Upon lecturing about New South sounds at Princeton University in April, the issue of the future of Southern music and how that's tied to New Orleans resurfaced in my consciousness. Like many Americans, I have not done enough to help our brothers and sisters from the Crescent City resettle to life wherever they may have been cast away, nor applied enough pressure on government to ensure that most African and important cities -- to the South and the nation -- do not permanently disappear. Just as the horrors and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the Bush administration's blatant neglect are generally being erased from our collective agenda by officials, the media and weary public, it's clearer than ever that if New Orleans is utterly lost, so goes the health and spirit of this land.
Recently, two different events were held which put the survival of New Orleans' cultural traditions in the foreground: the city's annual JazzFest and the sixth EMP Pop Conference in Seattle. Having seen Cyril Neville in Austin last month and heard him speak truth to power about the whole terrible will to remake New Orleans as Beignet-Disneyland, it's unsurprising that the Neville family is boycotting the festival for the second year in a row.
Their glaring absence is telling, yet if you still want to hit the scene in full swing, JazzFest continues May 4-6 at the city's Fair Grounds Race Course. Standout acts in the mix include local jazz patriarch Ellis Marsalis, Brooklyn black Indian rocker Martha Redbone and myriad others, from The Allman Brothers Band to ZZ Top.
Meanwhile, the theme of this year's EMP Pop Conference -- "Waking Up From History: Music, Time and Place" -- as selected by conference honcho Eric Weisbard, was apparently chosen with pre- and post-Katrina New Orleans in mind. To be sure, the seasonal gathering of rock critics and pop-centric academicians featured a lot of esoteric presentations that would not delight many beyond the music geek tribe, significant talks on other worthy southern subjects -- especially U. Wisconsin Ph.D candidate Charles Hughes' history of country soul -- and even jazz papers with a different regional bent ("Black Los Angeles and the Diffusion of Early Jazz").
Yet it was that Saturday afternoon's two successive juggernaut rhymes, beats and Nawlinze panels helmed by the esteemed Louisiana-born expert on same, Ned Sublette, that have already garnered ecstatic reviews from the veteran posters at ILM and elsewhere.
Katrina and race were the spooks in the museum throughout this year's conference (again), and the serious dialogue on these topics began the evening before at the University of Washington. A marvelous two-way conversation between Hawaiian Cant Stop Wont Stop author/hip-hop activist Jeff Chang and Afro-Latin scholar Gaye Theresa Johnson about New Orleans, James Brown and the One. Johnson's work focuses on the unsung cultural influence of the Mexican 8th regimental band in New Orleans circa 1884, which helped birth jazz by training novitiates including Jelly Roll Morton and Sidney Bechet. Abetted by Chang's thread from the Meters to Brown's revolutionary revision of rhythm in the 1960s to the situation of the early '70s South Bronx giving birth to hip-hop riding on a lineage of "Spanish tinge," the brilliant Johnson linked the historical invisibility of the Mexican 8th to current "greed first" misrule of New Orleans restoration.
Cuban music historian, singing cowboy, etc. Ned Sublette triggered his exploration of colonial New Orleans with an impassioned cry for the Bush Administration to be "investigated, impeached, indicted and incarcerated." He was followed by Larry Blumenfeld (on a lawsuit stemming from the city's tripling of '06 parade fees), Alex Rawls and Don McLeese who tempered their outrage with "belief and hope" about post-Katrina music. Native son Rawls, though, conceded "people are slowly coming around to the realization that the city will never be the way it was." Next, Sublette was joined by Chang and scholars Oliver Wang, Garnette Cadogan and Joe Schloss in rethinking the multi-kulti tangle of hip-hop roots, extending investigations of the genre's trajectory from Africa and 'Nawlins to NYC and back again to the South.
The New Orleans moniker "The City that Care Forgot," which used to refer to the purported easygoing and carefree nature of its residents, has now taken on sinister overtones. Whether benign neglect of Nawlins' multicultural classes kick-starts another Dixie sound revolt remains to be seen. We all pray the city will be rocked again by the "Congo dances" of folk of African descent. At least some of our era's finest thinkers and movers, both within and without the South, are trying to recoup a measure of optimism and deploy their brilliance and anger towards the greater good of New Orleans natives and our nation. I want to be in that number.