Musician and “Afropop Worldwide” radio producer Sublette delivers an intense and thoughtful “companion volume” to The World that Made New Orleans (2008).
Where that book was more an examination of the city’s cultural heritage, here the author skillfully synthesizes his personal history, his passion for music and an account of his fellowship as an independent scholar at Tulane, which concluded in the portentous summer of 2005. First, Sublette recalls his childhood in Natchitoches, which revealed to him the true horror of the Jim Crow South. The author contrasts this with the amazing African-American music culture that grew in opposition to this dehumanization. A true obsessive, he writes expertly of the intricate cross-pollination of blues, funk, soul and other genres. When he arrived for his fellowship, Sublette was made nervous by the racial tension, the prospect of violence and the possibility of a catastrophic hurricane, as evoked by the near-miss of Ivan following his arrival. He finds “The Big Easy” to be a “thoroughly ironic nickname” for this city, which in that pre-Katrina year was stressed and physically decrepit. Sublette has many experiences both good (music, food, local people) and bad (close calls with crime and violence, including the revelation that a notorious murder occurred in their rented house two years before he moved in). But even as he enjoys himself and conducts extensive research on the New Orleans music scene—creating numerous interesting, entertaining narrative tangents, like his examination of the city’s raunchy hip-hop culture—the author remains aware of the city’s fragility: “I knew I was seeing something imperiled.”
A powerful, heartfelt and sometimes angry take on a great American city.