Congo Square establishes the roots of Jazz.
Congo Square in Faubourg Treme
Before air conditioning’s escape into the mall or confinement at home, people gathered together to socialize and try to beat the Summer heat. In Spanish-controlled New Orleans of the late 18th Century, this also applied to the enslaved. Respecting Sunday as a “day of rest,” the Spanish gave the enslaved the afternoon off. The white owners permitted socialization. Like the rest of us, the Africans in New Orleans gathered and complained about the heat. They also entertained themselves, making music and dancing.
The Spanish city leaders permitted socialization, but outside the city proper. The enslaved gathered in an open area north of Rampart Street. Locals named that area, “Place des Negres,” They also called it “Place Congo.” The enslaved brought drums, bells, and other musical instruments to the square and gather, roughly by tribe, to play music, sing, and dance.
Uniquely New Orleans
The French and Spanish held different attitudes towards the enslaved than the Anglo-Irish. The Catholics, even the Spanish, usually ignored the “African” aspects of slave culture. The Anglo-Irish planters demanded their enslaved convert to their form of Protestant Christianity. They banned African-based music, song and dance. These trends continued after the American Revolution. When New Orleans joined the US. American ways merged with Continental philosophy slowly. The physical separation of the Vieux Carré and Faubourg Ste. Marie, the American Sector. contributed greatly to this.
That’s why, in 1819, architect Benjamin Latrobe was treated to over 500 enslaved Africans 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 didn’t go to lengths to demand the enslaved assimilate into their culture, they didn’t. Latrobe heard the 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 merge of African rhythms with French songs, as Blacks from Haiti joined in the Congo Square gatherings.
African Music and Dance
The “Calinda” became the best-documented dance from Congo Square. Large groups of enslaved 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 giving the Africans time for rest and entertainment made them more productive. Additionally, calinda-dancing slaves also tired themselves out. The white Catholics believed they were less likely to practice Voudon in large numbers as the sun went down.
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 rebel general (and post-war civic leader) P.G.T. Beauregard. The residents of the Vieux Carré and Faubourg Treme, however, always referred to the area as Congo Square. 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.
As part of an attempt at “urban renewal” in Faubourg Treme, the city demolished houses and buildings in the vicinity of Congo Square. They built Louis Armstrong Park. The park surrounds Congo Square. Music historians regularly argue the significance of Congo Square’s role in the evolution of Jazz. One thing is certain, though—Congo Square contributed to keeping African music and dance alive.
Author’s Note: I originally wrote this piece in 2012 for GoNOLA dot com. The images vanished from the article over time (photobucket loses, etc), so I updated it a bit over here.