A closer look at Congo Square’s role in New Orleans history

New Orleans music fans have heard time and again about how, in the 1800s, the African rhythms of the slaves who gathered in Congo Square on Sunday afternoons combined with the European instrumentation of military marching bands to, eventually, create jazz.

Freddi Williams Evans signs copies of "Congo Square: African Roots in New Orleans" at Xavier University on March 11, 2013.

Freddi Williams Evans signs copies of “Congo Square: African Roots in New Orleans” at Xavier University on March 11, 2013.

At Xavier University on Monday, the narrative went far deeper, discussing specific songs whose sounds linger in present-day second-line parades, highlighting the diverse contributions of various cohorts within the African influx, examining the evolution of traditional sounds in a modern context, and appreciating the dance moves that invite everyone to be part of the experience.

Dr. Michael White, a Xavier professor of Spanish and African-American music, was the host of “Congo Square: The African Roots of New Orleans Music.”

Freddi Williams Evans, director of education at the Contemporary Arts Center,¬†presented some of the extensive research that went into her 2011 book, “Congo Square: African Roots in New Orleans.” She taught the audience to clap the rhythm of “Quan’ Patate La Cuite,” a Creole folk song with roots in Haiti, and then percussionist Luther Gray joined in to highlight the connections between that rhythm and the second-line beat.

Luther Gray and Bamboula 2000 performed modern interpretations of the traditional sounds, including “Bamboula Love Call” and a song based on the funga (or fanga) rhythm that segued seamlessly into “Lil Liza Jane.”

Djembe, World percussion instrument, Fanga rhythm performance by Rik Hambra from ricardo hambra on Vimeo.

Finally, Seguenon Kone and his troupe presented a storytelling performance of dance and music, relating the initiation of a simple hunter into the rhythms and traditions of the jegele, a type of balafon, or xylophone, played by the Senufo people of Mali and the Ivory Coast, where Kone is from.

Aboubacar "Amo" Soumah performs with Seguenon Kone at Xavier University on March 11, 2013.

Aboubacar “Amo” Soumah performs with Seguenon Kone at Xavier University on March 11, 2013.

I left the presentation excited about the beautiful things I have yet to learn about the rich history of New Orleans and her music.


Helen Gillet and James Singleton create music amid the ruins

The last service at Holy Trinity Catholic Church was held on March 22, 1997, eight years before Hurricane Katrina. Its neighborhood did not flood in 2005, but the interior nonetheless evokes memories of the storm.

Marigny Opera House interior. Photo courtesy of Dave Hurlbert, executive director of the Marigny Opera House.

Marigny Opera House interior. Photo courtesy of Dave Hurlbert, executive director of the Marigny Opera House.

Gutted of its altars, statues and pews, its colorful floor tiles are scuffed and dimmed by a film of dust. Ghostly water marks and smaller stormclouds of black mold mar the walls, and laths are exposed by fallen plaster. A vine creeps into the 1853 building through a 10-foot arched window.

Helen Gillet and James Singleton chose this space, now operating as the Marigny Opera House, for live recording of a cello-bass duo project that seized their imaginations before Hurricane Katrina, but had been put on hold.

The recording process is taking place in two sessions, one of which was March 5. The second will be Tuesday, March 12, at 4 p.m. Admission to the private event is by invitation only, but invitations are easy to come by. A $20 donation is suggested to support the project.

About 40 people were present for the March 5 performance, silencing their cell phones and squelching coughs as the music played. Bows brought forth moans of sorrow, and fingertips added infusions of pluck. The room’s echo was consciously incorporated into the sound. The musical passages seemed fairly brief; I wonder whether some of them will be expanded in the studio.

Gillet said that the March 12 performance would take shape based on listening to the recording obtained March 5. She said the second go-round might add electronic loops, but she was leaning against it.

Gillet and Singleton both place a premium on improvisation in their performances, and the setting will be an important element of the sound in the eventual recording, so the audience for the March 12 session can expect a rewarding experience.

The Marigny Opera House is at 725 St. Ferdinand St. in New Orleans, between Royal and Dauphine. An invitation to the March 12 performance can be obtained by contacting Helen Gillet or James Singleton on Facebook. There is also a Facebook event page for the performance.

What are the gun-rights folks afraid of?

These days, gun-rights advocates are more likely than other Americans to mistrust the federal government. Two centuries ago, however, Louisiana’s governor cited the Constitution’s Second Amendment in his push for federal involvement in the wake of America’s largest slave revolt.

Cover art of "American Uprising: The Untold Story of America's Largest Slave Revolt," by Daniel Rasmussen

Cover art of “American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt,” by Daniel Rasmussen

Daniel Rasmussen writes about the revolt of 1811 in “American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt.” I recommend the book for its vivid storytelling, and for its insights into how the history written by the powerful can be at odds with the reality on the ground.

William Claiborne was governor of Louisiana when a throng of slaves from the German Coast, just up the Mississippi River from New Orleans, sprang into action on Jan. 8, 1811. The revolt was put down two days later, largely by a volunteer corps of 80 West Bank planters.

Claiborne had called upon the militia, led by Gen. Wade Hampton, to defend New Orleans against the approaching rebellion. The federal troops headed upriver and launched a vigorous attack on the plantation of Jacques Fortier, where they believed the slaves to have posted themselves. But they were wrong. “They had fallen for a classic West African military ruse,” Rasmussen writes. “Warfare practiced in the Kongo especially features frequent advances and retreats intended to confuse the enemy.”

The slaves had headed back upriver, where they encountered the well-armed West Bank planters, who had unwittingly flanked the rebellion. In minutes, the uprising had reached its bloody conclusion.

Gov. Claiborne was in the midst of a campaign to secure statehood for Louisiana, a goal that was not achieved until April 30, 1812. As a result, he emphasized the federal troops’ contribution, even though its strategic value was unintentional. “In the minds of Claiborne and the planters, the proper response to African American political activity was violent suppression backed by the full force of the U.S. government,” Rasmussen writes.

Claiborne’s previous efforts to rally the planters into militia service under the American government had failed, but now, “the militia ¬†— once a largely decorative organization — began to meet weekly to train and organize.”

Gun-rights advocates of the 21st century might be expected to affiliate themselves with the West Bank planters who took the defense of their property into their own hands. But the planters themselves supported the government militarization that followed the slave revolt.

With the memories of the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804 still fresh, the planters may well have feared threats that could not be put down as efficiently as the German Coast revolt. The current mistrust of government, and focus on the individual rights afforded by the Second Amendment, may reflect the government’s success in freeing us from fear of threats so large that we cannot handle them ourselves.