by Mary Sparacello
New Orleans and Saint-Louis, Senegal, though separated by more than 4,000 miles, are forever connected by a shared history of French colonization, slavery and trade.
An international collaboration of scholars is working together to understand the deep connections between the two port cities that reverberate even today. Academics and artists hailing from Africa, Europe, the United States and Canada will meet from April 22 to 25 at Tulane University in the concluding segment of an ambitious two-conference series comparing the two cities over 300 years.
Intellectuals first gathered at the Université Gaston Berger in Senegal in June 2012 to explore the same issues they’ll discuss in New Orleans; both conferences were partially underwritten by Tulane alumnus Alan Lawrence. A book will be published after this month’s conference in French and English.
“We want to have an academic conversation that is really going to break boundaries,” says Emily Clark, associate professor of history at Tulane and conference co-organizer. In collaboration with another conference participant, she expanded her own cutting-edge research on mixed-race quadroons in 19th-century New Orleans to include the Signares (mixed-race women) of Saint-Louis.
Music is a fundamental element of the culture of both cities, and as such, will be an important part of the New Orleans conference just as it was at the Saint-Louis convention. “Music is a linchpin connecting those histories,” says Tulane’s Hogan Jazz Archive director Bruce Raeburn, whose paper explores how Senegal factors into the identities of New Orleans jazz musicians.
The colloquium culminates the afternoon of April 25 at the New Orleans Historic Collection with a session on musical traditions of Senegal and Louisiana, followed later that evening by a public concert. New Orleans banjo player Don Vappie and Senegalese musical group, the Njum Waalo Band, will perform.
The Senegalese musicians will play an instrument called a xalam that is an ancestor to the banjo and is made with wood and goatskin. The Senegalese performers will also be at the Congo Square African Marketplace during the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. They will demonstrate how to make and play the xalam, and in doing so, will bring their traditional African music to the world.
“It’s a very special thing,” says Clark.
Mary Sparacello is a writer in the Office of Development.
Tulane University, School of Liberal Arts, 102 Newcomb Hall, New Orleans, LA 70118, (504) 865-5225, email@example.com