Part I: New Orleans Shares Unique Music with the World

Toussaint L’Ouverture By Françoise-Elisabeth, dite Eugénie, Tripier Lefranc, née Le Brun (1797-1872) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Crescent City is one of a handful of places in the United States that shows off its uniqueness.  The food, architecture, music, and even the way they talk lets you know that you’re in a land of different expressive content. Why is that?  Perhaps we should stroll down history lane for some answers.

New Orleans was founded in 1718 by the French. They controlled the territory until 1763, when Spain took governance over the city and surrounding area for about 38 years.  Under both French and Spanish control the institution of marriage, the forming of intimate relationships, and general political practices were very relaxed. In 1801, the French realized power over the Louisiana territory again. Two years later, Napoleon sold the territory to the United States in what Americans know as the Louisiana Purchase.

While control of the territory was being transferred to the United States, there was a rebellion taking place in Haiti, an uprising led by a person of color — François-Dominique Toussaint L’Ouverture.  Around 1804, refugees from the Haitian conflict started to arrive in New Orleans, swelling the ranks of free black people in the Union’s newest slave state. Between 1810 and 1820, New Orleans had the largest community of free blacks in the nation, surpassing Charleston, South Carolina.  The black community of New Orleans enjoyed great prosperity and realized, on average, a high level of education.

In the period from about 1807 to 1830, there was a raging battle between many of Louisiana’s politicians who wanted to close the door on allowing more immigrants of color to enter the state. Meanwhile the free black French-speaking Creoles fought to enlarge the population of citizens more like themselves.  During this time, New Orleans continued to receive a large number of Haitian refugees, some who came directly to the city and others who came after spending time in Cuba.  In this period of early statehood, the influx of African slaves who were brought into the Port of New Orleans and offered for sale in the city’s slave markets continued.  As the slaves were sold in and around the city, they started mating and marrying Native Americans. These relationships created a new subculture that would eventually affect New Orleans art and musical expression from that time until the present day.

In our next part, we will talk more directly about Africans, French, Spanish, Americans and Europeans from other countries on the continent. We will discuss the impact each group had on the music coming out of New Orleans and ultimately how that music has influenced the music of this nation and the rest of the world.