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The World That Made New Orleans by Ned Sublette

The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square isn’t a book about jazz, but jazz is always lurking just beyond the final page. Ned Sublette’s studiously detailed but accessible account is concerned with the city’s earliest history, and its primary business is long finished by the time the first stirrings of jazz are heard late in the 19th century. But Sublette, whose previous book delved into Cuban music’s deep historical roots and its permeation into global culture, is too skilled and insightful a historian and-as a musician, record label founder and radio program producer-too invested in music as historical barometer to simply forego its crucial role in the city’s biography. All that took place in the swamp at the bottom of the Mississippi from its earliest years of colonization fed into the development of its unique cultural makeup, and music was never a stranger.

Much of the music that seeped into the soul of young New Orleans was, of course, brought over by slaves, whose story is irrevocably intertwined with that of the Europeans who owned them and absorbed more from African culture than they would ever likely have admitted. Typical of Sublette’s attentiveness to intriguing minutiae is his riff on the origin of the word funky, which he traces to the year 1330. In a manner that is both instructive and entertaining, he notes that it was associated originally with rank smells such as body odor and tobacco smoke, which places into context the word’s usage in the song title “Funky Butt” by ragtime pioneer Buddy Bolden in the late 1800s: “To judge from slavesmasters’ complaints,” Sublette writes, “the slaves’ funk bothered them considerably. The funk had its own power. Funk was slavemaster repellent.”

Sublette writes in an engaging manner-he may be the first writer to use the word “boinking” in describing what Thomas Jefferson was doing with slave Sally Hemings-but The World That Made New Orleans is never fanciful or lax in its treatment. Sublette has written an engrossing, vibrant narrative made even more so by the events of the past couple of years.

Originally Published