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Arts & Culture

Full Circle: Congo Square and the New World Rhythms Festival

Take a trip back in history with this episode of GoNOLA Radio to Congo Square in New Orleans, the birthplace of American music and the site of the Congo Square New World Rhythms Festival.

Have you ever wondered where New Orleans jazz really originated? Not just what musician made this city famous for jazz – but physically, where and how it all began? The answer is Congo Square where groups of slaves would congregate bringing many different heritages and backgrounds to one place to play music and socialize. Congo Square, which is in fact a circle, is the birthplace of the first music created in America, which led to all the forms that we know today: blues, rock, and of course, jazz. These musical roots are the basis for the diverse lineup at the Congo Square New World Rhythms Festival. Here, you will find musicians such as the Brooklyn-based bhangra funk band Red Baraat, the great Cuban percussionist and singer Pedrito Martinez, and New Orleans own Stooges Brass Band, among others.
On this episode, our hosts speak with a familiar face and voice to GoNOLA Radio, Sunpie Barnes, a New Orleans musician and the treasurer of the Backstreet Cultural Museum, about the Congo Square New World Rhythms Festival, the history of Congo Square and much more! Press play for a trip back to America’s musical origins.

GoNOLA Radio is a free New Orleans podcast hosted by Sunpie Barnes, Lorin Gaudin, George Ingmire and Mikko about the food, music and culture of the Crescent City. Subscribe to GoNOLA Radio on iTunes or download to your mobile device on Stitcher. GoNOLA Radio features music by Cale Pellick.

Podcast Transcript

Sanpa Barnes: Welcome to Go NOLA Radio. My name is Sanpa Barnes, and I will
be your host of hosts, as we explore New Orleans to learn about the city’s
rich cultural heritage, food, and music. We bring you experts, the real-
deal experts, who will talk with you about the people who make New Orleans
such a wonderful place to live and visit. It’s Go NOLA Radio.

Miko: It was a provision in New Orleans law that every Sunday afternoon,
the enslaved people would get the day off, and they could gather in a place
together to exchange culture, start music, dance, it was a party day in
what’s come to be known as Congo Square. Welcome everybody. We have our
food goddess, Lauren Goden.

Lauren: Hello.

Miko: Our musicologist, George Ingmire.

George: Hello.

Miko: Hello, George.

Miko: And an old friend is here to visit us, Sanpa Barnes.

Sanpa: Hello, somebody.

Miko: Welcome back. Welcome back and we’re going to be talking about Congo
Square today. Now it’s very interesting. Two things happened. There was
this law in the Code Noir that provided that the enslaved people could get
the afternoon off, which allowed them to gather, which was somewhat of a
wonder to foreign visitors. To see all these people, basically
unsupervised, but they were exchanging culture. No overthrows of the
government or anything of that sort.

It became like the first official sort of party that was okay, and the
other thing that happened, was there was this revolution that I’m sure
we’re going to talk about in Haiti. What used to be called Saint-Domingue,
and 10,000 or more Haitians came over to New Orleans, bringing their
culture and their music. So now this mix, all these people getting together
in the Square, caused a lot of this sort of germinal, seminal parts of what
became known as New Orleans Jazz, and all those other wonderful music’s. It
all really started in this social phenomenon of Congo Square. George, you
were talking just before we went on about how the first Jazz Fests were
held there.

George: Yeah, the first couple of Jazz Fests were held either in the Square
or in the municipal auditorium, and the connection between Congo Square and
a church not that far away, St. Augustine Church is worth mentioning. I was
doing an interview with Father Jerome LeDoux, who used to be over there at
St. Augustine Church, and he was talking about back in the day in the
1800’s, there was something known as the “War of the Pews.” And the
ownership of the pews or the rental of the pews was based upon, actually
putting money down and having that pew to sit in during church time on
Sunday. And there was a battle between the free people of color who had
bought their freedom and the whites. And the free people of color
eventually ended up with more pew real estate, so to speak, and to spite
the white folks, gave a lot of the pews to the slaves, because they were
actually able to do their own thing on Sunday.

Sanpa: Yeah, it was their relatives.

Lauren: Amazing.

George: Early on Sunday, they would be in there hearing stories of the
Bible, and at times they would hear these stories they could relate to,
like the Jews in Egypt, and they would take these stories in the afternoon,
moving just a couple of blocks from St. Augustine Church, over to Congo
Square. And they would be singing the prototype of the Blues, the Sacred
Blues, so they would actually hear these stories and re-interpret them to
their own experiences and that was over, no about, over 150 years ago at
this point.

Lauren: How incredible.

Sanpa: Yeah, it’s how Spirituals were born. People took Biblical stories
especially from the Old Testament, because that’s where all the heroes in
the Bible are and if they sung about Daniel, they knew that Daniel could
understand their trials and tribulations, because after all, he was thrown
in the lion’s den. Moses was the one who parted the Red Sea. You’re talking
about people who were in living conditions that needed immediate
assistance. Later songs like “Jesus on the Mainline” became a plea that
says “I need you right now.”

George: Let my people go.

Sanpa: Yeah, yes.

George: And here we are in modern-day 21st century New Orleans, but on
Sunday afternoons a lot of times there is liberation, as well. The
liberation now is instead of the streets of New Orleans being driven down
by cars and police so to speak, there are second lines throughout pretty
much most of the year, other than when it gets too hot. And a lot of these
songs, once again, have been transformed into brass band music, there are
modern pieces as well, but you’re hearing all this going on.

Lauren: And this all becomes a part of what Congo Square is and then
ultimately, the Festival? Is that what this whole foundation is based on,
all of this?

George: Exactly. Congo Square in many ways represents just based upon the
bylaws of that time, the birthplace of America’s music, and to this day we
still find our way back to Congo Square. A lot of times, second lines
actually begin there. They pass by there and just a few weeks from now we

Lauren: To pay homage?

George: Exactly, we have the Congo Square New World Rhythms Festival in
just a couple-few weeks, and by the time people are listening to this,
either they’re on their way down here or they’re going to be able to hear
it broadcast live by WWOZ. And there’s all kinds of music there
representing, both the music of New Orleans and music from West Africa, and
then you have this wild card in there known as Red Baraat, which is Bhangra
Funk from Brooklyn. And they always find their way down to New Orleans,
because I think and I think, Sanpa you can attest to this. For musicians
who live here or visit here, there’s something about just dipping down into
the rhythmic waters of New Orleans that you can’t get anywhere else.

Sanpa: People understand it, and really clearly I mean you know this is the
modern-day mecca for music in the world. And as Ernie Cato said, I’m not
quite positive but I think all music came from New Orleans, in some way,
and in a modern sense it’s true.

Lauren: It’s true for those who want to believe it.

Sanpa: It’s true that this is a place that was born out of these what
were harsh conditions, quite frankly. The Code Noir said you could have
Sunday off if you were an enslaved African, because your owners couldn’t
take care of you, and they were bound by law to take care of their
property. So they gave them Sunday off so they could sustain, find their
own food in their own ways.

Well, people figured that out pretty quick, and also they figured out how
to make it a leisurely activity and how to make money out of it. So they
figured out how to feed themselves on Sunday. How to take the rest of the
day and afternoon to sell goods to be able to have some expression of
spirit, culture, and all these things and to beat goes on. That’s why it’s
still there today. It’s an amazing phenomenon, but musicians when they hear
New Orleans music, they always talk about the spirit of it, and it’s
because that’s the epicenter, for where this spirit was born.

Lauren: Do you think the festival though, has evolved in the type of music.
I mean you hear the word Bhangra funk and I’ll go ahead and be the idiot at
the table, but I don’t know what Bhangra funk is.

Sanpa: Well, it’s out of India, but strangely enough Congo Square was
before Africans were there, it was ceremonial grounds for Choctaw Indians,
so different Indians, but same content, same-same but different, as they
say in India.

Lauren: I love that, same-same.

George: Roving rhythms and people join you along the way.

Miko: So, Bhangra funk from Brooklyn, forget about it, but it’s interesting
that the Congo Square phenomenon isn’t just a modern influence on modern
music which it clearly is, its bands coming in from out of town. For
example in classical music, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, a New Orleanian
Creole, grew up within earshot of Congo Square, and he could hear these
dances, named one of his pieces Bamboula. I’m sure Sanpa could talk hours
about Bamboula, but this was one of the dances that was featured, that was
one of the favorites. In fact, I was going to prevail upon you to give us a
little insight on that.

Sanpa: That launches his career.

Miko: Yeah, and he wrote not only Bamboula, but also lots of other tropical-
inspired pieces. He toured with great opera singers, and he was a New
Orleanian who was directly influenced from something going on literally, in
his backyard in all our backyards.

Lauren: Maybe Ernie K-Doe was right.

Sanpa: Yeah.

Miko: I agree.

George: If not all music, no doubt definitely America’s music.

Sanpa: Or good music.

George: Found its way out of New Orleans to the rest of the world or at
some point passed through New Orleans. There’s no other place in this
country, where there has been these cultural collisions, historical
moments, and people just kind of did it just like we do it today. People
just kind of meet up and you don’t know this person. You could be in line
at a grocery store, the produce section, or anywhere else and you’re having
a conversation. You’re having a little rap session about food. Well, the
same thing happens musically. There’s an assimilation and inclusivity as
opposed to exclusivity where people actually got to go…

Lauren: Inclusive?

George: Yeah. What do you have to say?

Sanpa: Yeah, that’s right.

George: And then I’m going to respond to that, and all of a sudden we’re
going to have something new to say because we are picking up something from
each other. It could be a recipe or it can be rhythm. The difference is
minimal. Really it has a lot to do with the ability for us to stay open to
each other and that may sound kind of hooey and out-there, but it really
it’s a day-to-day thing.

Sanpa: In New Orleans, this is a place where for 150 years you don’t have
to go out and try to find some music. The music comes and gets you and call
it a brass band or a procession on a Sunday afternoon, you don’t go find
that music. You don’t have to dress a certain way. You don’t have to have a
certain amount of money. Any kind of affluency in the city that says that,
“You just wait right there. We’re going to come and get you.”

Lauren: Yeah, I could be sitting in my house, and oftentimes out of
absolutely nowhere, I’ll hear a brass band, just out of nowhere. You go
outside, and, sure enough, there’s a cluster of kids.

Sanpa: Cultural fabric of this city.

Lauren: Cultural fabric. I knew I came here for a reason. I can tell you
that’s a soul call, if there ever was one.

Sanpa: You came for the groceries, I know. Same reason I did.

Lauren: Maybe I did.

Sanpa: Now you the goddess of the whole thing.

Lauren: Speaking of which though, the festival that happens has got that
big music component, but then there’s also, a really sweet sort of small
but contained food component to that Congo.

George: You can’t have music without food.

Lauren: Right? It’s almost like that crazy Holy Trinity of music and food
and musicians and chefs and what’s the third thing? Culture, I guess.

Miko: Nooky

George: Shaking your booty.

Lauren: Shake your booty dance.

Miko: I guess I told you.

Lauren: So I think it’s really neat. I love what they do. They bring in at
the festival they’ll have just a very nice, small handful. So in years past
there’s been Praline Connection, which you can go to Praline Connection, if
you really want to experience, if you don’t get here for the festival, and
have their beautiful fried chicken livers, and if they’re cooking out of
doors, they don’t tend to fry them. They grill them instead.

George: I love them chicken livers.

Lauren: I do, too.

George: Fried, grilled.

Lauren: Fried, grilled with the greens with the rice, a beautiful thing.
And they also have Lil’ Dizzys, and of course the Baquet family, I mean
just elemental when it comes to food.

Sanpa: Seventh Ward gumbo.

Lauren: Seventh Ward gumbo. Then you talk about the African tradition, and
you mentioned West Africa, so it made me immediately think of Congo Square
Jazz Fest and what’s in the French Quarter, and you think of Bennachin,
which those ladies are Cameroonian and certainly from the west coast of
Africa. I think people get very excited about a particular dish, which is
jama jama, right?

George: Jama-jama.

Lauren: And they may not necessarily be at this Congo Square Festival, but
you can experience this African cuisine.

Miko: You can just walk a couple blocks.

Sanpa: You can walk right to them.

Lauren: That’s it.

George: Just make sure they ask you how spicy you want it.

Lauren: Of course, the black-eyed pea fritters, the Acara that you have,
that you can get there that are just phenomenal. But in addition you have
Lil Dizzys where you can eat. That’s kind of our Creole soul food, if you
will, and Trout Baquet as I mentioned and then Jazzy Wings. So eating this
fried chicken wings, gives you a little bit of modern and a little bit of
old Creole soul food at the festival. That’s an amazing thing, because it’s
all about flavor and taste and soul, and those things all kind of; it all
rather melts together and becomes a part of that whole thing that is about
being a New Orleanian or being here and experiencing New Orleans;
musically, culturally, culinary-wise, it’s I don’t know, I always describe
the city as delicious.

George: When I was down in Haiti, I was listening to people describe the
same phenomenon of the spirit differently, but everyone was nodding in
agreement. In New Orleans, there’s a similar kind of phenomenon where we
could be talking about whatever it is, and we’re not going to get up on our
high-horses, because just like Congo Square is actually a circle for one
thing, just to clear that up.

Lauren: Right, didn’t we talk about that earlier. Circus and…

Miko: Well, it used to be called Circus Square which I think is funny,
because it’s a circle.

George: If you think about the fact that it’s a circle or everyone’s kind
of facing each other, and on August 27th of every year, there’s White
Buffalo Day, which is a matter of bringing together different traditions;
African, Asian, Indian, Caucasian; and it’s a long, drawn-out story that
Chief Arvol…

Sanpa: … Looking Horse

George: Chief Arvol Looking Horse, Keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo.

Sanpa: Yeah, there are some wonderful things that the festival happens on
the Fourth of July weekend. The Mafia, sunrise, drumming and healing,
spiritual moment that happens. Hundreds of people dressed in white there.
It’s amazing thing to really just to be there, witness it and you really
will feel it. You can’t get around it.

George: And if you’re unable to make it to the Congo Square New World
Rhythms Festival.

Lauren: Which is on what dates, George?

George: Believe March 23rd and 24th to be correct.

Lauren: That’s correct. I was just hoping you knew.

Miko: Pop quiz.

George: I just had a really good interview with a gentleman by the name of
Scott Aiges. He’s worth looking up. In fact you could probably, by the time
this program airs, go to which is a production
of WWOZ and

Lauren: Brilliantly hosted by someone I know.

George: Well, thank you, and he’s not a bad guy, but I interviewed Scott
Aiges about this, and he talks about the, just the whole nexus of things
going on in Congo Square to this day, and if you’re not able to make it to
Congo Square, but you want to check out the Treme, which is kind of an
immortalized view of the HBO show, Treme, but over there on… It’s no
longer St Claude.

Sanpa: Henrietta Delille Place.

Lauren: Well done.

Sanpa: The Backstreet Cultural Museum, right?

Lauren: Yes, it’s great.

Sanpa: Bone-gang Headquarters.

George: So somebody explain this museum, because you walk in there and

Lauren: Well, it’s, you know…

Sanpa: It’s a backstreet cultural… It’s the world’s only museum that has,
that’s directly dedicated to, really to New Orleans Black-African American
Negroes that color the street culture.

Lauren: And the ephemera that go along with it, is just incredible.

Sanpa: Mardi Gras Indian suits. It’s the largest collection of Mardis Gras
Indian suits in any museum. It’s where the North Side Skull and Bone Gang
come out on Mardis Gras morning.

George: I think I know somebody in that gang.

Lauren: Me, too.

Sanpa: Watch out for them fellas.

George: Yeah, get out the way.

Sanpa: Socials, pleasure clubs, all those things are happening, and it’s a
juxtaposition of the Plastic Congo to Congo Plains, which was a part of it.
We have Saint Augustine Church right there, Henrietta Delille who was
canonized, what people call Congo Square. That whole area there is really
what Congo Square is. It’s not just that round labyrinth-looking thing,
because that’s actually a fountain that’s in the ground. That’s what it was
built for.

The National Register Plaque that was put up by the Congo Square
Foundation, Luther Grey and those folks got help from the National Park
Service to do that back in the day. But that’s where everybody still used
to drum at and people would go there do things at night and day. Beautiful
facility, McDonogh-41 School was there. A lot of people that lived in the
neighborhood, right there in that area all went to school there. The only
houses that are left from it are over on the side where the National Park
Service is. The Robosa House, he was a famous architect. It’s there, the
Ryman House and Perseverance Hall, which is the oldest Masonic Hall in the
state of Louisiana.

Lauren: Really?

Sanpa: It came from Haiti. It was an Illinois chapter that came from Saint-
Domingue in 1797. They built that place, Etoile Polaire, which looks almost
just like it is right down the street.

Lauren: The Polar Star? Etoile Polaire.

Sanpa: Yeah, the North Star.

George: You can see that right from near the intersection of Esplanade.

Sanpa: Just on that side, its north of the Aloysius.

Miko: Because of the Catholics, the Masons couldn’t put their temple in the
city proper, so this was just outside when the French Quarter was the city
proper and those buildings are still there.

Sanpa: And actually there is music that takes place there every Saturday. I
have a program that I started there several years back, but just teaching
young people traditional brass band music, so they can get free lessons
every Saturday. It’s been going on the last seven years.

Lauren: That’s genius. Love it.

Sanpa: They work with the Treme Brass Band and New Wave, Storyville
Stompers, raw players. There’s nothing like seeing a 9-year kid sit down
and play some music with Lionel Ferbos.

Lauren: You’re right.

Sanpa: He’s 101. That’s the spirit transfer you can’t get in a book. You
can’t buy it and you can’t sell it.

George: That’s right. There’s a website for that?

Sanpa: There is. It’s National Park Service,

Miko: Jazz, and of course the elephant in the room, we’re talking about one
of the most beautiful theaters in the town is the Mahalia Jackson, which is
on that site there, and part of that being rejuvenated after Katrina has
become a real jewel in the New Orleans Theater.

George: Yeah, we’re talking feet from Congo Square is where oddly enough,
I’ll be listening to Leonard Cohen later in the month, which to me in a way
makes sense, because we’re talking about storytelling. Nonetheless, who’s
the the storyteller? Doesn’t matter its storytelling, and there was a time
way back when the stories were told in Congo Square and they continue to be
told today.

Lauren: It’s beautiful.

Sanpa: You’re right. I’m going to be there.

Go NOLA radio is a production of New Orleans Tourism and Marketing
Corporation, in conjunction with FSC Interactive, music by Kale Pellet. My
name is Sanpa. Tune in next week by subscribing to Go NOLA Radio on iTunes,