Whither N.O. Black culture?

Recently I blogged on a scene from HBO’s Treme where a tour bus pulled up to a group of Black New Orleanians initiating a funeral ceremony. The mode of “funeralizing” the man was deeply African. The driver of the bus did not at first recognize what was going on and bulled his way into the gathering from the window of his bus. Once he realized it was a funeral and these people were residents of this ruined neighborhood, he showed respect and pulled away. The scene as the group watched in wonderment and bemusement as the bus trundled off was poignant.

Its poignancy lay in the determined but bedraggled group’s lone stand against an encroaching modernity which will wrap and package their culture to make money and will be an unstoppable juggernaut. So when I read today of the growing Hispanic presence in New Orleans and the declining Black population there, I flashed on a scene where someone is trying to merge the ancient African-based cultures of New Orleans – French Creole, Haitian, plantation slaves, Caribbean islanders, and so on with the Hispanic.

That would seem a natural fit; there has been a Canary Island community in N.O. for a very long time; N.O. was at one time a Spanish possession; many Caribbean islanders are from Spanish-speaking islands like Cuba and Puerto Rico. But this is not what we are talking about. The people coming to N.O. now from Spanish-speaking countries, primarily Mexico, do not share the African-based culture of N.O.

That would not be a problem if it were not for the money. If the Black population declines even more, there will have to be a readjustment; even if it remains at current levels, there exist few resources for those participants in the African-based culture to draw on for survival, let alone to thrive. Nevertheless, if the people are there to carry on the culture, it will survive in niches like churches, nightclubs, dance halls, juke joints, and the street in Black neighborhoods. All this would give us a continuation of that culture if it were not for the money.

The money will exploit whatever and whoever is there. If it is Mexican workers, they will contribute their notion of what the music, dance, celebration, food, dress….. in a word, the culture, is. And due to the perspective they bring, it will not be that of the African-based culture. It may be productive, dynamic, fascinating in its own right, but it will not be the African-based culture of New Orleans.

Cultures are always in flux. The Blacks in N.O. only recently emerged from decades of a segregated existence. The other side of that, aside from the poverty and ignorance, was the immense cultural creativity. Whites always had a pronounced effect on that culture, everything from the language to the instrumentation of the music. But underneath all that lay the colossus that is Black music in the New World, derived from the musics and the dances of Africa.

The word behemoth came first to mind, and behemoth does have some definitions which fit but also it seems to carry some negative connotations and is associated with the word “monstrous”. Trying to find a word that covers this heaving, bulging, undergirding of American culture that is Black art is itself a trying experience. Some wonderful books have been written about it, but one has only to listen to a piece of traditional, African-based music to grasp the huge gap between that art and all others, even though the others may themselves be derivatives of some form or other of Black music. For me, one way to make the difference clear is to note the point of entry for a line of music; it is often quite removed from where other musical traditions would enter a phrase.

The other nights (I attended two nights in a row, the second time with my wife) I fixed my gaze on three Haitian drummers from the Vodu religious traditon of Haiti and watched for an hour and a half each night just how and when they struck their drums. I came away convinced that I must begin listening and playing every day of the years I have left. I have only, after fifty-five years of practice, begun to scratch the surface of this music.

What I fear will happen to the music and the dance and all the accoutrements of celebration associated with the African-based culture of N.O is extinction. The Cajuns face similar extinction of their culture due to linguistic and economic pressures. Grand traditions like the way funerals are conducted may give way to reinactments rather than real funerals. Imagine professional managers conducting a funeral in a Black church…… well, you don’t have to. You have movies like Crash which show the film director “blacking” up the show. I can just hear the money boys declaring, “We want more feathers on those outfits” and “How about some gun play during Mardi Gras to draw in the 12-14 male bracket” along with “Where are the hats, we need more and gaudier hats b/c Black women always wear big hats to church”
– well, that stereotype is kind of true 🙂

Let’s be honest here: these professionals have only one interest and that’s money. They will change, dilute, adulterate, pervert anything in order to produce profit. That is what they do and there is nothing wrong or immoral about it. It’s just that if you would like to conduct your funerals your way, you are going to have to keep them out despite their blandishments of cash.

And that is what will happen in N.O. as the old layers continue to decay and new layers convulse into new patterns of social interaction. All you have to do in order to see how delicate this is is to read the history of Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, in Mobile, in N.O. itself. At one time, Mardi Gras or Carneval were not only run by Whites but had a more colonial or creole-in the sense of Whites born in the New World-flavor. Blacks created their own version and the history of these versions can be traced in the islands e.g. Cuba and on the mainland e.g. Brazil, N.O. back into the early days of slavery.

That’s not the point. The point is that the African-based culture of N.O. now exists in diaspora and when that happens, you are going to have the children growing up outside that culture other than what they experience in their families. Just as the descendents of Irish, Greek, Italian, Russian and other immigrants to this country are shocked by how much what they experienced as “their” culture has diverged from that of the Old Country, sometimes not even understanding that the culture they practiced here was derived from an earlier version of that culture, so the descendents of N.O. Blacks will be bewildered when watching videos of crews practicing the songs and dances they would use in the celebrations.

And so we come to the issue of preservation. We must first know that the culture of 1950s N.O., musical and otherwise, Black and otherwise, is something we have moved past. The issue is maintaining the essential elements of that culture so we do not have the sort of thing that happened to jazz and then rhythm & blues as they were transformed by people outside the culture into lounge music and rock and roll happen to the artistic culture of Black N.O. The same thing is facing the Cajuns, the Creoles, the Canary Islanders, and other ethnic entities as they face a changing N.O.

Here’s an example of a cultural trait that, once lost, is not easily recaptured. I had known my dad from the age of 5, when he returned from the South Pacific. Even though he and my mom were divorced soon after the war, I saw him frequently. I may have written elsewhere that I had little to no contact with other Italian-Americans and was shocked when, late in life, I watched the HBO show The Sopranos, and recognized many traits that I thought were peculiar to my father. No, they were just the way the children of Southern Italian immigrants acted.

Anyway, long before that I got another cultural shock: my dad loved opera, at least Italian opera. So when Pavarotti came out with that blockbuster recording of Neopolitan songs, I had my dad over to listen to it. I had heard him sing Italian songs before and he had even taught me one or two, and I had noted something in his voice.

Nevertheless, when he began to sing along with Pavarotti, I nearly fell off my chair. Everything about his singing was so incredibly…. well, exotic, foreign, Arabic. The melisma, the tone, the timbre, the voice quality, the notes, the embellishments, the…. I can’t describe well what I heard, but it was nothing I had heard before.

Of course, I immediately related it to the history of the region his parents came from (Molise), facing the Adriatic and the cultures of the Eastern Mediterranean. But wow! It seemed an entirely different approach to song than what I associated with the way I had grown up. The only thing I could compare it to, and it’s an apt comparison, was the sound my wife made when she sang the gospel songs out of the Black Pentecostal church she was raised in. Those notes, too, seemed to come from a very different place.

And it is exactly this sort of thing I see being lost or transmogrified into a slick shtick suitable for casino entertainment.

And here we come to the lack of a power base in the Black community. My son just this morning said he was looking for a term other than ’the Black community’ that would be more inclusive, esp. of oppressed minorities such as Native Americans and Hispanics. I suggested ’oppressed minority people of color of the world’ but he didn’t think that was catchy enough.

But for me, if much of this culture I’ve been discussing is to survive, those who support that culture need to pull together. It certainly cannot be a racially exclusive effort but neither can it be an amalgam of various cultures. That’s not what we are talking about. Those who support the tradition of Indian ragas do not think combining it with French music is the answer. Unfortunately, due to the readiness of the world for this music which has, along with the blues and gospel traditions in Black music, shaped the music of much of the world at a popular level, money will always be a lure.

That money can be used wisely e.g. to finance traditional N.O. festival music by supporting the clubs, the crews, the churches, but it can also destroy the integrity of the culture and its music and dance. If there are people who still think the “right way” to “funeralize” someone is to have a band march the body to the grave site and then march back to the funeral home playing joyous music to which there are specific dance styles displayed in the second line, then they must have some resources and support for this activity. If they were sunk in poverty with no access to the outside world, a sad state we do not want repeated, there would be little problem; that’s how and where the musical culture of N.O. developed. But education, jobs, travel, intermarriage, financial rewards all beckon and will not be denied. That is why special support is required.

This all leads to disturbing discussions with titles like “whither Black America?”

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