Congo Square

Amel Larrieux– Congo (this song is inspired by the New Orleans’ Congo Square)

I started reading Leroi Jones’ (aka Amiri Baraka) “Blues People” a few days ago for my honors thesis and he mentioned the Congo Square in one of the first chapters. His reference reminded me of this post I read on Tumblr from SayBrah about the practice:

“In Louisiana during the French and Spanish 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, later Circus Square or informally Place Congo, located in a section of the New Orleans neighborhood “Treme”. Here they would set up a market, sing, dance, and play music.

As African music had been suppressed in the Protestant colonies and states, the weekly gatherings at Congo Square became a famous site for visitors from elsewhere in the U.S. In addition, because of the immigration of refugees from the Haitian Revolution, New Orleans received thousands of additional Africans and Creoles in the early years of 19th century. They reinforced African traditions in the city, in music as in other areas. Many visitors were amazed at the African-style dancing and music. Observers heard the beat of the bamboulas and wail of the banzas, and saw the multitude of African dances that had survived through the years.

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 quill pipes made from reeds strung together like pan flutes, as well as marimbas and European instruments such as the violin, tambourines, and triangles.

As harsher United States practices of slavery replaced the more lenient French colonial style, the slave gatherings declined. Although no recorded date of this exists, the practice seems to have stopped more than a decade before the end of slavery with the American Civil War.

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 ConfederateGeneral P.G.T. Beauregard. While this name appeared on some maps, most locals continued to call it “Congo Square”. In 2011, the New Orleans City Councilofficially voted to restore the traditional name Congo Square.

In the 1920s New Orleans Municipal Auditorium was built in an area just in back of the Square, displacing and disrupting some of the Tremé community.

In the 1960s a controversial urban renewal project leveled a substantial portion of the Tremé neighborhood around the Square. After a decade of debate over the land, the City turned it into Louis Armstrong Park, which incorporates old Congo Square.”

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