Visiting French Architect of the Nation's Capitol and what He saw on His visit to New Orlean !
Shortly after he completed repairs on the national capitol, which the British had burned when they captured Washington during the War of 1812, Benjamin Henry Latrobe proceeded to New Orleans. There he was to oversee construction of the waterworks he had designed for the century-old French city, recently acquired by the United States as part of the massive Baltimore, pulled up to the New Orleans wharves in early January of 1819, “everything,” Latrobe wrote in his journal, “had an odd look.” It was impossible, he continued, “not to stare at a sight wholly new even to one who has traveled much in Europe & America.”
Curious market oats, “differing in form & equipment from anything that floats on the Atlantic side of our country,” laden with exotic foodstuffs and some still flying the French tricolor, crowded the docks. And on the levee, “as far as the eye could reach” in either direction, “ranged two rows of market people, some having stalls or tables with a tilt or awning of canvas, but the majority having their wares lying on the ground, perhaps on a piece of canvas, or a parcel of Palmetto leaves.”
Five hundred or more “white men and women, & of all hues of brown, & of all classes of faces, from round Yankees, to grisly & lean Spaniards, black negroes and negresses, filthy Indians half naked, mulattoes, curly & straight-haired, quarteroons of all shades, long haired & frizzled, the women dressed in the most flaring yellow & scarlet gowns, the men capped and hated” bought and sold “wild ducks, oysters, poultry of all kinds… bananas, piles of oranges, sugar cane, sweet & Irish potatoes, corn in the Ear & husked, apples, carrots & all sorts of other roots, eggs, trinkets, tin ware, dry goods… wretched beef… & some excellent & large fish,” as well as a few books in English and French. All in all, he said, “more & odder things” than he could count.
On Sunday afternoon a fortnight or so later, while exploring the “back-of-town” of the city, away from the river, Latrobe heard in the distance an extraordinary noise, which he “supposed to proceed from some horse mill, the horses trampling on a wooden floor.” But he found, as he approached, the sound to be “5 or 600 persons assembled in an open space or public square.” All those “engaged in the business seemed to be blacks,” for he “did not observe a dozen yellow faces” in the crowd.
The crowd he discovered, when he moved into it to see what was going on, comprised not a single mass, but a series of clusters. The members of each cluster crowded around to form a rough circle, “the largest not ten feet in diameter.” In the middle or on the edge of each circle sat or squatted two or three musicians, and, in most circles, around or in front of the musicians, from two to a dozen dancers moved to the rhythm of the circle’s music, song, and chant.
The thunderous din that Latrobe had mistaken for the thumping of horses came from the echoes of percussions of hundreds of hands and sticks on drums, gourds, and hollow, cotter-shaped, wooden blocks, all backed by the plunking of a variety of banjo-like instruments made from calabashes affixed to long fingerboards. In one circle Latrobe saw two women dancers holding “a coarse handkerchief extended by the corners in their hands” and gravely treading a “dull & slow figure, hardly moving their feet or bodies.”
In another, particularly large, circle, “a dozen women walked, by way of dancing, round the music in the center,” and chanted, or “squalled out,” as he said, a monotonous two-note refrain. In yet another group a man sang “an uncouth song to the dancing which I suppose was in some African Language, for it was not French, and the women screamed a detestable burthen on one single note.” “Never,” Latrobe said, had he “seen anything more brutally savage.” These Sunday amusements, he concluded, “have perpetuated here those of Africa among its inhabitants.”
Benjamin Latrobe had stumbled into New Orlean’s old Place des Negres, better known for most of its history as Congo Square. And from his time to ours, observers and scholars, particularly music history scholars, have continued to describe and analyze the beat of the bamboulas, the wail of the banzas, and the congeries of African dances that became the hallmark of the square.
No other single spot has been more often mentioned in scholarly speculations about the origins of jazz or about the relationship of pre-jazz New Orleans music to jazz itself.
One reason fo such attention has been that, unlike other, fly-by-night pre-jazz and early jazz settings—the countless black-town kitchens, garages, backyards, barrooms, and nightclubs in New Orleans, St. Louis, Kansas City, Chicago and Harlem – the square has had a continuous history, and one that is largely documentable.
Congo Square, however, originated not in the early American decades of New Orleans’ history, but nearly a hundred years before, in the early decades of its French colonial period, and not as a spot where black New Orleanians gathered.
Congo Square in New Orleans
By Jerah Johnson
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