World Rhythm Birthplace: Congo Square

<i>The Bamboula</i>, circa 1880, depicting a dance ritual in Place Congo Hogan Jazz Archive, Tulane University ” width=”390″ height=”309″ /></td>
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The Bamboula, circa 1880, depicting a dance ritual in Place Congo
The Birth of African American Music:

The gathering of enslaved African vendors in Congo Square originated as early as the 1740s during Louisiana’s French Colonial period and continued during the Spanish Colonial era as one of the city’s public markets. It had been an area outside of the fortified walls of the original city where Native Americans and later slaves had sold their wares in an open market by the Bayou St. John, the major avenue for transportation of goods into the city. At the other end of Orleans street, hid only by the old padre’s garden and the cathedral, glistened the ancient Place d’Armes.

In Louisiana’s French and Spanish Catholic colonial era of the 18th century, slaves were commonly allowed Sundays off from their work. They were allowed to gather in the “Place de Negres”, “Place Publique”, later “Circus Square” or informally “Place Congo”at the “back of town” (across Rampart Street from the French Quarter), where the slaves would set up a market, sing, dance, and play music.

Congo Square is in the vicinity of a spot which the Houma Indians used before the arrival of the French for celebrating their annual corn harvest and was considered sacred ground.

Free Coloreds:
More importantly, slaves were allowed to purchase their freedom and even own slaves themselves. The Spanish had a law known as “Coartación” which gave the enslaved person the right of self-purchase. You could insist on a hearing with the slave owner–where a price for their purchase would be set. More than 20% of New Orleans population was believed to be free coloreds before the Protestant administration took over at the beginning of the 19th century. The misunderstood term Creole has been used to describe free coloreds as well locally born as the unique cultural stew the Cresent City was simmering.

The tradition continued after the city became part of the United States with the Louisiana Purchase. As African music had been suppressed in the largely Protestant American colonies and states, the weekly gatherings at Congo Square became a famous site for visitors from elsewhere in the U.S. Many visitors were amazed at the African-style dancing and music. The gatherings in the square themselves were amazing as well to the participants as they shared cultural histories from throughout the Caribbean and Africa.

Saints & Festivals Belt:

Observers heard the beat of the bamboulas, the wail of the banzas and saw the multitude of African dances that had survived through the years. But there was more brewing here than African drumming. From the first arrival, in Nouvelle-Orléans, of two slave ships from Benin carrying the Ardra people, from whose foddun spiritual practice derives the core of Louisiana voodoo; to the influx during the early French period of Wolof and Bambara people from the Senegal River in West Africa, whose emblematic singing and stringed instruments were crucial forerunners of blues and the banjo; to the Spanish era’s preponderance of slaves from the Central African forest culture of Kongo, whose hand-drummed polyrhythms came to undergird dance rhythms from Havana to Harlem for this was the birthplace of African-American music.

E.W. Kemble 1885

The 1804 liberation of Sainte Domingue, later to become Haiti, brought the largest influx of Afro-Caribbean drums and musical sensibilities to the scene, as thousands of those freed slaves ended up in New Orleans, many after a stop in Cuba or being pirated on their way to Cuba to be sold in North America’s largest slave market in New Orleans. Then in 1809, some 9,000 refugees who had a spent a decade-plus in eastern Cuba were being expelled by the island’s Spanish governor, most made their way to New Orleans. The large influx of French speakers would significantly temper the cultural dominance of the fast arriving northern Protestants to the big City.

Louisiana Purchase:

As Louisiana became the 18th state in 1812, New Orleans was a city we would recognize. Townsfolk continued to gather around the square on Sunday afternoons to watch the dancing. In 1819, the celebrated architect Benjamin Latrobe, awoke upon his first night in New Orleans to a foggy on the “Isle of Orleans.” He wrote in his journal:

“so thick a fog enveloped the city that the ear alone could ascertain its existence” and he heard “a sound more strange that any is heard anywhere else in the world… It is a more incessant, loud, rapid, and various gabble of tongues of all tones than was ever heard at Babel.”“as far as the eye could reach to the West, and to the Market house to the East,” two rows of clamoring shopkeepers advertising everything from bananas to tin buckets, fresh fish to rare books:
Some having stalls or tables with a Tilt or awning of canvas … but the majority having their wares on the ground … on a piece of canvas or a parcel of Palmetto leaves. The articles to be sold were not more various than the Sellers. White men and women, and of all hues of brown, and of all Classes of faces, from round Yankees, to grisly and lean Spaniards, black Negroes and negresses, filthy Indians half naked, Mulattoes, curly and straight-haired, Quadroons of all shades, long-haired and frizzled, the women dressed in the most flaring yellow and scarlet gowns, the men capped and hatted… I cannot suppose that my eye took in less than 500 sellers and buyers, all of whom appeared to strain their voices, to exceed each other in loudness.
“Everything had an odd look,” Latrobe wrote of New Orleans at the end of his first day in the city; it was “impossible not to stare at a sight wholly new, even to one who has traveled much in Europe and America.

Although he found them “savage”, he was amazed at the sight of five or six hundred unsupervised slaves who assembled for dancing. He described them as ornamented with a number of tails of the smaller wild beasts, with fringes, ribbons, little bells, and shells and balls, jingling and flirting about the performers’ legs and arms. The women, one onlooker reported, wore, each according to her means, the newest fashions in silk, gauze, muslin, and percale dresses. The males covered themselves in oriental and Indian dress and covered themselves only with a sash of the same sort wrapped around the body. Except for that, they went naked.

One witness noted that clusters of onlookers, musicians, and dancers represented tribal groupings, with each nation taking their place in different parts of the square. The musicians used a range of instruments from available cultures: drums, gourds, banjo-like instruments, and quillpipes made from reeds strung together like pan flutes, as well as marimbas and European instruments such as the violin, tambourines, and triangles.

Latrobe later recorded his impression of the music and dance taking place on Sunday in Congo Square. The dancers, Latrobe noted, were formed into two circular groups

“in the midst of which were… two women dancing. They held each a coarse handkerchief… and set to each other in a miserably dull and slow figure, hardly moving their feet or bodies.”“The music consisted of two drums and a stringed instrument… [one of which was] a cylindrical drum, about one foot in diameter… They made an incredible noise. The most curious instrument, however, was a stringed instrument, which no doubt was imported from Africa. On the top of the finger board was the rude figure of a man in a sitting posture, and two pegs behind him to which the strings were fastened. The body was a calabash. It was played upon by a very little old man, apparently 80 or 90 years old… A Man sang an uncouth song to the dancing which I suppose was in some African language for it was not French, and the Women screamed a detestable burthen on one single note. The allowed amusements of Sundays, have, it seems, perpetuated here those of Africa among its inhabitants.”

Writer H.C. Knight on visiting the city in 1819 wrote:

“On Sabbath evening, the African slaves meet on the green, by the swamp, and rock the city with their Congo dances.”

According to author Nick Sublette, this is the first use of “rock,” as verb and metaphor, in the manner that would a century and a half later become common to music and youth culture worldwide and places New Orleans at the nexus of not only the birth of jazz but rock music as well. A fitting citation for where the first synthesis of African American music was being formed.

African versus American born slaves

“New Orleans was in effect a colony of Virginia, a fact that I think hasn’t been sufficiently appreciated. The Virginians had surplus slave labor to dispose of. If you were an enslaved person in Virginia, you knew that not only did you have no future, your children and your grandchildren would be enslaved. In Spanish Louisiana, although enslaved people were treated badly, there did at least exist a path to freedom. And because enslaved people in Spanish Louisiana were also allowed to play ancestral drums and to dance in public and gather en masse by the hundreds, they had a past. They had an identity and a future. Imagine the difference in morale between those two populations.”
—Ned Sublette

From 1769 to 1803–that was a transcendental moment in history, the last third of the 18th century–Spain held Louisiana during the American, French, and Haitian Revolutions, three events of maximum impact on world history, and each of which affected Louisiana vitally.

—Ned Sublette

During the 1810s the pirate Jean Lafitte and his men, robbed the slave ships headed for Cuba, beating the embargo imposed by the political powerful Virginians who controlled the domestic market for slaves in the wake of their critical support to the USA outlawing the importation of slaves directly from Africa.

The Drums are Silenced

As the northern protestant culture clashed with the French Spanish Creole synthesis of New Orleans a crackdown beginning in the 1830s on Congo Square sharpened until, in the 1850s, when the city council banned beating drums, blowing horns, and even public dances held without the mayor’s permission. The great influx of French speaking refugees from the Haitian revolution had forestalled the Protestant clampdown on the Congo Square jams, afterall Congo Square wasn’t opposite the English-speaking part of town; it was opposite the French- and Spanish-speaking part of town. However, by the start of the Civil War, most historians believe, Congo Square had fallen silent.

Congo Square could not have been the slaves’ only dancing place. The entire City loved to dance and courtship was inextricably tied to dancing at the numerous New Orleans balls. Despite a battery of ordinances meant to keep them quiescent and confined at home, New Orleans slaves drank and danced nightly in so many illicit taverns, the editor of the Bee complained in 1833, that “Not a street, nor a corner can be passed without encountering [them]. The noise and disturbance is very disagreeable to the neighbors, though it may be profitable to the proprietor.” The New Orleans good-time tradition, the city’s near-universal fondness for music and dancing, combined with the surprisingly porous nature of its racial walls, made every kind of music available to every resident.

In the late 19th century, the square again became a famous musical venue, this time for a series of brass band concerts by orchestras of the area’s “Creole of color” community. Toward the end of the century, the city of New Orleans officially renamed the square as “Beauregard Square” in honor of Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard. While this name appeared on maps, most locals (especially in the African American community) continued to call it “Congo Square”.

Today we remember the rhythms of these saints through their most famous dances– the Bamboula, the Calinda and the Congo kept alive through Mardi Indian traditions, the 2nd Line and performing companies. The experimental improvisation and polyrhythmic might of this original African cultural synthesis became the shoulders that would make so many 20th century New Orleans musicians immortal. The later musical forms can be heard throughout the world as Jazz, Rhythm and Blues, New Orleans funk and early rock and roll.

Second Line, Congo Square

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Saints and Festivals Belt
"New Orleans being at the northern edge of what I call the Saints and Festivals Belt--which some people erroneously call the Caribbean, though it reaches across the Gulf of Mexico past the Caribbean to Brazil--was the valve through which a whole world of culture and music entered the United States as it was forming. It made a music that always affected the music of the United States, but was never the mainstream."
The great music capitals of the hemisphere in the 19th century--the three cities with opera companies--were Havana, New Orleans, and New York. They were in frequent maritime contact with each other and had much more in common with each other than with cities in the American hinterland....Havana is, as far as I'm concerned, the fundamental capital of music in the western hemisphere, and New Orleans had a relationship with it that was constantly active by a steady maritime traffic....Havana and New Orleans were in constant contact for 190 years until the imposition of the embargo, which is why I always say that the embargo of Cuba is also an embargo of New Orleans; it took away New Orleans' great trading partner. ---Ned Sublette
Lions and Tigers & Bears
The name Congo Square did not come from Africa, but rather from the so-called "Congo Circus" that pitched its tents on the site starting in about 1816. The circus, the brainchild of a Cuban entrepreneur, featured feats of horsemanship and fighting tigers and bears.
The Bamoula describes a drumbeat and dance long associated with Congo Square. White Creole composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk incorporated rhythms and tunes he heard in Congo Square into some of his compositions, like his famous "Bamboula" composed when he was 18 years old. They still have bambula in one part of the Dominican Republic. Still it is similar to Samaná, where the rhythm is BAMM, BA BOM BOM: the habanera, also known as the tango, also known as merengue a lo maco, also known as reggaetón. As this is the rhythm that was being danced in Cuba at the time it is not much of a stretch to assume that this rhythm could be heard in Congo Square.
Rhythms of the Saints
At the time of Latrobe's visit in 1819, the importation of slaves from overseas had been illegal for more than a decade; within a few years of it, most of those who continued to gather in Congo Square had no firsthand memories of Africa at all. They were immigrants or children of immigrants from the West Indies, their music already heavily alloyed with the infectious Latin-tinged pulse of the Carribbean, their religion a blend of Catholicism and West African spirit worship they called vodun -- "voodoo" to the whites who both feared and were fascinated by it. Vodun is sometimes called Voodoo, Vodoun, Vodou. Religions related to Vodun are: Candomble, Lucumi, Macumba, and Yoruba. Its roots may go back 6,000 years in Africa. That country occupied parts of today's Togo, Benin and Nigeria. Slaves brought their religion with them when they were forcibly shipped to the Americas. Vodun was actively suppressed during colonial times. Vodun, like Christianity, is a religion of many traditions. Each group follows a different spiritual path and worships a slightly different pantheon of spirits, called Loa. The word means "mystery" in the Yoruba language.The Loa resemble Christian Saints, in that they were once people who led exceptional lives, and are usually given a single responsibility or special attribute.There are hundreds of minor spirits. Yoruba traditional belief included a chief God Olorun, who is remote and unknowable. He authorized a lesser God Obatala to create the earth and all life forms. There are many similarties with Christianity including a belief in an afterlife.
The Calinda
The Calinda was a voodoo dance brought to Louisiana from San Domingo and the Antilles by slaves. The well-known Cajun song "Allons dancer Colinda" is about a Cajun boy asking a girl named Colinda to do a risqué dance with him; probably derived from the Calinda dance Considered indecent by the respectable portion of the population, it was officially banned throughout the State in 1843, but continued to be performed for many years afterward. An early version of the Calinda was danced only by men, stripped to the waist and brandishing sticks in a mock fight while at the same time balancing upon their heads bottles of water. As soon as a dancer spilled a drop of his water he was banished from the field. Later the Calinda degenerated into a thoroughly lascivious performance. This dance is related to the stick-dancing performed by men at the Trinidad Carnival. The Calinda ended the Congo Square Sabbath afternoons. They could not run far into the night, for all the fascinations of all the dances could not excuse the slave's tarrying in public places after a certain other the regular nine-o'clock evening gun had rolled down Orleans street from the Place d'Armes; and the black man or woman who wanted to keep a whole skin on the back had to keep out of the Calaboose.
Congo Square Redevelopment
After the Civil War, the story of Congo Square took a turn for the worse: it was overrun by crime and decay, it was renamed for a Civil War general, P.G.T. Beauregard and, in 1897, and it became known as the neighbor to the official red-light district called Storyville. In the 1970s, when Louis Armstrong Park was created and encompassed the square as well as annexing a great many acres of the historic Treme neighborhood. In 1993, the site was added to the National Register of Historic Places and, today, the curves of inlaid stones on the circular site now recall the frenzied dances of long ago.
Today Congo Square is an open space within Louis Armstrong Park, which is located in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans, Louisiana, just across Rampart Street from the French Quarter. The Treme neighborhood is famous for its history of African American music.
The famous "Eagle" building at Rampart & Perdido streets is a jazz history landmark. Eagle Saloon & Oddfellows Hall -- 19th century lodge building is perhaps the most important surviving building from the early days of jazz, having been the base for the famous "Eagle Band" and where famous "Eagle Band" and where Buddy Bolden, Freddie Keppard, Buddie Petit, Louis Armstrong, and many other early jazz greats played.and many other early jazz greats played.
Across Elysian Fields Avenue, the street continues into the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood, then splits off from St. Claude Avenue to become a single lane one way street through residential neighborhoods. It continues into the Bywater neighborhood. With a break from the Industrial Canal, Rampart street resumes in the Lower 9th Ward.
Ned_Sublette As a performer, Sublette is probably best known for fusing country-western and afro-Caribbean styles including salsa, cumbia and rumba, as reflected on the 1999 album "Cowboy Rumba". He is also a leading scholar of Cuban music. His label Qbadisc releases Cuban music in the United States and he has produced Latin musicians including Ritmo Oriental and Issac Delgado and has co-produced Public Radio International's "Afropop Worldwide" show. "The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square," was published in 2008 by Lawrence Hill Books.
Louis Moreau Gottschalk
Benjamin Latrobe,
The musicians used a range of instruments from available cultures: drums, gourds, banjo-like instruments, and quillpipes made from reeds strung together like pan flutes, as well as marimbas and European instruments such as the violin, tambourines, and triangles.
famous "Eagle Band" and where Buddy Bolden, Freddie Keppard, Buddie Petit, Louis Armstrong, and many other early jazz greats played.
Across Elysian Fields Avenue, the street continues into the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood, then splits off from St. Claude Avenue to become a single lane one way street through residential neighborhoods. It continues into the Bywater neighborhood. With a break from the Industrial Canal, Rampart street resumes in the Lower 9th Ward.
Storyville was the prostitution district of New Orleans, Louisiana, from 1897 through 1917.
"Beauregard Square" in honor of Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard.
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