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Smithsonian Institution
Louisiana Where Music is King1: Americans Old and New2: Midwestern Crossroads3: Southern Fusion4: Louisiana: Where Music is King


New Orleans
by Maida Owens

When one mentions Louisiana, many people think only of New Orleans and neglect other regions of the state. Many misunderstandings exist about the distinct and complex culture that evolved in this metropolitan center. Since first inhabited by Native Americans, New Orleans, like Louisiana as a whole, has been governed by the French, Spanish, and Americans, with each making distinctive contributions. In addition, other ethnic groups, in particular Africans (both French speaking African Creoles and English speaking African Americans), Italians (primarily Sicilian), Germans, and Irish, have also made significant contributions to the cultural landscape of the city. Today, New Orleans is a multicultural metropolis with significant communities of Jews, Latins (from throughout the Caribbean, Central and South America), Greeks, Haitians, Filipinos, and Asians, including the largest concentration of Vietnamese in the United States (Cooke and Blanton 1981).
       Contrary to popular stereotyping, New Orleans is not a Cajun town, even though many Cajuns moved to New Orleans after World War II and grew to dominate certain parts of town, such as Westwego and Marrero on the West Bank. The first and largest migrations of the French to New Orleans were not Acadian. French nobles and army officers blended with the Spanish to create a Creole community. Creole, as used in New Orleans, refers either to the descendants of the French and Spanish settlers or to people of French, Spanish, and African descent who were known as gens de couleur libres or free people of color. These two groups were culturally intertwined, yet maintained separate identities.
       Most Africans in Louisiana arrived as slaves from Francophone West Africa, but later some arrived as free people of color from the Caribbean. Two thirds of the Africans arriving before 1730 were from the Senegambia region of West Africa. Senegambia was home to many culturally related groups with similar languages, but most Africans brought to Louisiana during this time were either Wolof or Bambara (Hall 1992). After the Haitian Revolution of 1791 1804, another influx of Africans, including many free people of color, arrived by way of the Caribbean. Most of these Africans from the Caribbean were originally from Dahomey (now the Republic of Benin) and Nigeria (Hunt 1988).
       The significant number of Africans from closely related cultures enabled them to retain many cultural traits and contribute to the Creole culture that was developing in New Orleans and south Louisiana. For example, the Haitians brought the shotgun house and the voodoo religion to Louisiana. The word "voodoo" is derived from the African word voudun which means "deity" in Yoruba or "insight" in Fon (Bodin 1990). Free people of color dominated many building trades in New Orleans, were often highly educated, and as chefs played an important role in the development of Creole cuisine for which the city is known (Reinecke 1985). Okra, an important ingredient of gumbo, and the word "gumbo" itself (derived from Bantu nkombo) are African.
       After the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, Americans, referred to as Les Americains, arrived and settled upriver or uptown from the Creole district of downtown with Canal Street being the dividing line. Irish fleeing the potato famine of the 1840s settled in the area which became known as the Irish Channel between the Mississippi River and the Uptown Garden District. The 1850s saw another influx of Germans. After the Civil War, even more English speaking African Americans arrived to join the population of freed slaves. The distinction between African Creoles and African Americans began to blur after 1918 (Reinecke 1985:58 59), but still today Louisianans at times refer to people not descended from the French or Creole culture as Americans. Jazz played a role in this cultural fusion because ethnic groups that did not otherwise mingle were drawn together through jazz. African Americans, African Creoles, Italians, Germans, and Irish were all instrumental in the development of this new art form. In New Orleans, musical traditions range from brass jazz bands to African Creole and African American Mardi Gras Indians chanting call responses that have been called the most African of all musics found in North America. African American Delta blues and Latin salsa are some of the most frequently heard musics today in local clubs, along with the distinctive New Orleans rhythm and blues made famous by the likes of Fats Domino, Professor Longhair, and the Neville Brothers (Smith 1990).
       Parading is another cultural expression cherished by New Orleanians. Mardi Gras, or Shrove Tuesday, celebrated the day before Lent begins, is a community wide celebration that embraces all segments of society. The elite krewes (groups) sponsor elaborate parades and balls, neighborhood groups celebrate with organized walking clubs or less elaborate truck parades, and working class blacks celebrate dressed as Mardi Gras "Indians." Garbed in elaborate feather and bead costumes and identifying themselves as tribes to emulate and honor Native Americans, Mardi Gras Indian tribes such as the Wild Magnolias, the Golden Star Hunters, and the Yellow Pocahontas, compete for recognition of their costume, song, and dance while parading on Mardi Gras day.
       Parades also occur at other times of the year. The Irish, who also contributed to the distinctive "Yat" dialect that resembles the Brooklynese characteristic of many New Orleanians, celebrate St. Patrick's Day (March 17) with what is essentially a Mardi Gras parade with green floats filled with revelers who throw to the crowd the ingredients for potato stew. Jazz parades still accompany some funerals, and the Mardi Gras Indians return to the streets for Super Sunday (the Sunday closest to St. Joseph's Day, March 19). It is still common among African Americans for the male oriented, secular Social and Pleasure Clubs and the Mutual Aid Benevolent Societies to enter the streets throughout the fall, and the female dominated church organizations to have second line parades as part of their spring celebrations. The marching and parading traditions inspire and incorporate specific craft traditions, such as ribbon baskets and sashes for the Benevolent Societies' marching clubs, and costume and mask making for Mardi Gras.

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