The Roots of Rhythm
Congo Square Rhythms Festival honors NOLA’s musical legacy
New Orleans has a few tells when it comes to Spring’s arrival – magnolias blooming, Hansen’s Sno-Bliz opening, and incredible music festivals that fill the weekends.
This weekend brings the 11th annual Congo Square Rhythms Festival, presented by the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation. The free festival will be held in Armstrong Park March 3 and March 4 from 11:00 a.m. until 7:30 p.m.
While it isn’t one of the more famous festivals, it is an important one. Congo Square, located within Armstrong Park, is considered to be the exact location where the music intrinsic to New Orleans and American culture is rooted. Beginning in the 18th Century and lasting well into the 19th Century, African slaves and free people of color would congregate there on Sunday afternoons. In accordance with the Code Noir, which originated in France to control the practices of slavery, it was the law that no slave could work on Sundays or Catholic holidays. The French and Spanish colonizers, and after the Louisiana Purchase, the Americans, allowed the enslaved people to gather and on these “days of rest” and they did so at a location that came to be known as Place Congo, or Congo Square.
People would play drums and other musical instruments, sing songs in African languages and dance in styles that stood in contrast to the stiff European ballrooms. They were also allowed to hold a market and keep the proceeds from their sales. The earliest tourists to New Orleans would include a visit to Congo Square on their itineraries, and historic accounts mention drums, gourds and banjos, and describe dances that included the Calinda. The practice continued for over one hundred years and didn’t end until the lead up to the American Civil War.
After Reconstruction, brass bands gained in popularity and Creole musicians once again performed at Congo Square. Those brass bands were training grounds for the earliest jazz musicians, including Buddy Bolden, Kid Ory, Sidney Bechet and even Louis Armstrong. In 1893, the white leaders of the city renamed Congo Square for a Confederate General to “Beauregard Square” to discourage people of color from gathering there, but both white and black residents continued to call it Congo Square, which became the formal name after an act by New Orleans City Council in 2011. The first Jazz Fest, in 1970, was held at Congo Square.
By knowing a little of the history of the place, the contemporary musicians who will fill it with a joyful noise this weekend have even more resonance. African music and dance, drum circles, Latin jazz, brass bands, soul-funk and Mardi Gras Indians are all in the lineup of this festival that honors the past and innovates today. A Soul Food Court, kids’ activities and an art market round out the fest. Do yourself a favor and buy a crabmeat beignet from Ms. Loretta.
Saturday, March 3
11:00 a.m. to 11:45 a.m. – Drum Circle
11:45 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. – Bamboula 2000
1:00 p.m. to 2:00 p.m. – Fufu Allstars
2:15 p.m. to 3:15 p.m. – Alexey Marti Quintet
3:15 p.m. to 4:15 p.m. – Mardi Gras Indian Battle
4:15 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. – Quiana Lynell
5:15 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. – Water Seed
6:15 p.m. to 7:15 p.m. – Rebirth Brass Band
Sunday, March 4
11:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. – Drum Circle
12:00 p.m. to 1:00 p.m. – Sneak Preview African Dance Performance: "Bricks: From the River to the Bayou" – a collaborative dance interpretation of New Orleans history in celebration of the city's tricentennial:
• "Katalis and Seremoni: Dutty Boukman, Cecile Fatima and Charles Deslondes," performed by the Chakra and Omosede Dance Theater
• "Fly With It!," performed by Tekrema Dance Theater
• "Mali," performed by the Culu and N’Kafu African Dance Ensembles
• "Indigenous," performed by Kumbuka African Drum and Dance Collective
1:00 p.m. to 1:15 p.m. – N’Fungola Sibo African Dance Company
1:30 p.m. to 2:45 p.m. – Pinettes Brass Band
3:00 p.m. to 4:45 p.m. – Class Got Brass Contest
5:00 p.m. to 6:15 p.m. – Hot 8 Brass Band