Music of New Orleans in Smithsonian Folkways Magazine
By Joan Hua, Smithsonian Folkways Magazine guest editor and web producer
In celebration of the release of New Orleans Brass Bands: Through the Streets of the City and anticipating the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Smithsonian Folkways Magazine’s New Orleans issue offers historical, personal, and ethnographic perspectives on this hub of traditional music.
Our most voluminous and media-rich issue yet presents a cover story by music historian Robert Cataliotti, who writes about the eighteenth-century drum circle. This weekly gathering took place at Congo Square in New Orleans, the first place in North America where African people were allowed to gather. The unusual blend of cultures in this locale brought together rhythmic grooves and pulses derived from Africa, Haiti, Cuba, and elsewhere, forming the foundation of the distinctive sounds of New Orleans: ragtime, jazz, brass band, Mardi Gras Indian, rhythm and blues, and funk. The area’s migrant cultures also inspired and enabled the invention of the drum set in the late nineteenth century. In his moving piece, Nick Jaina writes about the snare and bass drums that originated in European militaries, tom-toms brought by Chinese laborers, and Turkish cymbals that eventually assembled to become “the drums.” John Swenson’s Archive Spotlight chronicles generations of Mardi Gras Indian music—a family-rooted tradition of African Americans parading in extravagant American Indian–themed suits, symbolizing comradery with the American Indian spirit of resistance. Also writing on transformations in the city, Rachel Breunlin from the Neighborhood Story Project teamed up with Bruce Sunpie Barnes, veteran New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park ranger, to examine community-based music education that endeavors to sustain the brass band tradition and help confront social injustices.
Nearly a decade after Hurricane Katrina, social challenges persist in New Orleans, and music communities remain in transition. Acclaimed jazz clarinetist Michael White recounts how the jazz funeral concept of both mourning losses and celebrating life, “optimistically transcending to a new existence,” supported him and many others on the road to recovery. Alongside White’s personal story, we present a startling photo essay by photographer Hugh Talman as well as a new interview video documenting the devastation in the aftermath of the storm.
Finally, as our fifth installment of the ongoing From the Field feature in partnership with the Society for Ethnomusicology, Barley Norton reports his new fieldwork on ca trù. Since UNESCO officially recognized this diminishing form of Vietnamese sung poetry in 2009, waves of state-driven and independent revitalization efforts have emerged. Norton’s videos capture ca trù in both the traditional setting and in a transformed, modern theater rendition.