Saturday, March 31, 2012

Congo Square, African Heritage, and New Orleans Voodoo

Congo Square is an open area in the southern corner of Louis Armstrong Memorial Park next to the French Quarter in the Tremé neighborhood of New Orleans, Louisiana. It was the only place for both free and enslaved blacks to gather and socialize in the manner of their ancestors - singing, dancing, drumming and marketing goods. According to H. C. Knight on a visit to New Orleans in 1819, "On sabbath evening, the African slaves meet on the green, by the swamp, and rock the city with their Congo dances." By this time, these gatherings attracted over 500 people weekly.
In the colonial era of the 18th century in French and Spanish Louisiana, slaves were allowed a day off of work to gather on Sundays in the Place de Negres, Place Publique, and Place Congo - all names for Congo Square. Because of the Louisiana Black Code or Code Noir, slaves had to be given time off of work and allowed to socialize in a meaningful fashion.
Often, the Code Noir is misunderstood to be a set of laws put into place to improve the lives of slaves. This is far from the truth. The Code Noir was developed to keep slave owners from having to buy more slaves, to reinforce racial stratification based on skin color, forbid the practice of traditional African religions, expel Jews from the colony, and force anyone and everyone to convert to Catholicism.
One unintended effect of the Code Noir was the development of the tradition of gathering of freed and enslaved Africans on Congo Square. For a period of time, a less restrictive attitude towards African traditional religions by Catholicism allowed Africans to gather and express themselves spiritually. This played a big role in the preservation of New Orleans Voodoo dances and rituals. Among the dancers were the Bamboula, Calinda and the Congo tribes. As their sacred rituals and socializing began to become public spectacle, the rituals changed from a decidedly spiritual and religious affair to one of entertainment for the masses of nonindigenous onlookers and tourists. As Catholicism was more strictly enforced, the Voodoo spirits were cloaked behind the veil of Catholic saints and various aspects of Catholicism were assimilated into the Voodoo religion.
Another unintended effect is the role Congo Square played in the cultivation and preservation of New Orleans' musical heritage. It is a symbol of the early African contributions to the origins of jazz and other American musical forms. African music was suppressed in Protestant areas of the colonies and so Congo Square drew visitors from all over the United States. The primary instruments used were long, narrow African drums, triangles, jawbones, and early ancestors to the banjo. The Tremé neighborhood where Congo Square is located is famous for its history of African American music. All of the musical forms observed in Congo Square permeate the very fabric of people's lives in New Orleans to this day.
Congo Square is listed on the National Registry as a Historic Landmark. The sign located at the entrance to the square reads:
Congo Square is in the ‘vicinity’ of a spot which Houmas Indians used before the arrival of the French for celebrating their annual corn harvest and was considered sacred ground. The gathering of enslaved African vendors in Congo Square originated as early as the late 1740′s during Louisiana’s French colonial period and continued during the Spanish colonial era as one of the city’s public markets. By 1803, Congo Square had become famous for the gatherings on Sunday afternoons. By 1819, these gatherings numbered as many as 500 to 600 people. Among the most famous dances were the Bamboula, the Calinda and the Congo. These African cultural expressions gradually developed into Mardi Gras Indian traditions, the Second line, and eventually New Orleans jazz and rhythm and blues.
In 1893 Congo Square was officially named Beauregard Square by the New Orleans City Council. Although it was rarely referred to as such by locals, it's official name remained Beauregard Square until April 2011 when the City Council renamed it Congo Square.
Congo Square was the site of the first New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1970. Gospel legend Mahalia Jackson performed at the first festival and The Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts is located next to Congo Square in honor of her. Today, Congo Square continues to celebrate African arts and culture. Each week, musicians, dancers and drummers gather just inside the gates of Louis Armstrong Park to perform in the traditional West African manner.
Every Sunday from 2PM to 4PM in Congo Square you can witness African ancestral ritual spiritual drumming, dancing, singing and chanting, libation pouring and community gathering celebrating this rich cultural heritage.
For readers interested in helping with the preservation of Congo Square, you are encouraged to check out the Congo Square Preservation Society. At the time of this writing, the website is in place but still under construction. Their mission is "To promote the indigenous cultural traditions of New Orleans and Congo Square through education, advocacy, and research." See the Congo Square Preservation Society Facebook page for more information.

2012 Congo Square New World Rhythms Festival
The Congo Square New World Rhythms Festival celebrates the rich cultural heritage of New Orleans, Louisiana. Influences from Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America combine to make New Orleans a rich melting pot of world culture.
Featuring the best in traditional New Orleans Jazz, world-music from African, Caribbean and Latin American regions, the Congo Square New World Rhythms Festival is a unique event in New Orleans. In addition to music and dance there will be plenty of great Louisiana food and exotic crafts.
This festival combines two of our smaller events - Fiesta Latina and the Congo Square Rhythms Festival - into one large event.
Mar 24–25, 2012 Saturday, March 24, and Sunday, March 25 - 10:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. both daysCongo Square - Louis Armstrong Park901 N. Rampart StreetNew Orleans, LA 70116Admission: Free
Tom Dent Congo Square Symposium
Topic: "Voodoo at the Crossroads: Mystical Traditions in Africa, the Caribbean and the Gulf South."
Confirmed speakers include:
Robert Farris Thompson, Professor Emeritus, Yale University
William Ferris, University of North Carolina
Event Information:
Date: Saturday, Mar 24, 20129:00 AM – 1:00 PMAdmission: FreeLocation: St. Augustine ChurchAddress:1210 Gov. Nicholls StreetNew Orleans, LA 70116Phone: (504) 558-6100

Engraving by E. W. Kemble, to illustrate article “The Dance in Place Congo” by George Washington Cable, published in Century Magazine, February, 1886.
Peter Kolchin, American Slavery, Penguin History, paperback edition, 47
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Other articles about New Orleans Voodoo you may find interesting:
The Basics of New Orleans Voodoo: Part 1
The Basics of New Orleans Voodoo Part 2: Africans and Indians
The Basics of New Orleans Voodoo Part 3: Regional CharacteristicsContinue reading on Congo Square, African Heritage and New Orleans Voodoo - New Orleans voodoo

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