I often tell first-time visitors that New Orleans is not just about Bourbon Street.
Now, with the bicentennial of statehood upon us, I’d like to point out to residents that New Orleans history is not just about Mardi Gras. Or second lines, historic bars, boxing or horse racing (although all of those are fun).
No, more highbrow pursuits figure in local history, too. New Orleans has had a number of cultural firsts, from the first opera house in the country to its first American classical composer. The latter’s name was Louis Moreau Gottschalk and, even more interesting, he was a Creole, with a father from London and a New Orleans mother with a Haitian background.
“Gottschalk was transformed by the music he heard growing up as a child in New Orleans,” says composer and musician Edward Anderson, a founder of NOLA Art House Music, an organization dedicated to raising awareness of and appreciation for contemporary New Orleans music.
Gottschalk, Anderson continues, was born in 1839 in a house at Royal and Esplanade, and it isn’t much of a stretch to imagine him spending his formative years listening to “the rhythms and music of the neighborhood.”
Later, after Gottschalk had moved to Europe and begun composing the pieces that would make him a sensation in music circles there, he started incorporating the sounds of New Orleans into his classical pieces. An early notable example was a piece called La Bamboula, Danse des Negres, Opus 2.
“It was based on a song that the sweet potato vendors used to sing in the streets of New Orleans called Quan Latate-Latchuite,” Anderson explains. “Gottschalk used the bamboula rhythm from that song.”
If you’ve heard Hey Pocky Way, Anderson adds, you’ve heard the distinctive bamboula beat. The bamboula rhythm (it was also a dance) can be traced to the drum that produced it, an instrument made from a particular kind of bamboo and brought to the city by Haitian emigrants.
Gottschalk wasn’t the only one taken with the bamboula beat. Some 60 years later, Anglo-African composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor would base his piano composition The Bamboula (African Dance) on the same song.
Now, Anderson has created a third riff on the theme with Bamboula Take Three, a work composed in the jazz idiom that will have its world premier on Sunday at the new theater in The Mint. The concert is presented by NOLA Art House Music, with help from The New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park, the Louisiana State Museum, WWNO radio, the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation, the City of New Orleans and NolaVie.
“What I decided to do to celebrate the bicentennial of Louisiana in general, and New Orleans in particular, was to focus on the blend of African and European aesthetics that made this city such a centerpiece of culture,” Anderson explains. “Hence Gottschalk. He was the perfect representation of who we were.”
It was also a chance to commemorate an important but under-appreciated local figure. Gottschalk is relatively unknown these days, despite his accomplishments – back in the day, both Hector Berlioz and Frederic Chopin praised his works and talent.
So Anderson, with help from jazz composer and musician Kyle Saulnier, “took Gottschalk’s music and brought it up to date, incorporating contemporary music.”
The new piece is influenced by the classical sonata form, which Gottschalk used as well. Anderson’s piece also contains musical elements as diverse as second line styles, from sashay to the more liberated Uptown style, jazz, Caribbean tunes and even a little bounce and spoken word.
Sunday’s concert will feature a notable group of local jazz musicians performing the debut of Anderson’s 20-minute composition, with Anderson on trumpet, James Westfall on vibraphone, Evan Christopher on clarinet and tenor sax, Max Lemmler on piano, Oliver Bonnie on baritone sax, Khari Lee on soprano sax, Ocie Davis on drums, David Harris on trombone and David Pulphus on acoustic bass. In addition, Dr. Walter Harris will narrate and Chuck Perkins perform spoken word.
All in all, it promises to be a one-of-a-kind performance.
“I love the experience of having an idea and bringing it into existence,” says Anderson about his work as composer. “And then when it’s performed, it’s changed by the musicians who play it, and it blossoms many times, becoming greater than what you created.”
Sunday’s two performances of Bamboula Take Three: The Legacy of Congo Square will take place at 2 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. at The Mint, 400 Esplanade Ave. They are free and open to the public.
Renee Peck is editor of NolaVie.