Congo Square, on Rampart Street in New Orleans, is a place of special significance for lovers of modern American music. A statue of ‘Satchmo’ stands in what is now called Louis Armstrong Park, near the Municipal Auditorium, and this location is the birthplace of The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Back in the 50s, Cosimo Matassa‘s little J&M Studio across the street resounded to the music that made the world dance, as Roy Brown, Fats Domino and Smiley Lewis made their rocking records and Allen Toussaint, Dave Bartholomew and side-men like Dr. John and Earl Palmer learned their trade. Almost two Centuries previously, a different but equally spectacular kind of musical performance took place in Congo Square that brought tourists to New Orleans’ Vieux Carré, much as it does today.New Orleans’ geographical position as a huge world port, facing the Caribbean and Latin America, and on the great river system that opens up the interior of The States, and its political history as a place ruled by the Imperial powers of France and Spain and by The Confederacy during the Civil War, make it the ultimate cultural ‘melting pot’. The early French and Spanish laws on slavery were much less onerous that their Protestant counterparts, with the French Revolutionary ‘Civil Codes’ ensuring that no child of a French Citizen could be a slave, leading to a class of ‘free people of color’ making a huge cultural impact in this Southern metropolis. Slaves were also given ‘time-off’ on Sundays to practice their religion, and hundreds gathered in ‘Congo Square’ to play music.
Many instruments of African origin were played there, not just the wide variety of drums, although it was the massed drumming and wild dancing that became a tourist attraction. Stringed instruments like the ‘bania’, a three or four-stringed Senegalese lute with a calabash ‘body’, a pre-cursor of the banjo; the ‘balafon’, a wooden marimba; reed flutes and ‘quills’, and ‘one-string fiddles’ played with a bow, were among the many imported instruments to bring African melodies to New Orleans. Although the international slave trade was abolished in the early 1800s, illegal trading went on up to the Civil War, so for almost a hundred years melodies from all over West and Central Africa might have first reached American ears at Congo Square. During the rise of ‘Minstrel Music’ in the 1830s, with ‘blackface’ performers singing popular songs like ‘Jump Jim Crow’, a typical band might comprise banjo, fiddle, tambourine and ‘bones’ (polished sheep ribs), which is very close to the African ‘bania’, ‘soku’ (a bowed one-string ‘chordophone’), gourd drum and ‘bones’.The Civil War ended these frivolities, but the tradition was re-established during ‘Reconstruction’ in the 1870s. After the Plessy vs. Ferguson case of 1896 legitimised ‘Jim Crow’ segregationalist laws in New Orleans and throughout the South, ‘Congo Square’ was re-named ‘Beauregard Square’ after a Confederate General. In the 1920s, the Municipal Auditorium was built at the back of the square, and in the early 1970s it became the site of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. More recently the square has been re-named ‘Louis Armstrong Park’ and the importance of the location in the story of American culture is increasingly recognised.