he connected that practice to present-day Mardi Gras Indian ritual.
I’ve started to see the Haitian Revolution as one of the generative explosions of the popular music of our hemisphere. We can see evidence for this in all kinds of ways. The tumba francesa — black antiquarian societies of eastern Cuba that dance contradanza to purely African-style drumming — have a dance that they call frenté, in which a drummer sits on his drum and plays a duet with the steps of the male dancer, who is festooned with kerchiefs. It’s almost the same dance I saw a Puerto Rican bomba group from western Puerto Rico do. Bomba — that’s a Kikongo word meaning “secret,” and it shows up in Saint Domingue, in the revolutionary hymn that Moreau-de-St.-Méry wrote down without knowing what it meant:
Eh, eh, bomba! Hen, hen
Canga bafio te
Canga moune de le
Canga do ki la…
The bomba in Puerto Rico shows strong signs of having descended from something that was going on in Saint Domingue (which is the name I prefer to use for pre-revolutionary Haiti.) And I suspect there was something going on in Congo Square very much like this.
GC Given the spare paper trail, you’re on shaky ground when you connect these sounds and movements across time and locale. What kind of certainty emerges from your research? And how do you think these dances and their accompanying sounds shaped the modern sound of the city?
NS We have some documentation, if we think about it. There’s Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s “Bamboula.” Composed when he was 18 years old. They still have bambula in one part of the Dominican Republic, Samaná, and the rhythm is BAMM, BA BOM BOM: the habanera, also known as the tango, also known as merengue a lo maco, also known as reggaetón. It’s the rhythm that was being danced in Cuba at the time. We can be pretty sure that this rhythm was going on in Congo Square.
I’ve been getting into trouble for reminding people that neither New Orleans nor Havana is on the Caribbean. I’ve been jokingly using the term “Caribbean imperialism” to talk about the phenomenon of applying this romantic mythological word “Caribbean” to everything that’s cool. But the Caribbean is a very specific geographical entity on which neither New Orleans nor Havana happen to be located. Havana and New Orleans were in constant contact for 190 years until the imposition of the embargo, which is why I always say that the embargo of Cuba is also an embargo of New Orleans; it took away New Orleans’ great trading partner.
GC You’re supplanting the popular image of New Orleans as a Caribbean city. Your New Orleans is a Gulf city, which better accounts for its racial and cultural mixture, and its national importance—and its limits.
NS It’s a Gulf city that in 1809 and 1810 had a profound Caribbean moment that transformed it.
GC Transformed its rhythms of daily life and its musical rhythms…
NS And I think we hear the influence of the Caribbean strongly in the music of the Mardi Gras Indians. But we also see the influence of the Gulf—what they do seems in some ways like the rumba of Havana and Matanzas, which was the property of stevedores and dockworkers that were in communication with New Orleans. I went to see a Wild Magnolias practice this spring, one of their Sunday practices the week before Super Sunday. I was privileged to witness four sets of battle dances. It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen. It was easier to hear in a practice context than out in the street, because they had this stationary battery of percussion. When they play gigs in clubs their music sounds more like electric funk, but this was just their percussion arsenal. And what they’re playing all the time, for hours, is what they call in Spanish cinquillo, something you hear all over the Caribbean: BOM-ba-BOM-ba-BOM. BOM-ba-BOM-ba-BOM. All night.
GC And do we hear these bamboula and cinquillo rhythms when the Mardi Gras Indians perform?
NS We do.
GC You end the book with the Mardi Gras Indians. They’re not merely your coda—they’re an index. They embody New Orleans’s uniqueness, and stand as a powerful and poignant metaphor of persistence—in the face of constant battering and challenges from without and frustrations from within.
NS They embody black New Orleans’s insistence on connecting with its past—in a society that did everything possible to erase the people and their history. To the extent of giving them one-way tickets out of town to forty-some different states in 2005.
GC And they [the Mardi Gras Indians] make this connection largely through their music, which has long functioned as a shield against erasure.
NS Music in New Orleans is a way of resisting one’s own erasure. Mardi Gras Indians were out there in their suits representing in 2006, at the first Mardi Gras after the flood, representing not only for their own neighborhood, but for the entire city.
Ned Sublette, Under the Claiborne Bridge, Mardi Gras Day, 2007.
GC In the book that you’re working on now, The Year Before The Flood — which, by the way, is not about the flood but about the rich cultural traditions of modern New Orleans — you make a similar claim about the city’s hip hop artists.
NS There are remarkable correspondences. There’s a number by the Hot Boys, from their album Guerrilla Warfare, with B.G. chanting: “Dem boys at war / I said dem boys at war / I said dem niggaz from Uptown / dem boyz at war.” The Mardi Gras Indians don’t use the N-word, but apart from that, it could practically be an Indian song. Black art is constantly transforming, but the continuity is there. The Mardi Gras Indians—like the Abakuá of Cuba, like hip hop—are very much a manhood cult. Expensive new suits, beefing over territory—although what the Mardi Gras Indians do is a highly ritualized theater of beefing that emphasizes diplomacy. When you go see a Mardi Gras Indian practice, and they practice challenging and battling, despite the theatrical aspect, they get so into it that you might wonder if they’re gonna take it outside and settle it. There’s the cultivation of a violent aura to chase away those who might otherwise try to take it over. Despite the occasional white megastar, hip hop in the main has remained pretty much impervious to takeover by white artists. It has many layers of encryption and elaborate security systems that make it hard to copy.
GC It’s also interesting to note the commonalities between New Orleans hip hop musicians and those within the city’s venerable brass band jazz tradition, not to mention the Mardi Gras Indians—these are all intensely local musical traditions.
NS It’s intensely local, and it’s the same community. Soulja Slim’s mom was in the Lady Buck Jumpers, and his stepfather was leader of Rebirth. Everybody’s got a relative who’s in a Social Aid and Pleasure Club, or is a Mardi Gras Indian or something. Until they boarded up the projects and tore them down this year, they were all living in the same projects. I went on the Revolution Social Aid and Pleasure Club second line this spring, one of the best second lines I’ve ever been on. How’s this for a recapitulation of New Orleans history? It began in front of Congo Square and ended at the rubble of the newly demolished Magnolia Projects.
GC Geographically connecting the reputed fountainhead of jazz with…
NS The fountainhead of R&B! Because right by the Magnolia Projects was the Dew Drop Inn, the great black showplace of New Orleans in the ‘40s and ‘50s, crucial to the formation of rhythm and blues.
GC And, as you mentioned in The World That Made New Orleans, another crucial R&B moment is a mere stone’s throw from Congo Square.
NS Right! Roy Brown’s “Good Rockin’ Tonight”! Jazz is only one of the musics in New Orleans. I kind of de-emphasize jazz in my studies, because so many people have studied it, although I think by now I have some new things to say about it. But in my life, rhythm and blues—coming along when I came along, born in 1951 and living in Louisiana the first nine years of my life, though not in New Orleans—rhythm and blues has been as important in my life as jazz has. Meanwhile, the lingua franca of New Orleans for decades now has been funk. And New Orleans was the first town where the word “funk” was used in connection with music, right there in earliest phase of something we could identify as jazz, still in its pre-record-industry phase, by Buddy Bolden:
I thought I heard Mr. Bolden say
Funky butt, funky butt, take it away.
Earl King, the late songwriter and guitarist, said in an interview that he believed the word “funky” got popularized by Earl Palmer, the New Orleans drummer, one of the most recorded drummers in history, who would say in the studio, “let’s play it a little funkier,” at a time when singers came to New Orleans to make hit records. We’d be talking about the early ‘50s there, maybe even the late ‘40s.
I’ll talk about this in my next book, The Year Before the Flood, which is both an account of my childhood in segregated Louisiana and a play-by-play of the last year that New Orleans was whole, the year 2004–2005, when New Orleans was being very much itself and looking forward to more of the same. What I found, living in New Orleans that year, was that whatever else they do, most bands in New Orleans basically play funk. Funkiness is the basic state of music in New Orleans. And funk is one of the great underrated American musical achievements. I would like to see George Clinton get the Pulitzer Prize, both for music and for poetry, and though George Clinton is not from New Orleans, the one time I interviewed him, back in the early ‘90s, he started talking, unbidden and unprompted, about the importance of New Orleans to funkiness. It’s the mecca of African-American music. You have to make your pilgrimage there.
GC Talking about pilgrimages, you grew up in Louisiana, but you came to New Orleans music by way of New York, right?
NS And by way of Havana.
GC How did that happen? You’re a musician, and musicians are always listening, but still…
NS I was always listening, and I was very aware of New Orleans music as a boy. I would have voted Fats Domino for God if it was an elective office. Until I was nine—we moved away in 1960—I lived in Natchitoches, Louisiana. Two hundred and eighty-two miles northwest of New Orleans and four years older than it, Natchitoches was the first town the French founded in Louisiana. A beautiful, bucolic, racist little town, where I lived in a completely segregated world. I never had a conversation with a black child, in a town that was half black. We never co-existed in the same space. We used separate bathrooms, sat in separate areas of the movie theater, went to different schools. There was no way for me even to discover whether we could understand each other’s English.
But…there was the radio.
I like to say we had segregated society and integrated radio. And then those two things flipped, and we started to have integrated society and segregated radio.
GC So the sounds have always been there.
NS The sounds have always been there. As I came to look more and more for essentials and found myself pulled to Cuba, I became aware all over again of New Orleans’ importance in the music of our hemisphere. African-American and Afro-Cuban music are so different, and I’ve devoted a lot of energy, especially in Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo, to explicating those differences. Short answer: each group came from different parts of Africa at different moments in history into different societies with different rules and possibilities. New Orleans was the valve. It was a central node of communication for African Americans, and at the same time it was also the major point of contact with Cuba. You can hear that in New Orleans music throughout, from Gottschalk up through Sugar Boy Crawford’s “Jock-o-mo,” the first pop version of a Mardi Gras Indian song, which was played in a mambo / R&B style. One of the biggest Mardi Gras hits is “Mardi Gras Mambo” by the Hawketts. Art Neville could never have imagined that this record he made as a teenager would still be played to death more than 50 years later—it’s New Orleans doing mambo.
I connected with New Orleans for the first time in a substantial way in 1992. I was already producing Afropop Worldwide, the weekly one-hour public radio program about music of the African diaspora. In those years there was a little money for travel—that was back when we still had some token support for culture—and I contrived to produce an “Afropop Visit to New Orleans” program. Robert Palmer, the late writer, musicologist and critic, with whom I’d previously driven across Cuba and back, was living there, in the Tremé, and he loved it. He took me around and gave me a vision of New Orleans. We interviewed Allen Toussaint together. He took me to Russell’s Cool Spot to hear Kermit Ruffins, who had left Rebirth by then. Introduced me to Benny Jones and Lionel Batiste in the Tremé Brass Band. Sent me to Mid-City Rock ‘n’ Bowl—a vintage bowling alley with a bandstand—to hear Boozoo Chavis. It gave me a dense orientation to New Orleans in a very short span of time, even as I was going around and inquiring on my own.
They ought to give musicians fellowships to go live in New Orleans for a year to become aware of its importance. If you haven’t been on a second line, there’s something about jazz you don’t know.
Garnette Cadogan: You said that there was something essential about New Orleans and Cuba in American music. I want to lock in on that word, essential, because its various meanings (something absolutely necessary; something fundamental or characteristic) seem to constitute a thread that weaves through all your work. Certainly, your books can be seen as part of this one story—searching for the essence of our music by exploring its sources: What is important about the connections, movements, and, of course, confluence at the beginning? And what might our history through song and sound reveal about our essential human drama? What, really, does the beginning of things reveal about the meaning of things? It seems that, for you, Cuba and New Orleans lie at the heart of what is essential about our music and, thus, our selves.
Ned Sublett: You said it perfectly. And two parts of this same phenomenon, connected across the Gulf of Mexico. Our strongest musical connection, Havana and New Orleans.
GC But what about your adopted hometown, New York City?
NS The other great music city.
GC Isn’t there something fundamental about our music that has the mark of New York City on it? You should know: you were part of what is commonly called the New York downtown scene. Actually, wasn’t the downtown scene your musical gateway to New York City?
NS People don’t usually think of salsa as having been part of the downtown scene. My way in to what I’m doing now, was going to the Monday night Salsa Meets Jazz jams at the Village Gate. In retrospect, it’s like, What took me so long?, because I had the conditions.
GC The conditions? What period were you going to these jams?
NS Precisely in June 1985, I started going to the Village Gate every Monday night. I moved to New York in 1976, so I could have taken this step ten years earlier than I did. I didn’t take that walk across the street I should have taken. I was aware of it—I’ve spoken Spanish since childhood, I was trained as a classical guitarist in Albuquerque by a Cuban professor—so I had the necessary tools to begin understanding it. And I had some historical consciousness, having studied 16th century Spanish music in Spain, but I needed to go hang out at the Gate for it to all click. The music I was hearing live at the Village Gate on Monday nights satisfied me in a way that rock and roll had promised to satisfy me when I was a kid but never quite did. It satisfied me kinetically—I could throw my whole body into it—but it also satisfied me intellectually. We’ve gotten to think of dance music as something dumb, something that just goes thump-thump-thump, but dancing is an intense listening state.
The history of rock and roll as it had been written up to that point was, you know, black people playing rhythm and blues, and white people playing country and western, and they crossed over. But I came to realize that when you talk about these two sides of the fence, you’d better look for the Latin element, because that was the mediator. When you listen to Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene,” his first hit, or Bo Diddley’s first hit, both of ‘em had maracas. And these three-chord loops that I knew and loved from rock and roll in the ‘60s came from Cuban music. Why was this? I started talking about it with Bob Palmer, who had already done a lot of work on the question, from which I benefited. Ultimately, I came to realize that the cha-cha-chá was a fundamental template for rock and roll. I wrote an article called “The Kingsmen and the Cha-cha-chá,” laying out that case in a book called Listen Again: A Momentary History of Pop Music, but I’m just starting now to think about telling this story in a more general-reader way.
I realized I was gonna have to go to Cuba if I was ever gonna understand what those guys on stage at the Village Gate were doing. It was the exact opposite of the joke stereotype of the rock drummer: Latin percussionists tend to be intellectuals, of a kinetic sort, and every one of them was carrying a part of this history. There was a profound dialogue going on. [Music critic and guitarist] Pete Watrous called it “the conversation.” We were all having the conversation. Everybody had learned this or that from their teacher, everybody shared bits of lore, everyone had a sense of what it all meant, but there was not an overarching historical narrative to put it into. Had I begun by saying I would supply that narrative, I would never have dared. I sort of eased into it, pretending I was doing something else, but I realized I was gonna have to tell the story of Cuban music from the beginning if it was gonna make any sense. (laughter) And I went very far back…
Ned Sublette, Antoinette K-Doe at work, Mardi Gras Day, 2007.
GC And your own playing—did [your 1999 LP] Cowboy Rumba come out of this?
NS My own evolution was curious. I was born in Lubbock, Texas, and grew up in Louisiana, Texas, and New Mexico, and I felt very much like a lost cowboy when I got to New York in 1976. I found myself holding on to my Texanhood, and my New Mexicohood, but the music I was doing was something rather different. So although my lyrics partook of the storytelling tradition of cowboy music and country music, I wound up being part of this wave of guitar bands. Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham—I was in both their bands at the same time. When I started my own band, which debuted in 1982 at CBGB, with the not-so-imaginative name The Ned Sublette Band, we were playing loud dissonant country music. It wasn’t country punk, because I always got musicians who could really play.
GC What was it, then, avant-country?
NS It wasn’t even avant, it was just my music. But also, I had learned guitar from a Cuban, and I’d be working with rock musicians and I’d say, could we change the chord on the 4 instead of on the 1? Which is what Cuban music does. And they’d say, no, you gotta change it on the 1, you don’t change on the 4! I was writing habanera rhythms. Long before, I had started to think of the Bo Diddley beat as the fundamental beat of rock and roll, without realizing what that implied.
1985 was my big moment of enlightenment, just, bang! When I started going to salsa shows and listening to Latin music full time. That August I was in residence at Sundance Institute for two weeks, as a composer attached to the choreographer Karole Armitage. We were working on a piece that was never produced, though I did it as a solo show and with my band a bunch of times at places like Tramps and the Lone Star. And while I was there in Utah, I had these cassettes that I’d taped off Latin radio in New York, that I was listening to all the time, and I was thinking about the Village Gate. That’s when I wrote the tune “Cowboy Rumba,” August 1985, which I finally had the chance to release as an album project 14 years later. But—and this is an element of my next book, which is a memoir—I never really found my voice as a singer until I spent that year in New Orleans. I was 53 when we went to New Orleans and it took me that many years to connect all my dots. But once I was there, my singing changed. For the better.
GC More soulful? More funky?
NS It became more natural. I was a child in Louisiana, and I kinda had to repress all of that when we moved away, because there was nobody I could talk about that experience with. Back in Louisiana again, living in New Orleans as an adult, I connected with parts of myself that I had always known were there but were put away. In some important way I had come full circle, and my singing became, in a word, jazzier. I got a lot more style suddenly, and it was a very natural style. I had always tended to sing in a tense, forced voice, probably because I started singing in the era of ridiculously loud music. All that fell away, and I feel like I’ve finally become the complete musician that I always was trying to be and took a very long circuitous path to get to.
GC Let’s return to New York City and your participation in the downtown scene.
NS There was this circle of people that I was really tight with, and I’m still tight with.
NS Well, my most important friendship was with Peter Gordon, whom I’ve known since 1972. We went to grad school together at UC San Diego.
GC You studied…
NS Music composition. I have a master’s degree in music composition, which is the most vocationally useless thing you can possibly have. I studied with Kenneth Gaburo, Robert Erickson, Pauline Oliveros, in this modern American movement that we called “new music.” I came to New York a graduated young member of the new music scene, with a good understanding of structure. I think still my comprehension of structure is one of my strong suits. A pretty good array of techniques at my disposal. But not very well integrated into society! (laughter)
I worked with Peter Gordon on many things over the years and we still do things together all the time. The first night I was visiting New York, Peter introduced me to Arthur Russell, and we became good friends. Probably the most visible thing I did was play in the very loud and very exciting guitar band—no vocals—led by Glenn Branca, which was very popular downtown in ’80 and ’81. The sextet I was in was Glenn, me, Lee Ranaldo (subsequently a member of Sonic Youth, a group with a sound derived directly from Glenn’s band), David Rosenbloom, Jeffrey Glenn, and Stephan Wischerth. At the same time I was also playing with Rhys Chatham, whom Peter Gordon had introduced me to early on in my time in New York, and who started playing hyper-loud music for multiple electric guitars. In both bands, I was the guy who knew how to play the guitar in a legit sense. I had worked with John Cage and La Monte Young. Rhys had worked with La Monte, and was very sophisticated in his understanding of tuning systems. Rhys and I used to spend hours talking about tuning. I was the guy who tuned all the guitars, in both bands. Rhys made these pieces where a lot of the composition was the composition of the tuning, and we saturated the acoustic with it. This summer, I have just—what have I gotten myself into?—agreed to be one of the subconductors of a 200-guitar piece that Rhys is going to do at Lincoln Center in August.
It was a big, permeable world of music through which any influence might enter and cross. If I had the money, which I often didn’t, I might go see Arthur Blythe at the Tin Palace one night, hear Wozzeck at the Met another, go see the Clash—who I thought were total bullshit—at the Palladium, and then there was all the neighborhood music—a La Monte Young Dream House, or Defunkt, ESG—that whole scene was going on—and all my friends’ concerts. And as soon as hip hop came downtown, we were listening to that.
Ned Sublette, Dave Bartholomew, Jazzfest 2005.
GC If you could nail a distinctive ethic or aesthetic for that diverse group, what would it be?
NS To listen. Being a good listener means, you don’t talk or do something else while the music’s going on. You know? You don’t push “play” and then sit and have a conversation with somebody. You actually listen to the music, and you listen to it closely. Gradually since those days, more and more music is being made to be wallpaper.
The other thing that was special about downtown in the ‘70s was that the city was bankrupt. The whole country was undergoing a terrible recession, beginning, really, when the bill for the Vietnam War came due. Nixon took the country off the gold standard, and we got oil shocks and this frightening double-digit inflation. The job market disappeared. There was no job for me when I graduated with a master’s degree. I was getting food stamps. When I came to New York there were fewer opportunities to play than I had thought there would be, but nonetheless there was music going on all the time, and there were affordable places to live. When the city was bankrupt it was at its most creative. I remember that time—in many ways, a terrible period—as one when you needed a party.
GC Ahhh, the conditions!
NS And if there’s one thing I remember about the second half of the ‘70s, it was a party time. Which is part of why loud music won.
GC People too often think of the avant-garde as…
NS We never called ourselves that, never…
GC ...merely serious music responding to serious times, but a good party is never far from creative experimentation or tough times.
NS I’ve experienced three great moments of creativity amid chaos. One was New York at that time. One was Havana during the Special Period of the early ‘90s, after the disappearance of the Soviet Union, when Cuba’s economy imploded as their GNP dropped 35%, occasioning regular eight-hour blackouts and draconian food shortages. And the third was New Orleans after the flood. And in all three of those, partying was the affirmation that life goes on, that culture goes on.
GC So these creative scenes partially witness to the need for the spirit to persevere, the human spirit dealing with challenges: economic, political, racial…
NS And why is poor people’s music so insistent about being party music? Because no one needs a party more than poor people.
GC That observation speaks to the controversy in 2006 about whether it was appropriate for New Orleans to hold Mardi Gras celebrations a few months after Hurricane Katrina. Many thought it was carefree foolhardiness. But it was essentially an act of survival, a refusal to succumb to the disaster and its repercussions. The party—the celebratory ritual, really—was a way of coping.
NS Dancing doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re happy. But dancing means that you’re alive, and it’s exhilarating to be alive, especially when they’re trying to kill you. For New Orleans, white or black, Mardi Gras is the ultimate expression that you’re alive. If New Orleans didn’t have Mardi Gras, it wouldn’t be New Orleans.
Ned Sublette, Sundown, Mardi Gras Day, 2005.
GC And Mardi Gras, as experienced in New Orleans, is a rich, multi-layered event—a jubilant celebration infused with expressive rituals and traditions, as opposed to just catching beads or flashing from the wayside.
NS People have a very stereotyped idea of what New Orleans is. The entire year I was living there, the number one thing anyone outside of New Orleans would say if I mentioned New Orleans was about beads and tits. The irony is, that’s not even a part of New Orleans culture. That goes on for three blocks of Bourbon Street, and it’s done by tourists who come to perform their idea of what they think New Orleans is, but if a woman were to flash her protuberances at a real Mardi Gras parade on St. Charles, which is a family affair, she’d at the very least be given a stern talking-to.
And then the image of New Orleans changed and became about Katrina. Neither one of which is what the city is about.
I’d never experienced Mardi Gras until 2005, the year before the flood. And I frankly thought Mardi Gras was bullshit. And I didn’t realize. The last thing I expected was that I would have a spiritual experience on Mardi Gras day. But I did. I had a bona fide spiritual experience, seeing the Mardi Gras Indians on St. Claude Avenue, right there between St. Augustine’s [Catholic Church] and the Backstreet Cultural Museum.
GC Just a few blocks from Congo Square…
NS The thing that makes Mardi Gras so powerful in New Orleans is that the whole town shuts down for it. Everyone, whatever their sector of society, when Mardi Gras happens, the city stops and everyone does Mardi Gras all at the same time. I never experienced anything quite like that—not in the United States of America, anyway. Mardi Gras starts at daybreak and goes till sundown. A lot of people stay up all night the night before, but that feeling when you get up before dawn on Mardi Gras morning and you feel the whole city gearing up—this sense that something is rising and is about to happen—I’ve never felt anything quite like that. Then, of course, you turn on WWOZ and as the sun is coming up you hear James and Troy Andrews, “Talkin’ ‘Bout the Zulu King” with that great alto intro by Donald Harrison, Jr., or the Wild Tchoupitoulas’s version of “My Indian Red,” and it’s electrifying.
GC Yes, the streets become “freedom spaces,” so to speak—its songs, dances, and rituals assuming their role as colorful claimants of freedom. On the New Orleans streets, freedom widens its span and reveals its byways…
NS In The World that Made New Orleans, the unifying device is the street grid. Because New Orleanians, to get around, navigate this web of history on these peculiarly-named streets. Most New Orleanians don’t know who the streets are named for, but they know the name Carondelet because they drive Carondelet every day. They don’t know that he was the Belgian-born Spanish governor who dug the canal, lit the streets, tried to combat subversion inspired by the French Revolution…. I set myself the task of trying to find out who all the streets represented. I wrote a song called “Between Piety and Desire,” which is about New Orleans street names.
GC Piety and Desire: Two parallel adjacent one-way streets that run in opposite directions. How appropriate.
I live between Piety and Desire
On my one hand a blessing, on the other hot hellfire
By day I sweat, by night I perspire
At home between Piety and Desire.
I wrote that verse in 1992 when I visited the city, when I was visiting Bob Palmer, and I saw these two streets as I was driving around in my rented car. But I couldn’t ever think of a second verse. Twelve years later, when I was living in the city, I was trying to drive myself to the airport, and I stupidly tried following the map, but no, you can’t go all the way up on Broad Street, and I found myself at the corner of Jefferson Davis and Martin Luther King Boulevard. And suddenly I had the second verse:
O Death, where is thy sting?
I’ve been here six months and I don’t feel a thing
I hit a detour somewhere in the land of bling
And wound up where Jefferson Davis meets Martin Luther King.
If the street grid was a unifying device for The World that Made New Orleans, the unifying device for The Year Before The Flood, my next book, is the rhythm of the year. Anything less than a year in New Orleans is parachute journalism, because you have to watch the seasons wheel around and see how every week is marked by some annual observance of something. Occasionally other periodicities, such as the presidential election every four years, but in New Orleans, you’re constantly marking some kind of observance, with a ritual that is appropriate to that observance. And your job, the work you do at your job, is what you do to relax between these festivals, parades, and celebrations.
GC As the old New Orleans joke goes: There are only two seasons—festival and between festival.
NS I was in New Orleans this March, and after I got done with the Revolution Social Aid and Pleasure Club second line, I ran into a St. Patty’s Day parade — seven days before March 17th. I asked, why so early? They said, we gotta practice. Halloween lasted three days. There’s always another festival. And pretty much every Sunday, for a lot of the year, there’s a second line going on somewhere.
Ned Sublette, Desire Street, August 7, 2005.
GC In The World That Made New Orleans, you focus on movement—to the city, on the rivers, from New Orleans to elsewhere; while in your book-in-progress, The Year Before The Flood, you focus on the streets—its zest, its allure, its dangers. How’s that for pigeonholing your work?
In both, but especially in The Year Before The Flood, you suggest that the streets hold the city’s meaning—even its future. You make the argument that vernacular culture, particularly street culture in tightly-knit neighborhoods, is central to the life of New Orleans. Not only its cultural life, but also its economic and political life; for it is chiefly the streets of New Orleans, and the sounds they emanate, that capture the hearts and imaginations of those fond of the place. Once a metaphor for charm, playfulness, and infectious rambunctiousness, New Orleans is now held up as a symbol of indifference, incompetence, and callous neglect. This is due in no small part to the shift in the general perception of its streets. The poet Katie Ford poignantly captures this new sense in her poem “Earth” (from her recent collection, Colosseum):
If you respect the dead
and recall where they died
by this time tomorrow
there will be nowhere to walk.
It’s still too early to tell, although we’ve read innumerable dispatches delineating New Orleans’s post-hurricane changes—spiritual, racial, economic, cultural, and political—but I’ll foolishly ask, nonetheless: In terms of its vernacular culture, what do you think is changing? has changed? More importantly, how do you think New Orleans will adapt to the disintegration of its streets—and its communities?
NS It’s too early to tell what will happen. It’s too early to say whether New Orleans will survive. Maybe this is all just a prolonged final breath. Because if they don’t get those wetlands to the south of the city reinforced, if they don’t get those levees right, New Orleans is gonna be taken out. It’s the canary in the coalmine for what we might be seeing in other parts of the country. That tsunami in South Asia that killed 200,000 people? One reason the casualties were so high was that they had taken out the mangrove swamps and replaced them with shrimp and fish farms. The oil companies don’t even necessarily want South Louisiana to exist. They want to get the oil. And they’ve cut thousands of canals that erode away the land. The Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, which is a lethal water gun pointed at the low-lying areas, is still there. So if we don’t have real protection, we won’t have this city and culture. It’s by no means saved. It’s very much too soon to tell. But one thing we can see in the years since the tragedy of August 29, 2005, is how essential music is to the identity of the city. How essential it is to resisting the erasure of the city and its people. And also how creative the response of New Orleans has been. Music never stopped. The Banks Street Café was having gigs by candlelight before the power was back on. Coco Robicheaux was in a bar in the French Quarter when the power first came back, and he immediately took out his guitar and started playing. Music was one of the first things to get started again, and the response on the part of musicians has been so eloquent. It’s one of the most inspiring things I’ve experienced in my lifetime. Have you heard Terence Blanchard’s A Tale of God’s Will? Gave me goosebumps. At Jazzfest 2007, Henry Butler—this great figure of New Orleans piano, who lost his house, he’s living in Denver—he was back for Jazzfest, and every gig I went to Henry Butler was playing, and he was testifying. When a trumpet player drives six hours each way from Houston to make his Thursday night bar gig, you can feel his commitment in every note he plays. The second lines these days are sublime. I always finish these things by encouraging everybody to go there and see it for yourself, and participate in this culture that is so fundamental to who we are.
BOMB VIDEO: Watch Ned Sublette perform at BOMB’s 25th Anniversary event on June 14, 2006 at The Kitchen in NYC:
Garnette Cadogan writes about arts and culture for various publications. He lives in New York City. Photo: Christopher Myers.
All rights reserved. © Bomb Magazine, New Art Publications, and its Contributors.