Place du Congo

by scotty hill-New Orleans

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In Louisiana's French and Spanish colonial era of the 18th century, African Americans were commonly allowed Sundays off from their work, and were allowed to gather in the "Place de Negres", "Place Publique", later "Circus Square" or informally "Place Congo" at the "back of town" New Orleans, (across Rampart Street from the French Quarter) where the slaves would set up a market, sing, dance, and play music.

The tradition continued after the city became part of the United States with the Louisiana Purchase. As African music had commonly 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. Many visitors were amazed at the African style dancing and music.

Observers heard the beat of the bamboulas, the wail of the banzas and saw the multitude of African dances that had survived through the years.

Townsfolk would gather around the square on Sunday afternoons to witness what went on inside the square. In 1819, a visitor to the city, Benjamin Latrobe, wrote about the celebrations in his journal. Although he found them "savage", he was amazed at the sight of five or six hundred unsupervised slaves that had assembled for dancing. He described them as ornamented with a number of tails of the smaller wild beasts, with fringes, ribbons, little bells, and shells and balls, jingling and flirting about the performers' legs and arms. The women, one onlooker reported, wore, each according to her means, the newest fashions in silk, gauze, muslin, and percale dresses. The males covered themselves in oriental and Indian dress and covered themselves only with a sash of the same sort wrapped around the body. Except for that, they went naked.

One witness from the time pointed out that several clusters of onlookers, musicians, and dancers represented tribal groupings with each nation taking their place in different parts of the square. In addition to drums, gourds, banjo-like instruments, and quillpipes made from reeds strung together like pan flutes, marimbas and European instruments like the violin, tambourines, and triangles were also used.

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released December 3, 2012

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scotty hill-New Orleans New Orleans, Louisiana

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