Monday, February 15, 2010

African Roots of New Orleans Brass Bands

Featured recently in the University of Iowa "Be Remarkable" campaign, Dr. Richard Brent Turner is the author of a new book Jazz Religion, the Second Line, and Black New Orleans. Here is an excerpt from the feature:

The second line is the group of dancers—sometimes thousands strong—who follow the first procession of church and club members, brass bands, and grand marshals in New Orleans jazz street parades, including jazz funerals.
A typical jazz funeral looks something like this: The crowd starts to gather near the close of the church service, often a Catholic mass at a site like the venerable St. Augustine’s in Tremé, the oldest African American community in the United States.
The casket is placed in a horse-drawn carriage, and the brass band leads the second line—members of Black Indian tribes wearing ritual masks, others twirling umbrellas, everyone dancing in rhythm—to the cemetery. The procession can take hours. Later, participants gather at the repast to eat, swap stories, and rest.
“These are multilayered rituals,” Turner says. “They reflect the West African spiritual philosophy that involved the entire community in the funeral ritual and sees the cemetery as a crossroads where human beings interact with the ancestral world of spirits.”
Through it all plays the music, leading the crowd in sorrow and celebration and shifting from one to the other in just a few notes, a power Turner calls “almost magical.”
This mingling of music and spirituality originated in Congo Square, the New Orleans site where slaves performed African drumming and dancing every Sunday from the late 1700s to the mid 1800s. The second line began there, drawing on African culture, Haitian Vodou, and French-Catholic influences.

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