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How Cities Can Build a Cultural Identity

What cities can learn from New Orleans' music scene.


All around the world tonight, the music will be loud and festive.  I wish I could be everywhere at once. As carnival season peaks and ends at midnight, cities in the parts of the world influenced by Roman Catholicism – and that’s a lot of places – will stage huge celebrations of revelry, music, culture, and extravagance.

Literally millions of people will let the good times roll to the samba in Rio, to soca in Trinidad, and to French and African music in Nice, where carnival has been staged since the thirteenth century. For Roman Catholics, it’s the last bash before Ash Wednesday begins the somber season of Lent, and many cities make sure it’s a memorable one.

In the United States, of course, by far the biggest and most famous carnival is the New Orleans Mardi Gras. No big city in America has a richer local culture or is more steeped in music, without which New Orleans would be as hollow an identity as New York without skyscrapers or San Francisco without hills and the Bay. Other U.S. cities host significant amounts of music, of course – the industry hubs in Nashville and Austin, the blues in Chicago; even Seattle, Athens and Minneapolis had their runs. 

But in New Orleans, music isn’t hosted so much as lived. It’s been intrinsic to the city since, well, since there has been much of a city to speak of.

New Orleans is universally acknowledged as the birthplace of jazz, which begat boogie-woogie, which begat rhythm and blues, which begat rock and roll, which begat funk, which begat hip-hop, and so on. Mix in the French Creole influence and a brass band marching down a street in the Marigny district, leading a "second line" of followers half-walking, half-dancing, strutting to the rhythm, always the rhythm, and heaven help you if you can stay in a bad mood. And I didn't even get into the cajun and zydeco parts.

Talk to someone from New Orleans and chances are she can tell you the names of ten amazing musicians you’ve never or barely heard of, and her ten will be better than your ten, no matter how urban-hip you think you are.

It’s a city where music is essential to place, and thus to a shared local culture. And while the big festivals like Mardi Gras and Jazzfest can be fun – more so in the lead-in than the finale, truth be told – it’s not really about the biggies. It’s about the everyday.  You can live in New York for months and not hear or see a Broadway musical. But you can’t be in New Orleans for two days without being exposed to the music.

The big events – whether in New Orleans or elsewhere – remain significant, though, and not just to the tourist industry. In a sense, they reaffirm the culture, telling the rest of the world, "This is who we are." Carnival music and culture also influence the everyday, as references spring up year-round. There are lots of Caribbean and Brazilian songs about carnival events.

Many of New Orleans’ most beloved songs derive from the extravagant – and elaborate - rituals practiced by the famous Mardi Gras Indians. The purple, green and gold Mardi Gras colors aren’t just flown during carnival.

If you believe, as I do, that cities are essential to any kind of sustainable future - and if you believe that commerce alone is not enough to sustain a worthwhile place (and I’ve made my view on that pretty clear recently), then look to the culture. It’s why we want to be in a particular place, other things being equal. And it will help a place’s sustainability if that culture is both strong and locally grounded. If a place is going to be cared for, it needs to remind us what is special about it.

No major city in the U.S. does that as well as New Orleans – and, if the Crescent City is also about food, language and attitude, its music comes first.

Now, do yourself a favor and listen to the Neville Brothers absolutely kill on a classic New Orleans Indian song, "Big Chief," traditionally associated with legendary NOLA musician Professor Longhair. Don't miss the full-on vocal that comes in at about the one-minute mark. It sounds best cranked up loud and, if there’s someone in the next office you’re concerned about, crank it up anyway. 

Hell, it’s Mardi Gras:

Photo credit: Lee Celano/Reuters. This post originally appeared on the NRDC's Switchboard blog.

About the Author

  • Kaid Benfield
    Kaid Benfield is the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and co-founder of Smart Growth America. More
    Kaid Benfield is the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and co-founder of Smart Growth America. He is the author or co-author of Once There Were Greenfields (NRDC 1999), Solving Sprawl (Island Press 2001), Smart Growth In a Changing World (APA Planners Press 2007), and Green Community (APA Planners Press 2009). In 2009, Kaid was voted one of the "top urban thinkers" on, and he was named one of "the most influential people in sustainable planning and development" in 2010 by the Partnership for Sustainable Communities. He blogs at NRDC's Switchboard.