NOLA History: Congo Square and the Roots of New Orleans Music

by Edward Branley on July 2, 2012

in Arts & Culture, History, Music

Before the days when we could all run for air conditioning, escape into the mall or confine ourselves at home, people would gather together to socialize and try to beat the heat in the summer. In Spanish-controlled New Orleans of the late 18th Century, this even applied to the slaves. Respecting Sunday as a “day of rest,” the Spanish gave their slaves the afternoon off and allowed them to socialize. Like the rest of us, slaves in New Orleans gathered and complained about the heat. They also entertained themselves, making music and dancing.

Congo Square slaves

Dancers in Congo Square, drawing attributed to Benjamin Latrobe (Wikimedia Commons)

The city leaders allowed the slaves to congregate, but outside the city, in an open area just outside the original city, north of Rampart Street. This area became known as the Place des Negres, more commonly as Place Congo. By the time the Americans took control, the city had grown past the Vieux Carre, and this gathering point was called Congo Square. Congo Square was the place where black slaves could once again be Africans, even if for just one afternoon a week. They would bring drums, bells, and other musical instruments to the square and gather, roughly by tribe, to play music, sing, and dance.

What separated New Orleans from the British colonies was the more laid-back attitude of the French and Spanish in terms of treatment of slaves. The Catholics in New Orleans followed the old Code Noir (Black Code), which was a much less harsh overall set of guidelines than what the Protestant British followed. Additionally, the Catholics, even the Spanish, usually did not concern themselves with the “African” aspects of slave life and culture that their slaves kept. The British planters demanded their slaves take up Christianity (and the slaves did so, at least in outward forms), and African-based music, song and dance were not permitted. These trends continued after the American Revolution by the original states. When New Orleans (along with the rest of Louisiana) became part of the U.S., it took time for American ways to merge with the Continental philosophy.

Congo Square bamboula drum

Drawing of a bamboo "Bamboula" drum by Benjamin Latrobe (Wikimedia Commons)

That’s why, in 1819, architect Benjamin Latrobe was treated to over 500 slaves making music and dancing every Sunday afternoon. The local Creoles (people of French-Spanish descent) were equally affected by the heat and humidity of the city, so they didn’t have any qualms about descendants of Africans stripping down to next to nothing to drum and dance. Since the Creoles did not demand slaves assimilate into their culture, they didn’t. That meant Latrobe was treated to musical sounds of African-style instruments, such as the bamboula drums. The influx of Le Gens de Couleur Libre, the Free People of Color, accelerated the merging of African rhythms with French songs, as blacks from Haiti joined in the Congo Square gatherings.

calinda dance Congo Square New Orleans

The Calinda dance. (Watercolour by François Aimé Louis Dumoulin.)

The “Calinda” may not have been the most common dance performed by slaves in Congo Square, but it is certainly the best-documented by white observers. Large groups of slaves would form the 18th/19th century equivalent of a mosh pit – hot, sweaty, nearly-naked bodies gyrating in time to the beat of the bamboulas, gourds, and banjos played by musicians. While these dances shocked observers such as Latrobe, the Spanish knew that happy slaves were also more productive. Additionally, calinda-dancing slaves also tired themselves out, which meant they were less likely to practice Voudon in large numbers as the sun went down.

Congo Square New Orleans map

Detail from the Robinson Atlas of 1880, showing Congo Square off Rampart Street and Orleans Avenue. (Courtesy the Notarial Archives Office, Orleans Parish Civil District Clerk of Court.)

The Sunday afternoon gatherings in Congo Square continued well into the 1880s. After the Civil War, white city leaders tried to suppress the gatherings, even going as far as officially re-naming Place Congo to “Beauregard Square,” after former CSA General (and post-war civic leader) P.G.T. Beauregard. The residents of the Vieux Carre and Faubourg Treme, however, always referred to the area as Congo Square, and that name was formalized by the New Orleans City Council in 2011. The original New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival was held in Congo Square in 1970. Jazz Fest rapidly outgrew the square, moving to the New Orleans Fair Grounds racetrack. In a salute to the festival’s and the city’s roots, there still is a “Congo Square Stage” annually at Jazz Fest.

Congo Square Jazz Fest poster

"Congo Square" poster for the 2012 Jazz Fest, featuring trumpeter Shamarr Allen (Courtesy N.O. Jazz and Hertiage Foundation)

As part of an attempt at “urban renewal” in Faubourg Treme, houses and buildings in the vicinity of Congo Square were demolished by the city, and replaced by Louis Armstrong Park. Congo Square is now a part of the park’s grounds. Music historians regularly argue the significance of Congo Square’s role in the evolution of Jazz. One thing is certain, though—Congo Square kept African music and dance alive in New Orleans, never really dying out.

Edward Branley is the author of New Orleans: The Canal Streetcar Line, Brothers of the Sacred Heart in New Orleans.  His latest book, Maison Blanche Department Stores, in Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series, is available at bookstores in the city and online. He is owner of Yatmedia LLC (Social Media for Social Justice), and is @Yatpundit on Twitter.

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