Cuban and Caribbean Studies Institute

Tulane University

Congo Square: Crossroads of the Afro-Atlantic World

November 14th, 2009
1:00 - 6:00 PM

Location
Jazz & Heritage Center
1225 N. Rampart Street

Leading scholars on African and Caribbean culture, and their impact on New Orleans, will gather on Saturday, Nov. 14, for a symposium entitled Congo Square: Crossroads of the Afro-Atlantic World.”

(Presenter Ned Sublette was a former Rockefeller Fellow at Tulane’s Stone Center. Read the news article about Ned’s recent book release.)

The symposium is free and open to the public and the event is presented by the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation as a part of the Foundation’s Tom Dent Congo Square Lecture Series.

The day following the symposium, the Jazz & Heritage Foundation will present the third annual Congo Square Rhythms Festival in nearby Armstrong Park. The festival is free and open to the public. It will feature music, food and a large crafts area. Performers include Ensemble Fatien (featuring Ivorian multi-instrumentalist Seguenon Kone, Dr. Michael White, Sunpie Barnes and others), the Kumbuka African Dance Ensemble and many more.

Congo Square: Crossroads of the Afro-Atlantic World” features Ned Sublette, author of The World That Made New Orleans, Yale University African culture scholar Robert Farris Thompson, musician Alex LaSalle of the Puerto Rican group Alma Moyó and others in a day-long series of discussions and workshops.

The final hour of the symposium will feature a drum workshop and a cocktail reception.

SCHEDULE:

1:00 p.m. Welcome and Introductions

  • Presentation by Ned Sublette, “Rocking the City, Cracking the Code: Bámbula at Congo Square”

2:30 p.m. Presentation by Robert Farris Thompson, “Kongo with a OK’”

3:30 p.m. Break

3:45 p.m. Panel Discussion: Perspectives on Congo Square

  • Freddi Williams Evans: “Congo Square Through the Years”
  • Connie Zeanah Atkinson: “Place Publique: The Historical Congo Square”
  • Herreast Harrison and Robert Farris Thompson: A Dialogue
  • Luther Gray: “Advocating for Congo Square”

5:00 p.m. Drum Workshop (featuring Alex LaSalle and Luther Gray) and Cocktail Reception

Event Summary: Congo Square was the popular but never official name for the commons that is now part of Armstrong Park, across Rampart Street from the French Quarter in New Orleans. It has the status of sacred space in African-American culture, and the gatherings that took place there constitute a singular and fundamental phenomenon in the musical and cultural history of the United States. Beginning as a Sunday arketplace, by the early 19th Century that commons had become the only place in the United States where enslaved people could gather en masse to sing, drum and dance. It was a place of memory and experimentation, a commercial center, and a party — all in a city thatwould in many essential respects be recognizable to New Orleanians today. This symposium brings together a variety of scholars and cultural practitioners to consider the facts, meaning, and legacy of Congo Square.

Presentation Summaries:

Ned Sublette: “Rocking the City, Cracking the Code: Bámbula at Congo Square”
1:10 p.m.

One of the great frustrations in thinking about Congo Square is that we have no recordings of how it sounded. Contemporary accounts, most notably Benjamin Henry Latrobe’s 1819 description with pictures, describe dense activity and loud, diverse sound, or, as another traveler observed that same year: the “African slaves” would “assemble on the green by the swamp and rock the city with their Congo dances.”

But we are not confined to the stray written evidence handed down by culturally naïve passers-by. We also have a thriving oral culture to consult. While we might not be able to recapture the composite sound of Congo Square, we know some things about the music there. There was at least one element for which we have a pretty good living relative today: the bámbula. The bámbula one might have heard at Congo Square in 1819 bore no small resemblance to the way bámbula is played today in western Puerto Rico. Cousins of this style can be heard in eastern Cuba and Guadeloupe, among other places. This, in turn, is a consequence of one of the generative explosions of popular music in the Western hemisphere: the diaspora occasioned by the Haitian Revolution of 1791 to 1804.

Appearing with Ned Sublette will be Alex LaSalle, a specialist in the music of western Puerto Rico, who will demonstrate the way bámbula is played in the contemporary and historical context.

Robert Farris Thompson: “Kongo with a K”
2:30 p.m.

The presentation will consist of two sections, both bearing on Creole continuities of Kongo culture in the Americas. First are the well-known continuities, the conga drum, the conga line, the congo grind. But jug-bands in early jazz also trace back to Kongo, as do the twist [zka nitu], the
ring-shout, and very likely the Charleston, being that South Carolina is famous for a Kongo house built in the late 19th Century by a former slave, Kongo-influenced face-jugs with inserted kaolin eyes and cut teeth, and a pond associated with the powerful Kongo water spirits, the simbi.

Kongo is famous for its writing system [bidimbu] and as a direct extension of that are time-resistant gestures practiced there and here over the last 200 years: arms akimbo, hands above head with fingers wide spread, right hand forward and left on hip. These echo and re-echo in art historical documents which we touch upon briefly. In sum, specific musical, choreographic and gestural traditions will be shown to link Black Americas with the noble civilization of the kingdom of Kongo.

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