October 25, 2007
There is a neighborhood bordering the French quarter on Rampart Street called the Treme.
On the Rampart side of the Treme is a large green space, and within that green space is an area called Congo Square. Things have ALWAYS been a little looser down here in New Orleans, even during the hey dey of the slave trade.
Traditionally, slaves were not allowed to have drums or any vestige of musical expression from their homeland, specifically for the very pragmatic reason (from a slave owner’s point of view, anyway) that music, and particularly drums, were a form of long distance communication that could signal a revolt, escape, or a threat to the status quo. Plus the more miserable slaves were, the easier they were to control.
This was not the case in New Orleans…Slaves had Sunday afternoons off. Maybe it was due to the French and Spanish owners, who were a little more “cosmopolitan” than their American counterparts. …But slaves were allowed to congregate, and more importantly, play music, play the communicative rhythms of Africa, dance the Bamboula, worship in any way they saw fit, and meld and weld the new “European” sounds (and instruments) they were being exposed to in their daily lives to the music they brought from Mother Africa.
I’m not an expert by any means, but it is generally excepted wisdom that that little patch of grass in the Treme was ground zero for several forms of what is now considered original American Music, from blues, gospel, jazz, funk,rap, hip-hop, soul (George Gershwin, for Chrissakes…no Congo Square, no “Rhapsody in Blue”, or Aaron Copeland, or Leonard Bernstein…)…you name it…really except for more Appalachian centric forms (country, bluegrass) pretty much all popular music as we know it sprung from Congo Square., in the Treme.
Now bearing this historical “In Utero” period of American musical history in mind, I’d like to talk about the New Orleans tradition of “The Second Line”
I really don’t know the total history of the Second Line, but I do know that from the nascent beginnings in Congo Square, it eventually evolved into three basic forms in Modern Times….two types are “planned”.
The most familiar is the funeral procession, where a brass band leads the procession (and the onlookers, and neighborhood denizens form a “second line” behind the main procession),playing sad and mournful dirges until the place of internment is reached….on the way out of the cemetery, the band then plays the up tempo music, it gets funky, and everyone dances their way back to the party….its a way of sending off someone’s spirit with good vibes as they cross to the other side.
So even if New Orleans is known for putting the “Fun” in funeral, this first form of jazz, the African American spiritual and the improvisational and poly tonal and poly rhythmic freedom found within the form, was solidified during funeral celebrations….deeply steeped in the spiritual context in which it was solidified.
The other type of planned second line is actually a street party that is planned by various neighborhood organizations, called Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs. Several Clubs pool resources, hire the funkiest brass bands in town, and a large parade is thrown, the parade route, and the second line itself, disclosed and promoted by word of mouth….Traditionally, they would take place every Sunday from Labor Day through the Mardi Gras season.
These are HUGE street parties…thousands show up for these events, there are entrepreneurial opportunities galore (People sell beer and Bar B Que out of the back of their pickup trucks) and the bands are literally running as they play, only to stop at a preplanned neighborhood watering hole, so the second liners can catch their breath, and have a cocktail….than, yippee, its off to the next stop.
These street parties are massive, collective, celebrations…but the thing that strikes me when ever I attend one is how powerful it is when 2-3 thousand folks are relieving the stress of their weekly lives simultaneously…its a powerfully moving experience to be in the middle of that, and again, a spiritual one, even though the music isn’t traditionally spiritual, but more poly rhythmic funk.
Last, but most definitely not least, is the spontaneous second line, and that’s what I would like to focus attention on…as it is closest to the second line’s true origins.
A much beloved neighbor or neighborhood musician passes away…the word spreads from house to house, door to door, or in modern times, cell phone to cellphone….musicians congregate in a central location and start to play spirituals to honor the beloved friend, neighbor, and if a musician, contributor to the culture.
Neighbors hear the music and naturally form a second line behind the band as it meanders on an unplanned route through the neighborhood.
Those who can’t dance, sit on their stoops and porches, to celebrate the spirit of the neighbor crossing over…and to sing the old songs as the children in the street need to hear them, and most importantly learn them.
Approximately three weeks ago, one of these spontaneous celebrations popped up in the Treme to honor the sudden passing of a beloved neighbor and tuba player, Kerwin Williams….as the second line grew in size, and the mourners were singing “I’ll Fly Away”, 20 NOPD Squad cars flew into the neighborhood, sirens screaming, it’s passengers outfitted in riot gear, truncheons at the ready.
The crime? Disturbing the peace, and parading without a permit. Two of he leading musicians refused to stop playing.This is what their fathers did, this is what their grandfathers, their great grandfathers…as far as their families can remember, this is who the were, and what they did.
They were summarily hog-tied, thrown in a squad car, and arrested.
Who sends a riot squad in to break up a cultural tradition that has been occurring for well over one hundred years without incident?
This is a very good question…I have some theories on that that I’ll share in a later post.
Here’s the deal, fellow planetarians: This is not an isolated incident, and its been happening before Katrina ever hit the shores of Lake Ponchartrain.
There has been a systematic strategy employed by the NOPD to crack down hard on second lines and Indian “parading” under the flimsy excuses of parading without a permit or “disturbing” the peace. The collective second line celebrations that are planned by the Pleasure Clubs were shut down by the police charging 500% of their normal fee for procurement of a police detail.
I’m not blaming police here folks. They do their best, but lets not forget that there is a chain of command…most importantly, they do what they’re told.
Politically, as I’m sure you’ve heard, things are a bit Byzantine down here….but I would like to know who’s giving that order, that prime directive….I would like to know where the buck actually stops.