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Congo Square is in the vicinity of a spot which the Houma Indians used before the arrival of the French for celebrating their annual corn harvest and was considered sacred ground. The gathering of enslaved African vendors in Congo Square originate as early as the 1740s during Louisiana's French Colonial period and continued during the Spanish Colonial era as one of the city's public markets. By 1803, Congo Square has become famous for the gathering of enslaved Africans and free people of color who drummed, danced, sang and traded on Sunday afternoons. By 1819, these gatherings numbered as many as 500 to 600 people. Among the most famous dances were the Bamboula, the Calinda and the Congo. These African cultural expressions gradually developed into Mardi Indian traditions, the 2nd Line, and eventually New Orleans Jazz and Rhythm and Blues.
The French and the Spanished placed severe restrictions on Voodoo practice as well as the limited freedoms allowed for slaves in Colonial New Orleans. The slaves, most of whom had just been directly transported from the West Coast of Africa or the Caribbean, suffered extremely harsh treatment. When not working under the lash, they were confined in buildings or in chains. Following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, conditions for slaves improved to some extent. Slaves were given Sunday as a day off from labor, and they also had other limited free time at night and on some religious holidays.
It was in the Nineteenth Century in Congo Square in New Orleans that 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. This square located across Rampart Street on the back side of the French Quarter was in use as a gathering place for the residents of New Orleans almost since the city began. It had been an area outside of the fortified walls of the original city where Native Americans and later slaves had sold their wares in an open market by the Bayou St. John, the major avenue for transportation of goods into the city.
Town's folk 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. 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, jimgling 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, percale dresses. And 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 go 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 panpipes, marimbas and european instuments like the violin, tamborines and triangles were also used.
At Congo Square the slaves performed many traditional African dances, including the Bamboula, to the beat of primitive drums. They may have even performed some Voodoo rituals as well, including the worship of Damballa, the Snake god. Although some sources claim no Voodoo worship per se was held in Congo Square, it is clear that this area was a place reserved for the free expression of African culture and customs, especially dancing to the music of the drums. And although the historical record is cloudy, it is possible that some aspects of Voodoo ceremonies were performed there.
The Century Magazine
From The Dance in Place Congo
Up at the other end of Orleans street, hid only by the old padre's garden and the cathedral, glistens the ancient Place d'Armes. In the early days it stood for all that was best; the place for political rallying, the retail quarter of all fine goods and wares, and at sunset and by moonlight the promenade of good society and the haunt of true lovers; not only in the military, but also in the most unwarlike sense the place of arms, and of hearts and hands, and of words tender as well as words noble.
The Place Congo, at the opposite end of the street, was at the opposite end of everything. One was on the highest ground; the other on the lowest. The one was the rendezvous of the rich man, the master, the military officer--of all that went to make up the ruling class; the other of the butcher and baker, the raftsman, the sailor, the quadroon, the painted girl, and the negro slave. No meaner name could be given the spot. The negro was the most despised of human creatures and the Congo the plebian among negroes. The white man's plaza had the army and navy on its right and left, the court-house, the council-hall and the church at its back, and the world before it. The black man's was outside the rear gate, the poisonous wilderness on three sides and the proud man's contumely on its front.
Before the city overgrew its flimsy palisade walls, and closing in about this old stamping-ground gave it set bounds, it was known as Congo Plains. There was wide room for much field sport, and the Indian villagers of the town's outskirts and the lower class of white Creoles made it the ground of their wild game of raquette. Sunday afternoons were the time for it. Hence, beside these diversions there was, notably, another.
The hour was the slave's term of momentary liberty, and his simple, savage, musical and superstitious nature dedicated it to amatory song and dance tinctured with his rude notions of supernatural influences.
There were other dances. Only a few years ago I was honored with an invitation, which I had to decline, to see danced the Babouille, the Cata (or Chacta), the Counjaille, and the Calinda. Then there were the Voudou, and the Congo, to describe which would not be pleasant. The latter, called Congo also in Cayenne, Chica in San Domingo, and in the Windward Islands confused under one name with the Calinda, was a kind of Fandango, they say, in which the Madras kerchief held by its tip-ends played a graceful part.
The true Calinda was bad enough. In Louisiana, at least, its song was always a grossly personal satirical ballad, and it was the favorite dance all the way from there to Trinidad. To dance it publicly is not allowed this side the West Indies. All this Congo Square business was suppressed at one time; 1843, says tradition.
The Calinda was a dance of multitude, a sort of vehement cotillion. The contortions of the encircling crowd were strange and terrible, the din was hideous. One Calinda is still familiar to all Creole ears; it has long been a vehicle for the white Creole's satire; for generations the man of municipal politics was fortunate who escaped entirely a lampooning set to its air.
"Dance, dance the Calindá! Boujoum! Boujoum!"
The number of stanzas has never been counted; here are a few of them.
"Dans l'equirie la 'y' avé grand gala;
Mo cré choual la yé t b'en étonné.
Miché Preval, li té capitaine bal;
So cocher Louis, té maite cérémonie.
Y avé des négresse belle passé maitresse,
Qui volé bel-bel dans l'ormoire momselle.
. . . . . .
Ala maite la geole li trouvé si drole,
Li dit, "moin aussi, mo fé bal ici."
Ouatchman la yé yé tombé la dans;
Yé fé gran' déga dans léquirie la." etc.
The Calinda ended these dissipations of the summer Sabbath afternoons. They could not run far into the night, for all the fascinations of all the dances could not excuse the slave's tarrying in public places after a certain other bou-djoum! (that was not of the Calinda, but of the regular nine-o'clock evening gun) had rolled down Orleans street from the Place d'Armes; and the black man or woman who wanted to keep a whole skin on the back had to keep out of the Calaboose. Times have changed, and there is nothing to be regretted in the change that has come over Congo Square. Still a glamour hangs over its dark past. There is the pathos of slavery, the poetry of the weak oppressed by the strong, and of limbs that danced after toil, and of barbaric love-making. The rags and semi-nakedness, the bamboula drum, the dance, and almost the banjo, are gone; but the bizarre melodies and dark lovers' apostrophes live on; and among them the old Counjaille song of Aurore Pradère.