Nine-year-old Caidyn is perched on the front porch steps of a house in The Ninth Ward of New Orleans, in a neighborhood known as the Musicians’ Village. He attempts to play “Gloryland” on his trumpet while his 7-year-old cousin Mike pounds away at his drum with makeshift sticks. A few feet away, Calvin Johnson and Shamarr Allen, both established local musicians, keep the beat. It’s not a scheduled music lesson: Both Johnson and Allen were coming home from rehearsal when the kids approached them for help learning the hymn they wanted to play at an aunt’s funeral the next morning.
Johnson, 30, a bandleader who also teaches in the K-12 system, says, “When you go back to the various Nations of Africa, there were tribal communities. The village took it upon themselves to raise individuals, and that’s something that has followed [them] through the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. We took that with us to America. We had that in New Orleans until Katrina, which broke up the neighborhoods. But we were recipients of that upbringing. That’s what we do because it was done for us.”
In a culture where children produce dizzying footwork to Mardi Gras anthems and are often given brass instruments before they can reasonably hold them, music is more than an extracurricular. It is a predominant part of their identities—particularly for black Americans, who make up about 60 percent of the city’s population. The reverence for rhythm stems from a legacy that began in the early 1800s. New Orleans—Congo Square, to be exact—was the first place slaves and free people of color were permitted to congregate, dance, and play music. Here, West African beats were woven into European sounds, influencing the birth of jazz around a century later and merely a few blocks away.