Mississippi River
Delta Region
Global Warming
City History


Cultural Highlights
Written by Polina Bakhteiarov

 New Orleans’ unique culture and traditions constitute one of the most important reasons for why the city should be rebuilt and preserved. The multi-layered history of New Orleans was derived from the city’s initial function as the major slave trade port of the United States, which brought in countless Africans, many of whom remained in the city as both slaves, and eventually, free men and women. Today’s traditions of NOLA’s neighborhoods grew out of the customs of this wide variety of people in the late 1800’s. The city established its own style of food, storytelling, and religious ceremonies because its population was so diverse and unique, unmatched by that of any other American city. Below, we consider just some of the cultural aspects that are vital to the spirit of New Orleans.


Parades and festivals

New Orleans is known domestically and internationally as the “city of festivals,” with the most famous parade of all being Mardi Gras, or “Fat Tuesday.”

Paradepicture from: http://www.asergeev.com/pictures/archives/2006/504/jpeg/13.jpg

No one can exactly pinpoint the birthdate of this gigantic carnival because it formulated as a hybrid of multiple festivities that had been taking place throughout the city since its Westernization began in the 18th century. The French had been hosting masked balls and carnivals in New Orleans since as early as 1718, and they continued to do so until these festivities were banned by the Spanish, but later reinstated by the Americans in 1827 (Mardi Gras History, 2006).

Mardi Gras is essentially comprised of a collection of “krewes,” or bands of people, who construct their own floats and/or organize themselves to parade during the festival (this also applies to the other carnivals of NOLA). The first krewe, formed in 1857, was called the Mystick Krewe of Comus, and, in essence, single-handedly initiated the tradition of Mardi Gras, since the second krewe – the Krewe of Rex – was not established until 1872. Today, the massive parade entails everything from beads to masks to culinary specialties like King Cake (Mardi Gras History, 2006).

And yet, there are numerous other festivals that might be less well known to outsiders but are just as important to the people of New Orleans. They include events such as the Jazz Fest and Heritage Festival, pictured below.

Jazz FestPicture from: www.purplemoon.com

    This festival showcases a mixture of local and national music talents and is essential to the preservation of New Orleans’ indigenous musical culture. Featuring famous acts like Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Dave Matthews, Fats Domino, the Meters, Dr. John, Yolanda Adams, Elvis Costello, the Rebirth Brass Band and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Jazz Fest is also a folk festival that is the perfect platform upon which local talent can showcase their compositions. In addition, there are numerous other parades and carnivals that occur during carnival season, such as Festival National (celebrating Francophile culture), Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival, French Quarter Festival, and the New Orleans Wine and Food Experience, just to name a few (New Orleans Spring Festivals 2006, 2006).


New Orleans is the only metropolis in the world that can claim to have conceived its own style of food. Both Creole and Cajun meals originated in the city, and are actually, to many people’s surprise, not interchangeable.  The Creole style of cooking, founded in the heart of New Orleans at the turn of the 18th century, was first adopted by freed and enslaved Blacks, and, over time, became the preferred style of food preparation for people of a multiracial background, including African, Caribbean, European, and Native American. Creole cuisine has been passed down through generations as a concoction of “iron-pot delicacies” that require ingredients that are inexpensive and easily accessible, such as rice, greens, and chicken giblets, but that result in a delicious meal. 


Cajun gastronomy, on the other hand, developed from the decedents of Acadian (later called “Cajun”) exiles, who began arriving in New Orleans around the 1760’s. Forced into permanent isolation from their native land, the Acadians tried to retain their culture as much as they could and food was one of the means by which they could accomplish this. While Creole cooking mixed many different styles, Cajun cuisine was tailored to include ingredients that could easily be grown in the Nova Scotian climate (that of the Cajuns’ native land) and since most of these deportees were farmers, their cooking center around root vegetables, corn, and meat from livestock. Over time, these two cooking cultures blended together to form what today is known as “South Louisiana cuisine,” which is most famous for crawfish and gumbo dishes (Food, 2006).


Not only did New Orleans birth a new style of food, but it is also the founding place of the only indigenous American music – jazz. Renowned musicians such as cornet player, Buddy Bolden, soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet, and the world famous trumpeter Louis Armstrong all called New Orleans home. Jazz is truly a byproduct of the cultural history of New Orleans, since it came about from the influx of European, African, and Caribbean music that settlers and slaves brought with them to NOLA during the 18th century; these different styles became permanently mixed as more Blacks were freed and the population of multiracial people grew throughout the city. Fueled by the relaxed, liberal attitude of the city, this fusion of music came to be known as jazz.

Jazz Players

The music style of jazz originated from many different traditions that the Blacks, Germans, Irish, and Italians settling in uptown New Orleans introduced into the city. The “Creoles of color,” who were extremely skilled musicians of both African and European heritage, brought their professionalism. African slaves introduced New Orleans to African drumming and dancing, a tradition that, even as slaves, they upheld every Sunday, gathering in what came to be known as Congo Square, which is located across Rampart Street, just behind the French Quarter.


After the dancing in Congo Square was shut down during the Civil War, Blacks began to organize in “gangs of Mardi Gras Indians;” they would paint their faces in the style of the Native Americans and parade through the streets, challenging rival gangs to battles of strength. Sure enough, these shows consisted of call-and-response chanting, as well as drumming, both of which evolved from West African and Caribbean cultures. Finally, at the close of the 19th century, syncopated music, such as the cakewalk and the minstrel tune, the roots for which originated in Black communities, became the craze of the nation, and the seeds of jazz were planted (Jazz History, 2006).

Burial Traditions

A unique aspect of New Orleans culture surrounds the city’s method of burying the dead. NOLA is quite famous for the “jazz funeral,” which is a lavish extravagance that, unfortunately and ironically, the poor of the city never get to experience until it is being held for themselves. Furthermore, Blacks in New Orleans were never allowed to hold jazz funerals until the 1970’s, which was just one way in which this significant subpopulation’s culture was stifled. However, in the past 35 years, jazz funerals have gained great popularity and have evolved to include a larger parade of people and more modern music.

The funeral is broken up into two parts: the “somber journey” to the cemetery and the jubilant return from it. According to tradition, the brass band arrives at the place where family and friends are paying their respects to the deceased (usually in a funeral parlor or church) and the musical ensemble leads a solemn procession of mourners through the streets, playing traditionally Black Protestant hymns, such as “Just a Closer Walk With Thee.” At the head of the march is the grand marshal, who is either part of the band or of the social club of the departed; this figure sets the grave mood of the procession by dressing all in black, holding his black hat in his hands, and, with his head up high, marching slowly to the graveyard. If the family can afford it, the open casket is pulled by a horse-drawn carriage.

Full Jazz Funeral

       After the deceased has been laid to rest, the band guides the march away from the grave, and once everyone is a respectable distance from the site, the lead trumpeter gives a two-note signal to the percussionists begin to play the “second line” beat, an indication that the celebration is about to start. The grievers open gorgeously-decorated umbrellas and fall in line with the band as everyone begins to perform the strut-like dance called the “booty bounce” to the music of songs such as “Didn’t He Ramble,” As the now festive parade returns from the graveyard, the joyous music alerts the neighbors of the impending celebration and the dancing grand marshal among the second-liners serves as assurance “that another soul has gone on home” (Marsalis, 1998).