It's hard not to take New Orleans at face value.
She's beautiful, unique, mysterious, and sensual. All of these things are easily recognized the moment one crosses any bridge that leads to her, a southern city awash in natural beauty and unexpected charm, New Orleans really is a magical place.
We often get lost in her obvious appeal, letting ourselves be overwhelmed with the most primal of urges she seems to bring out of all of us, but it's this early entrapment that has taught those who stay with her to realize the depth of her soul. The longer I stay here, the harder it becomes for me not to consider New Orleans a woman. The curve of her streets gets the best of even the most long-term of residents, and her scent is inescapable. From the salty scent of crawfish from Tujague's clinging to one's collar, to the roasting coffee in Riverbend. From the mind-altering odors wafting from the gutters of Bourbon street on hot, sticky mornings to the undeniable perfume of Night-blooming Jasmine; wherever you go, New Orleans just sticks to you.
Sure, all of these things are indelible parts of the Crescent City, but to understand and appreciate the gifts of our present, one must understand the past, and that there was once something not-so-beautiful about this city and this country. Over the past 300 years, New Orleans has been a catalyst for culture; changing the viewpoints of outsiders while seemingly unchanging herself.
This change initially began between 1724 and 1813, when there was a large community of freed slaves living in the greater New Orleans area, and Code Noir was implemented by King Louis the 14th. Code Noir laid the groundwork for the legal slave trade in Louisiana, and also gave slaves the right to have Sundays off due to its roots in Catholicism. It did not, however, give them the right to congregate.
It was during these years, that slaves began to meet all across the city; in backyards “Back of town” outside the French Quarter, along various levees, and even on a sliver of land on Bayou St. John. During these gatherings, slaves socialized and were able to trade items, although it had been forbidden by Louis’ loosely implemented Code Noir. It wasn't until 1817 that the mayor of New Orleans sought to put an end to the many gatherings across the city, and slaves were thus confined to have public meetings only in Congo Square. Congo Square was still just a clearing of land, but it was far enough to mute the noise, and close enough that slaves couldn't run away without being noticed. While Congo Square is often considered the birthplace of modern American music, it’s true inception actually happened all over the city.
Once slaves were relegated to one location, the many little gatherings turned it one large weekly meeting on what we now consider sacred grounds. From auctioneer blocks and stocks, to a whites-only circus, finally to merchant stands and drum circles, the face of Congo Square had changed considerably over 100 years.
Sundays at the square had become quite the spectacle, and provided an attraction for tourists from music-limited, Protestant states across the country. These travelers would bring their own slaves as well, who were often refugees from the Haitian Revolution. It was during this time that the practice of Voodoo went from private, intimate ceremonies, to public displays of celebration and entertainment. African religions merged easily with Catholicism because of its acceptance of a variety of saints, spirits, and deities. It was through this fusion of various African cultures, combined with the influence of French and Spanish rule that “creole” was born.
History is like a song, and once the early tourists witnessed this history in the making, it was a song that remained stuck in their heads. Something about the strong pulse of the previously banned African drums, we suspect had a lot to do with maintaining the heartbeat of something that had recently been born, and had only begun to grow.
These drums continue to echo a song in our heads today. They backed Fess at the Fairgrounds, boosted Booker out in Europe, inspired Allen all the way down in a coal mine, and taught Irma what love is. Even today’s most popular bounce artists request it in their lyrics, demanding the DJ give them “That Beat”. It’s this beat, this generations-old rhythmic pulse that seems to keep the city going, even if just faint background noise, it’s there. From farm to kitchen, brewery to bar; the city of New Orleans has sustained itself on a rhythm that’s been going for the last 300 years.
This month we’re raising the volume, tuning out the static, and listening to our city and the echoes of her original melody. This collection is meant to honor all the sonnets and songs she and her musical children have ever been kind enough to share with us.
Join us in saluting some of the city’s most defining musical patriarchs and places who through the struggles of racism and oppression, birthed a new form of art that would change the pace of a city, and create waves throughout the world.
Happy Black History Month.