Apr 11, 2016

Congo Square, New Orleans

Video clips from a drum circle in Congo Square, New Orleans from 2015, including shots of Mardi Gras Indians around 2:30 (video from DanieleCreole from Youtube)

As tragic and inhumane as slavery was, it played a key role in the development of jazz through introducing African elements into the American musical vocabulary.  Wynton Marsalis, a trumpeter and one of the greatest living jazz musicians, characterized jazz as a music that “broke the rules of European conventions and created rules of its own that were so specific, so thorough and so demanding that a great art resulted” (1).

Wynton Marsalis  (image by music 2020 from Flickr, CC BY)

The acknowledged birthplace of jazz, New Orleans, had a unique social structure that allowed the music to develop.  Being a former French colony, there developed a bit more lax attitude about slaves (though it was still a brutal place to be a slave).  On Sundays, slaves were allowed to gather in what became known as Congo Square to play drums and African stringed instruments called bolons and ngonis, similar to banjos and acoustic guitars and dance in ways that hearkened back to their homelands.  


The illustrations above were drawn by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the architect who designed both the US Capital Building and the White House.  His journal entries and drawings are some of the oldest and best source documents on Congo Square (both images from Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain).

These gatherings were regularly held until late in the 1800s.  While they seemed like celebrations to outsiders, these gatherings were, in fact, based on West and West Central African festivals that “[spoke] to the very real concerns” of the slaves and were part of the “resistance-focused ethos [and] expressive culture” of Africans in the New World as Daniel Walker points out (2).

An 1885 illustration of a Congo Square gathering from E.W. Kemble  (image from Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)
These gatherings began to draw crowds of onlookers, both whites and Native Americans like the Mardi Gras Indians.  Eventually, these native groups joined in the celebrations, adding their own musical concepts to the mix.  Among the white onlookers were a number of musicians who began to experiment with more complex rhythms in their own music, drawn primarily from European folk and classical traditions.  This synthesis of European concepts of melody and harmony combined with African and Native American rhythms, especially the central role of drums, became jazz, which has had a strong effect on American and world music for more than a hundred years.  Congo Square is now part of the Luis Armstrong Park and the site of jazz performances and drum circles that honor the place’s musical legacy.  

A brass band plays in Congo Square during the 2013 New World Rhythm Festival (image by Derek Bridges from Flickr, CC BY) 

1. Marsalis, W.  (July 31, 1988).  What jazz is-and isn’t.  The New York Times.  Retrieved 24 March 2016 from http://www.nytimes.com/1988/07/31/arts/music-what-jazz-is-and-isn-t.html?pagewanted=all

2. Walker, D. E.  (2004).  No more, no more: Slavery and cultural resistance in Havana and New Orleans.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.  Retrieved 24 March 2016 from ProQuest ebrary.

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