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Richard Brent Turner
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RICHARD BRENT TURNER A faculty member explores the African roots of New Orleans culture as a scholar and a participant.

It started with the music. Brand new to New Orleans, Richard Brent Turner had ventured out into the heavy August night in 1996 when the sound from a nearby club caught his ear.

Stepping inside, he found a brass band holding sway over a rapturous audience. The next day, he discovered similar music, energy, and community in a jazz street parade wending through the downtown Tremé neighborhood.

Over the following decade, Turner immersed himself in the street parades, jazz funerals, Mardi Gras Indian traditions, and Vodou-inflected spirituality that characterize New Orleans’s African American culture. The result is his new book, Jazz Religion, the Second Line, and Black New Orleans, published by Indiana University Press.

“This research didn’t start in the traditional way,” says Turner, University of Iowa professor of religious studies and African American studies, who taught for three years at New Orleans’s Xavier University, then at DePaul University in Chicago. “I happened into this community and fell in love with the culture and the city.”

Turner’s book traces elements of New Orleans culture to west and central Africa via Haiti, exploring how second-line traditions create unique opportunities for African American religious, artistic, and political expression. But alongside his scholarly study of cultural history runs a personal narrative that recounts how his New Orleans neighbors and friends embraced him, especially when he needed them most.

The second line is the group of dancers—sometimes thousands strong—who follow the first procession of church and club members, brass bands, and grand marshals in New Orleans jazz street parades, including jazz funerals.

A typical jazz funeral looks something like this: The crowd starts to gather near the close of the church service, often a Catholic mass at a site like the venerable St. Augustine’s in Tremé, the oldest African American community in the United States.

The casket is placed in a horse-drawn carriage, and the brass band leads the second line—members of Black Indian tribes wearing ritual masks, others twirling umbrellas, everyone dancing in rhythm—to the cemetery. The procession can take hours. Later, participants gather at the repast to eat, swap stories, and rest.

“These are multilayered rituals,” Turner says. “They reflect the West African spiritual philosophy that involved the entire community in the funeral ritual and sees the cemetery as a crossroads where human beings interact with the ancestral world of spirits.”

Through it all plays the music, leading the crowd in sorrow and celebration and shifting from one to the other in just a few notes, a power Turner calls “almost magical.”

This mingling of music and spirituality originated in Congo Square, the New Orleans site where slaves performed African drumming and dancing every Sunday from the late 1700s to the mid 1800s. The second line began there, drawing on African culture, Haitian Vodou, and French-Catholic influences.

Turner discovered the power of these traditions firsthand after his mother’s death in 1997. A spiritual mentor in Vodou and second-line culture helped him find peace.

“I’d been reaching out to churches, but until then no one had been able to give me anything I could hold onto,” Turner recalls. “My mentor in African religion described death as a transition to the ancestral world, and the healing rituals she taught me helped lighten the load of my grief.”

He experienced similar power at the July 2005 jazz funeral for Big Chief Allison Tootie Montana, the New Orleans luminary who helped guide Turner through the second-line world.

“People danced for four hours in 90 degree heat, some of them going into states of trance,” Turner recalls. “But beyond that, it was like an enormous family reunion, drawing thousands of New Orleanians from the city and from all over the country.”

Some had made the trip knowing a storm was brewing. Within a few weeks, Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath would alter New Orleans forever.

Turner has maintained strong New Orleans ties, collected accounts from African American survivors of Katrina, and surveyed the impact firsthand, most recently last March. The disaster hit some traditional hearts of second-line culture especially hard—now-demolished housing projects, for example, were once home to master dancers, musicians, and parade regulars.

“A lot of folks feel frustrated and abandoned,” Turner says of the years since Katrina. Some of the old spirit of the second line has returned, but New Orleans has changed economically and demographically, and so has Turner’s plan to eventually retire in the city.

“However, I am still a New Orleanian,” Turner says, “and I love my city.”

by Lin Larson; photo by Tim Schoon

January 25, 2010