This loss is a human one first and foremost. But as word spreads that (among others) New Orleans R&B legend Fats Domino remains unaccounted for after the storm, media is more mindful this is cultural devastation too–destruction of primary information about the beginnings of American music, and of a currently thriving community of jazz and rap and everything betwixt.
To better understand the enormity of the situation from that perspective, we spoke with musicologist Ned Sublette. Last year Sublette, musician, label co-founder, and much-applauded author of Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo, spent time in New Orleans as a Rockefeller Humanities Fellow at Tulane University, doing hands-on research for a book about the city and its fundamental relationship to American musical history. Below are some of Sublette’s reactions to the loss:
“The destruction of New Orleans, from a cultural point of view, is too awful to contemplate. And at the same time, everyone had contemplated it. Anyone who came to have dinner last year at my house in New Orleans heard me describe pretty much what happened, in advance. Not because I’m clairvoyant, but because it was well-known what would happen.
“The hurricane was not preventable, but the flooding that occurred was preventable. That levee break was preventable, the destruction of the marshland was preventable. And even if the flooding were not preventable, there was another failure, which was the complete failure of civil defense.
“It’s very simple: the plan was–and everybody knew it–the plan was that the poor would be left behind to drown.
“As of Friday, I was 102,000 words into a book [I’m writing] about [New Orleans]. So I have been for months deeply synthesizing this. So for this to hit me now is just like–it’s a mindfuck. Simple example: three weeks ago, I had somebody drive me past Fats Domino’s house so I could take a picture of it. And that house is under water now. It’s like the whole time I was there, I was on input, remembering things that might not be there next year, and I was conscious of that as I was doing it. I would say to people, it’s as if we’re midway between life and death here.”
On the loss of primary historical information:
“Everything from documents to recordings to things that are in private hands [are lost]. Many of the more serious archives are on higher floors–presumably many of them have survived the flood waters. But what condition are they in? How quickly will cultural workers be able to get in and rescue the patrimony which is very important in understanding where American music came from?
“For instance, Gwendolyn Midlo Hall , the historian, went around from parish courthouse to parish courthouse looking at documents that many times were not considered to be of great importance. She managed to compile a database of the identities and nationalities of 100,000 enslaved Louisianans, from primary documents sitting in Louisiana. There are many secrets that those documents might yield up with some hard-working historians to examine them.
Congo Square and its Importance to American Music:
“Congo Square, there were gatherings of black people dancing and playing ancestral drums and singing in ancestral languages probably since the introduction of slaves by the French in 1719. There were gatherings in the French period, there were gatherings in the Spanish period–the gatherings continued up to before the Civil War. In the first half of the century in the United States, the English-speaking slave owners prohibited the playing of drums by blacks, because they could be used to signal rebellion.
But in Congo Square–it was the one place in the United States that black people were allowed to play drums with their hands. It’s the one place where an African-derived drumming tradition directly continued. It may be that the Mardi Gras Indians, the groups of black men that dress in fantastical African-style costumes imitative of the motifs of the Plains Indians, it may be that their tambourine tradition derives from this. If so, this is the only direct descendant of the African hand-drumming tradition in African American music. In the years before recordings, this very fertile period between the end of slavery and the beginnings of recordings when we don’t quite know what happened and what it sounded like, when there was music going up from Brazil to North America, the step that turned the music into jazz was taken in New Orleans. We know that.”
New Orleans’s Connection to Rock:
“If you’re only looking at it from the rock and roll perspective, New Orleans is a fundamental city in the story. In 1949, Dave Bartholomew, who I hope evacuated in time, led the house band that backed up Fats Domino on his first hit, “The Fat Man”, and became the first professional R&B studio band, the forerunner of the kind of thing that they would have in Motown. Singers like Little Richard, Lloyd Price, Ray Charles would come to New Orleans to play with this house band. Many of the first R&B and rock and roll classics were recorded in New Orleans.
Rebuilding New Orleans:
“You cannot abandon New Orleans. You can say that New Orleans has no viability as a business or industrial city. But if our history and culture as a nation mean anything, New Orleans is central to it. And if we can save New Orleans–if we haven’t lost it already–it has to be put back and saved right. If we can somehow turn around the hateful direction this country is going in, and really save and fortify New Orleans, and really show the world that we as a nation can save our own cities, that our concept of homeland security means something, then we can be proud of ourselves. Right now we can’t.
“We’re not only watching history disappear. History is watching us disappear.”
[note: updated 2 September 2005, 9PM–NBS]