The tradition of a Sunday afternoon gathering with African drum rhythms, singing and dancing is alive and well in historic Congo Square in New Orleans.
Congo Square, located on the edge of New Orleans’ French Quarter, has been a gathering place for African and Native Americans dating back for centuries. The weekly gatherings of enslaved Africans began in the 1740’s. It was a place where they could mingle, play traditional drums, sing and dance and trade goods.
The rhythm of new orleans
Those African drum beats gave birth to the distinct rhythm of the Crescent City. In Africa, the drumming was a way of passing messages from one village to another. Syncopated beats are still played today in the music of second-line parades, and they are an integral part of the New Orleans sound. The traditional Sunday afternoon drum circle in the Square was revived more than 30 years ago.
Playing the bamboula in congo square
The “Bamboula” is one of the most popular drum beats and dances that was first played in Congo Square more than 300 years ago. You are likely to recognize the popular rhythm when you hear it. Luther Gray, a New Orleans musician, helped organize the Sunday drum circle. He says he learned the Bamboula rhythm from traditional African drummers.
Congo Square had long been a gathering place before Europeans arrived in New Orleans. A Native American tribe, the Houmas Indians, met near this same spot to celebrate their annual corn harvest. Giant live oak trees shade this historic gathering place, which is considered sacred ground by those who congregate here.
The Square is adjacent to the city’s old Municipal Auditorium, once the home of regal Mardi Gras balls, concerts and circus performances. But the building now sits empty. Gray was one of the founders of the Congo Square Foundation, which focused on restoring the park area, putting its history on display and promoting the continued use of the plaza.
The Foundation promotes youth field trips to the Square, which is also one of the stops for some New Orleans tour guides. Sculptures show the journey of the drumming from celebrations by enslaved Africans to street brass bands. Those bands frequently play in the French Quarter or lead second-line parades through the city.