Congo Square occupies mythic space in New Orleans. In the mid-1700s, enslaved Africans gathered on Sundays at a field between outlying plantations and the rampart, or back wall, of the French town facing the Mississippi. Africans danced in large concentric circles to rhythms of percussive music transplanted from Senegambia, and other tribal cultures as time passed.
The expanding city made the field smaller; yet the dances grew — several hundred people moved in rings, some wearing costumes. The place went through a succession of names until becoming Congo Square, after the 1804 Louisiana Purchase. African polyrhythms gave shape to early jazz. The meaning of Congo Square – Africans dramatizing cultural memory in ancestral dances — had long reach.
A wedge of the seminal site, now a corner of Louis Armstrong Park, has music events through the year. Mardi Gras Indians unspooled the ring dances, taking danced-memory into a parading culture. The Congo Square stage at Jazz Fest, surrounded by stalls of artists and vendors of masks and crafts, is another enduring link.
Eyewitness accounts of the dances reference the range of African peoples in early 19thcentury New Orleans. The architect Benjamin Latrobe drew life-like pictures of people and instruments in his 1818 diary, images that researchers have linked to Kongo. With impressive research on tribal cultures, the novelist George Washington Cable in a famous 1886 Century Magazine piece described dances he had never seen. In 2011, Freddi Williams Evans’s Congo Square: African Roots in New Orleans, gives textured analysis of the dances and their origins.
Now comes Jeroen Dewulf’s “From the Kingdom of Kongo to Congo Square: Kongo Dances and the Origins of the Mardi Gras Indians” (University of Lafayette Press). In this sweeping work, the Belgian-born linguist and Berkeley professor culls citations in several languages to trace the memory tides from Kongo, a 16th-century Catholic monarchy under Portuguese missionaries, through the Middle Passage as the kingdom eroded and slaves went to Brazil, the Caribbean and Louisiana. Kongo people carried dances rooted in African rites of church and crown. Some, like sangamento, were mock warrior performances.
“To the sound of drums, marimbas and ivory horns,” writes Dewulf, “with spectacular dodges, feints, and sudden leaps, these martial exercises not only served as a way to muster courage for battles but also provided young men with an opportunity to impress the community.”
Brazil had the heaviest concentration of Kongo slaves; celebrations for kingship, lavish trappings in burial processions; the music and dancing styles for these and other rites surfaced with radiance in New Orleans, gaining momentum over the last century.
Dewulf builds cross-cultural comparisons in arguing that Mardi Gras Indians – a late 19th century tradition of black costumers in Native American regalia, the chants celebrating a king-like Big Chief – have a taproot in Kongo. Adapting the Indian persona for the stage of Mardi Gras was “a strategy to find public acceptance in a hostile society for an essentially African tradition.”
No doubt. But Masked Indians, the term some Big Chiefs prefer, have a complex past with scant local documents on their origins. Dewulf has delivered a major work, even if he does not resolve the trailing mystery of New Orleans origins. The costume art is a narrative of ever-changing beauty, while more women parade as Queens.