New Orleans Second Line

 

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As you read this, an exhilirating event may be taking place in a renowned southern city.  Men, women, and even children, in tailored, Crayola-colored suits, hats, and shoes are dancing and gyrating ahead of a brass band through a Louisiana neighborhood.  They are keeping alive a tradition that dates back to the early 1900’s…The Second Line in New Orleans.

The Second Line is a rhythmically throbbing, vibrant event that combines the African, Caribbean, and African-American traditions of pageantry and celebration.  It mixes colorfully bedecked club members and the rousing, jubilant anthems of a brass band to create a seemingly spontaneous parade that winds its way through some of New Orleans’ oldest neighborhoods.

The Second Line pulsates through New Orleans’ streets with a percussive, syncopated rhythm resonating from ancestral Africa and the Caribbean.  The Second Line is often seen as a loosley organized jam session, but it is one of the few cultural rituals that survived the years that surrounded slavery in Louisiana.  Previously enslaved African-Americans created benevolent societies, pooling meager resources to bury their dead.  Society members also created ceremonies to honor the deseased with processions that may have included a mule drawn pall and friends escorting the corpse to its final resting place.  African-Caribbean tradition viewed death as a new beginning in the “spirit world” once a body had been “cut loose” or buried.  This core belief resulted in a “celebration” of the passage, allowing mourning family and friends to assuage their grief through lively music and upbeat rhythmic dance.  The societies were precursors to modern day Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs (SAPC’s) – organizations that have maintained this unique custom through fellowship and hosting their own annual Second Line, an event which celebrates ancestry as well as the members’ creativity and style.  The assembly jooks and weaves through the streets, picking up onlookers or “second liners” along the way.

The Second Line takes place in New Orleans primarily because of the city’s unique history that involves historic Congo Square.  In the 1700’s, it’s marketplace allowed slaves from various plantations and work sites to sell their wares, dance and play music that came directly from Africa and the Caribbean.  They were permitted to have a “free” day on Sunday to socialize and exchange ideas.  This resulted in a large, self-confident slave community that thrived upon continuing its African traditions as much as possible.

Excerpt from the coffee table book, “Freedom’s Dance – New Orleans’ Second Line”, by Eric Waters and Karen Celestan