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New Orleans, oh how I love thee! Let me count the ways.
But where to begin? The list is actually infinite, requiring an algebraic expression. But here are a few highlights.
One must begin with jazz. New Orleans is the city that gave the world jazz. Because of a confluence of historical accidents, New Orleans brought together the diverse cultural influences and circumstances that combined to explode into a new living form of music that the whole world loves.
The great crime of slavery brought unimaginable woe and hardship to many unfortunate and undeserving people, but like all evils it brought some good along with it. Slave traders kidnapped people from different parts of Africa and brought them together in New Orleans, including people of different African cultures who had been too far apart to know each other in Africa.
As a French colony, New Orleans observed the Napoleonic Code, which required its citizens to take the Sabbath seriously. Everyone was supposed to observe the Sabbath and put down their labors on Sunday, even those who were held in bondage to do forced labor.
On Sunday, enslaved Africans were able to gather in Congo Square in New Orleans where they could socialize, sell their crafts, make music, play drums, sing and dance. Congo Square brought people together from different parts of Africa as well as from all the other cultures of the world that converged in New Orleans.
New Orleans was one of the great ports of the world and people came there from virtually everywhere. There were the French, of course, who founded the city. For a while it was ruled by the Spanish. Of course the British Empire had a presence there, and after the Anglo-American colonies became the United States, the new country took over New Orleans as part of the Louisiana Purchase.
All of those world cultures converged in New Orleans and the cultural cross-fertilization was as rich as anywhere in the world. Most jazz historians agree that the first sparks of what became jazz started in Congo Square, growing out of a combination of African, European, American and even distant Asian cultures that were present in the city.
Once the jazz DNA was spawned, it spread like a wildfire of joy around the world.
Rhythm and Blues
New Orleans also spawned a great deal of other music besides jazz. Back in the 1950s when rock and roll burst forth in America, one of its originators, Fats Domino, said, "What they call rock and roll today is rhythm and blues music and I've been playing it for 15 years in New Orleans." He had a point. It didn't come out of nowhere.
Blues, country, ragtime, Cajun, Creole zydeco, and many other varieties of music grew, prospered, combined and evolved in the rich soil of the Mississippi Delta and the electrical multicultural atmosphere of New Orleans. Calypso and reggae flowed in from the Caribbean. Mexican music flowed in from what is Mexico today as well as from the part that the Americans seized in the 1800s. The folk and classical music styles of Europe, Africa, Asia and Latin America all came in via the immigrants, the slaves and the shipping trade. The musical magnet of New Orleans sucked in everything and stewed it up into new combinations and hybrids. And the process is still continuing.
New Orleans is a music Mecca, a boiling pot that produces endless recombinant varieties of music as rich as the cultural melting pot that has produced it for the last three centuries.
New Orleans produced Louis Armstrong, the greatest of the early originators of jazz. He is credited with introducing swing, or "modern time," to the musical vernacular. A man of prodigious talent, from whom innovation poured forth effortlessly, Armstrong was also an enormously magnanimous person. New Orleans is wise to recognize his importance, and his name and image appear ubiquitously in New Orleans.
Louis Armstrong International Airport.
The New Orleans airport is named for Louis Armstrong. That in itself is proof that the city has its priorities straight. Most cities name their airports for politicians who have succeeded in rising to levels of power that allow them to have their names put on airports and other public constructions. There are thousands of such political figures, some universally respected, some of dubious character. But there is only one Louis Armstrong. Hats off to New Orleans for getting that right.
Good-time music floats through the atmosphere of Louis Armstrong airport, and the friendly spirit of New Orleans radiates from the people who work there. The airport also provides free Wi-Fi. How many airports provide Wi-Fi free? New Orleans Louis Armstrong does.
New Orleaners love parades and rarely miss an opportunity to have one. Even funerals are occasions for parades, somber when carrying the deceased to burial, celebratory when the spirit is released. At any time or place in New Orleans a parade may emerge.
The wild celebration of Mardi Gras originated in New Orleans and thrives today. Every year as the Christian season of Lent approaches, New Orleaners celebrate like there is no tomorrow, and they do it in a way that is unique to the Crescent City. Purple, green and gold beads, feathers, cakes, masks, wild costumes, floats with giant sculptures parade through the streets and anything goes, as long as it's fun and in good spirits. New Orleaners know how to have a good time better than just about anyone.
The Great Mississippi
The Mississippi drains the water from 31 states, approximately that same broad swath of America that was once part of the French territory of Louisiana. The Mississippi was the main artery of transportation for trade for practically the whole of America before the emergence of railroads and the automobile. It is the reason New Orleans was established and thrived as the greatest port in the world for centuries. The spirit of America is rolling down the river of the mighty Mississippi.
Many would put food at the top of the list of what makes New Orleans great. New Orleans is one of the great food cities. You can start on any end and eat your way through the city, but don't expect to ever finish. There's more good food in that city that you can ever eat. Its food is as rich and multicultural as its music. New Orleans is on the gulf, on the river and on the land and each produces its own kinds of food. Each of the cultures that has inhabited New Orleans has left its mark on the cuisine, from café au lait, to gumbo to mint juleps.
New Orleans was where the term "cocktail" originated for a mixed drink. New Orleans has raised mixology to as high a level as any place. Certain kinds of cocktails are particularly associated with New Orleans, such as the Sazerac and the Hurricane.
Iron railed balconies
The balconies with the iron railings that clearly identify New Orleans in photos are characteristic of the French Quarter, but they are actually a relic of the Spanish occupation of the city. The earlier ones are designed and built with wrought iron. The later ones with cast iron. All are splendid and precious, and if you woke up from a long, deep slumber and saw one, you would immediately know you were in New Orleans.
Besides the unique geographical features that made it a perfect harbor and determined the site upon which to build the city, multiculturalism is the source of most of what is great about New Orleans, including the music, food, art and architecture. Multiculturalism has swept the world in the 21st Century. But it was already well established in New Orleans centuries ago.
New Orleans is a city under sea level. Like Amsterdam it remains dry and habitable because of a sophisticated system of levees that hold back the Mississippi and the great Lake Pontchartrain.
Africa was the continent that gave the earth the gift of humanity. The African diaspora spread the rich African culture around the world. The great energy and spirituality of African music has spread around the world through African American styles of music, including jazz, rock and roll and rhythm and blues. New Orleans was the hub of that explosion. New Orleans has a higher percentage of people of African origin than most cities outside of Africa. The U.S. Census Bureau says 60 percent. If you love Africans, you will love New Orleans.
Ultimately it's the people that make any city what it is and the people of New Orleans are their own particular brand of sunshine. Their speech is music. Their smiles are radiant. They carry the culture of New Orleans with them and it shines forth from their faces when you encounter them.
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