Roger D. Abrahams, Nick Spitzer, John F. Szwed, Robert Farris Thompson. Blues for New Orleans: Mardi Gras and America's Creole Soul. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006. 102 pp. $22.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8122-3959-1.
Reviewed by Charles Hersch (Department of Political Science, Cleveland State University)
Published on H-Urban (May, 2006)
Carnival, Culture, and Creolization
"Mardi Gras Will Never Die" is the title of the last chapter of this thought-provoking book, penned by four eminent scholars of (African) American culture in the wake of Hurricane Katrina's devastation of New Orleans. The book is a reflection on the past, present, and future of Carnival, as they call "Fat Tuesday" in the Crescent City. Yet it is more than that, for the authors use Mardi Gras as a symbol of a larger cultural process they call "creolization," the process by which different cultures come into contact and create hybrid products, characterized by surprising juxtapositions of seemingly incompatible elements. Yet the resulting culture is not simply a mixture, for it creates something new that is more than the sum of its parts. Blues for New Orleans describes the creolized nature of the music, dance, and costumes surrounding Carnival, from Congo Square, New Orleans, to the Congo region in Africa.
Roger Abrahams, Nick Spitzer, John Szwed, and Robert Thompson criticize others who have written about these subjects for their "failure to think across national borders" (p. 5). In contrast, the authors of this book strive to connect cultural activities in the American Gulf Coast, the Caribbean, and Africa, the diasporic region they call the "Black Atlantic" or "the Greater Caribbean" (p. 13). They find common features in early New Orleans jazz and the music of Martinique and West Africa. The use of batons by Mardi Gras Indians is connected to stick fighting in Trinidad, parades in Montevideo and the Kongo, and the African-American cakewalk. At times the effect of this approach is dizzying, as the reader is flung back and forth across the Atlantic as well as backward and forward in time: "During the same period when musicians and dance leaders were achieving a place in New Orleans, on Martinique and Guadeloupe the adaptation of European musical instruments to African-based time-lines was creating a music not unlike jazz, an independent invention but so like what occurred at the birth of ragtime that the parallels are worth much further study, as are the developments that occurred in Havana with the birth of the son style, rediscovered by American audiences in Ry Cooder's film and recording of the Buena Vista Social Club" (pp. 56-57).
Such connections, many of them not available in other literature on New Orleans, jazz and Mardi Gras, are fascinating. At the same time, the reader is left wanting to know more about creolization. What connects the various elements, and what precisely is the nature of the connections? Is there a causal link between them? The authors drop some intriguing clues, like the argument that the marketplace (Congo Square or the French Marketplace) is central to creolization, but this idea (like many others) is never fully developed. At times they speak of "give and take, invention and reinvention" and "dialogue and disagreement" (p. 28). In general, however, they sidestep these larger issues: "It would be tempting to try to trace influences or sources one way or another. But there are complex truths beyond reflexive interactions. Most likely, parallel and independent invention was taking place" (p. 35).
In particular, I wanted to know more about the politics of creolization. What about issues of power and domination? Creolization was tied to colonialism, slavery, and racism--the partners in the mixing were not equals. The authors take two approaches to such issues. At times they speak of Mardi Gras as a site of resistance to racism, a vehicle for self- assertion and affirmation in the face of repression. In other places they argue that Carnival reflected racial divisions rather than challenged them. The relationship between these competing hypotheses is unclear, and at times they fall back on the melting pot or "gumbo" model, which avoids issues of power altogether. The book would have benefited from a clearer and more sustained theoretical perspective; while there is some reference to racial theory, important books like Paul Gilroy's The Black Atlantic (1993) and the literature on hybridity curiously go unmentioned.
Blues for New Orleans accomplishes its objective of producing a creative and illuminating response to Hurricane Katrina, in the process shedding new light on the culture of New Orleans. At the same time, I wish it had striven for more. The book contains no index, bibliography, or footnotes, for which the authors ask forgiveness: "as academics driven by the urgency of recent events to produce this book in record time, we felt that we wanted the liberating force of the moment" (p. 5). Yet capturing "the moment" has its cost for the scholar hoping to expand on the book's insights, who will remain unaware of the primary sources used by the authors. This omission is particularly frustrating since so much of what is in the book is fresh and exciting. Had the authors eschewed time pressures and created a book that elaborated on its arguments, more fully grounded them in theory, and backed them up with proper documentation, it would have been a real gift for years to come. As it stands now, Blues for New Orleans is a good one-hundred-page book, but it could have been a great two-hundred-page book.
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Charles Hersch. Review of Abrahams, Roger D.; Spitzer, Nick; Szwed, John F.; Thompson, Robert Farris, Blues for New Orleans: Mardi Gras and America's Creole Soul.
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