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The heartbeat behind the tragedy

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January 22, 2008

To find out how New Orleans came to be our country's musical heart - "a city that inhales and exhales music" - author Ned Sublette (above) draws many far-reaching lines in his new book, "The World That Made New Orleans" (Lawrence Hill Books). Lines from jazz and rhythm & blues to Africa and Cuba. Lines between Mardi Gras Indians and rap music, Saint-Domingue and voodoo, French Creoles and zydeco. Lines to revolution, religion, sugar and tobacco, banjos, funeral marches, and Louis Armstrong. Lines to the 14th-century origins of the word "funk," the first Mardi Gras, and to Roy Brown's 1947 "Good Rockin' Tonight," probably the first rock 'n' roll record.

But most significantly, Sublette draws lines to the skilled slaves who built most of the Crescent City, dominated its culture, and often survived on not much more than their music. "The World That Made New Orleans" traces the city's early social history through its post-Katrina aftermath, "when New Orleans was left to die," unearthing the musical, cultural, and political lineage that shaped the song of the region.

It's a different kind of music book, focusing on movements and eras rather than cataloging artists, unfolding with a remarkable number of details that you never knew you wanted to know. And like the living cultural stew of its subject, it's an energetic and fascinating read, never a dusty history lesson. Sublette, who drew raves for "Cuba and Its Music," has produced another important resource - and the best argument yet for why we need to save New Orleans. [Tristram Lozaw]

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