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  • Cierra Chenier

Congo Square, New Orleans: The Root of The Culture

New Orleans is famously credited for gifting the world jazz, but to be real and go way, wayyyyy back, the foundation for not only jazz -- but funk, gospel, blues, rock 'n' roll, R&B, soul, hip-hop/rap, and bounce -- was cultivated in Congo Square in 18th and 19th century New Orleans. Congo Square, formerly called Place des Nègres, is said to have received its name from "Kongo," the largest African ethnic group in New Orleans. It was the site of everything from circuses and political meetings, to all of the city's executions from 1803-1834. However -- it was the cultural, musical, spiritual, and entrepreneurial spirit of the square that made a major impact on the fabric of both New Orleans and America.


Code Noir, also known as the "Black Code," established the rules and regulations of Louisiana's Black population. With Catholicism as the religion of the land, Article V recognized the Sabbath Day: "Sunday's and holidays are to be strictly observed. All Negroes found at work on these days are to be confiscated." Sunday was the one day out the week where Black people were allowed a day of leisure (it was the least they could do). A city ordinance designated one public space where Black people, both enslaved and free, were allowed to congregate under police supervision -- Congo Square. Located in the outskirts of the French Quarter, Congo Square was deemed the perfect location for Blacks because it was not in the midst of the main city. After the 1811 Slave Revolt led by Charles Deslondes, officials implemented several restrictions on Black gatherings, including Congo Square. Nonetheless, these restrictions were eventually retracted and Sunday's in the square were revived.

New Orleans' Black population was extremely diverse, including Blacks that were enslaved, free people of color, and men, women, and children from different nations. Some came directly from West Africa, others came from the Caribbean. Following the Haitian Revolution of 1809, thousands of Haitians fled to New Orleans, doubling the population. Many former slaves fled to Cuba (due to its convenient location), but were forced out of the country. Consequently, they sought refuge in New Orleans. From West Africa, to the Caribbean, to La Nouvelle-Orléans; the gumbo of African, Haitian, Creole, Cuban, and French traditions were able to thrive in the heart of Congo Square.

Congo Square is located in the Tremé neighborhood of New Orleans, the same neighborhood known globally as "the birthplace of jazz." The Storyville red-light district was also crucial in the cultivation of jazz music. Jazz laid the foundation for many genres of American music, and Congo Square is the root.

That BEAT, that B-E-A-T

Just like every other event in New Orleans, the activities in Congo Square revolved around music. In African tradition, the drum serves as the heartbeat of all ceremonies. The sounds of percussion echoed throughout Rampart until it was time to say, "Bon soir dansé (Good night dance)" as the Congo Square curfew ended at 9 o'clock. My generation had the "Nolia Clap" (courtesy of Juvenile in '04), while our 18th and 19th century ancestors had the bamboula. The most notable sound in the square was the bamboula beat, a rhythmic style brought over by the those that came to New Orleans from the islands,

In addition, bamboula refers to the type of drum used and style of dance accompanied by the beat. You've heard that beat before, as the bamboula is the musical pattern used in Mardi Gras Indian music and NOLA brass bands. You can even hear how the bamboula has trickled down into both hip-hop and New Orleans bounce, particularly in the staples of all bounce songs: the "Triggaman" and "Brown" beats.

New Orleans bounce, in addition to jazz and second-line music, is often characterized by a "call and response" rhythm. One example of "call and response" is DJ Jubilee's "What's the name of yo school?" line from Get It Ready, Ready. The style of "call and response" derives from celebrations in Congo Square, in which songs in our native tongues followed this rhythmic pattern. African descendants in NOLA also performed a rhythmic pattern that was reintroduced as the "habanera" by Haitian immigrants from Cuba. This rhythm was the basis of numerous Creole songs performed in Congo Square.

A branch of the habenera is the three beat pattern called the "tresillo," brought over by Afro-Cubans. This pattern can be heard in a number of New Orleans songs, including the Indian chant Hey Pockey Way.

One thing about New Orleans, wherever there's music, there's gonna be dancing. Sunday afternoons in Congo Square were much like our second lines, "DJ's," parties, and festivals today -- once we hear the beat, we cut up. It is no secret that our rhythms derive from Mother Africa. Since our existence, we've matched our body movements to the beat of the drum. What was loosely referred to as "The Congo Dance" in New Orleans was called "The Chica" in Haiti. This art of dance is described as a woman holding both ends of her apron, and/or "moving the lower part of the torso, while keeping the rest of the body almost motionless." This is exactly what happens today when we "drop for yo hood" whenever a Bounce beat plays in the vicinity. Dances in Congo Square also included the motion of swinging a handkerchief, just as we do today while second-lining to brass band music.

"First they laugh, then they copy"

Globally, the Black community has been mocked and appropriated for centuries. The most obvious example of this was the practice of "minstrel shows" in the early 19th century. These shows were comedy skits and acts performed by whites that depicted Black people in negative stereotypes. Most acts were performed in "blackface." Congo Square was one of the first tourist attractions in the city of New Orleans, in which people from all over would visit the square to "see the Blacks do the Congo." Some Europeans visited as a form of entertainment, others came to seek material for circus acts and minstrel shows. After observing the speech, songs, dances, and traditions in Congo Square, they would apply them to their acts as stereotypical images of Black people. Some would copy the songs, dances, and traditions from African descendants in the square and bring them to Broadway or back to Europe as a "new" art form.

This is no different from what we see today as the "white-washing" of not only history, but Black music, fashion, dances, traditions, hairstyles, and other cultural aspects. What comes across as being "overly-sensitive" or "possessive," is just us reclaiming the traditions and cultures that in often times, were the ONLY things we had to hold on to in times of oppression.

Sacred Land

Before the city of New Orleans was constructed, Native Americans practiced their corn feasts in the area that Congo Square stands today. These corn feasts were often religious, in that the natives considered the area of Congo Square to be "holy ground."

And that it was.

In the Catholic faith, Sunday's are considered to be both a day of rest and a day of worship. Code Noir forbade the practice of everything except Catholicism, so Africans were baptized in the Catholic faith. Consequently, Catholicism was practiced in public, while the religions of their homelands were practiced in private. Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau was a devout Catholic but maintained African religion and traditions, as did many African descendants in Congo Square.

Tribal religion originates from West Africa. West Africans that were then brought to Haiti developed "voodoo," which was then brought over to New Orleans (see "Voodoo, Hoodoo, Gris-Gris, & Juju"). While the God being referenced was the same, the methods of worship differed tremendously. Like Catholicism, African and voodoo practitioners wore white to certain ceremonies as a symbol of purity. Eyewitnesses observed enslaved Africans in Congo Square with gris-gris (charms to attract positivity) around their necks. Many claim to have seen Marie Laveau in Congo Square (which is possible being that she lived just blocks away) whether at religious ceremonies, or her dancing to herself with her serpent in hand. It is said that there was a tree that she and her followers would place food or money in, as a way of "paying for use of the square" and helping someone in need.

Just as much as Laveau was a religious figure, she was also an entrepreneur. Doubling as a hair stylist and voodoo queen, she made her living through conducting business. Many Black women of the era did the same in smaller ways. Congo Square possessed an entrepreneurial aura, in which Black women utilized the knowledge of markets from Africa to New Orleans. Many sold everything from pecan pies, coconuts, and popcorn, to pralines, peanuts and cakes. This small, but effective, economy within Congo Square was a Black business sector before there was even a name for it! Items sold at market were purchased by free people of color, enslaved Africans that earned wages by working on a free day, and European observers. Many vendors earned enough money at the exchanges in Congo Square to purchase their freedom. This is just one of many instances in history where Black women did what they had to do to get where they needed to be.

Congo Square lies at 701 N Rampart Street, just behind the French Quarter and within Louis Armstrong Park. On some Sunday's at 3PM, you may still be able to hear the sounds of drums echoing down Rampart. There were many designated areas across the country where slaves could dance and congregate; none of which compared to the legacy of Congo Square in New Orleans. Our Congo Square existed longer than that of any other space. Because of this, African traditions survived, thrived, and were able to be preserved for generations to come. Black people have made a significant impact on history, as has New Orleans. It's imperative that the world recognizes this and "puts some respect on our names." The African, Caribbean, and Creole influences of our ancestors combined with the sacred land of Congo Square made for "the culture" as we know it. Although we may never know all of the names of those those that came before us, their lives, struggles, spirits, and influences certainly won't go in vain. The foundation for much of mainstream music can be broken down and traced back to the root; the space where cultures and styles were able to combine and flourish through oppression; Congo Square.

As bounce becomes more commercialized and hip-hop/rap dominates the music industry, it is important to recognize the influence of Congo Square. New Orleans was on the music map for decades, mostly because we were already defined by greats such as Louis Armstrong and Fats Domino, but also because of the emergence of both the Hot Boys/Cash Money, and No Limit Records. These major labels solidified both New Orleans and the South's position in the rap game. Soon after was the reign of Lil Wayne, who made a lasting impact on both hip-hop/rap and pop culture.

Today, the city continues to breed a plethora of talented rappers, singers, DJ's, producers, dancers, etc. Many watch artists from areas like Atlanta and New York take over the industry in high volumes, while in New Orleans, we're just praying to see SOMEBODY make it. I have to disagree with the constant statement that the "foundation" for hip-hop/rap is not here. To the rappers, singers, DJ's, producers, dancers... that "foundation" was not only laid out in Congo Square centuries ago, but it's YOURS to capitalize on. Hell, everyone else does. Let the impact of our ancestors in Congo Square serve as a reminder that the goals you're pursuing are already in your blood and in your city. I believe that in continuing to support each other, New Orleans' music scene will be a force that can't be touched.

After all, and as stated in a 2014 tweet by Chicago-born rapper, producer, and screen-writer Boots Riley:

"Hip-hop did not start in the Bronx, Queens, or Brooklyn. Hip-hop started in Congo Square, New Orleans."

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