Rhythm and Voice
The traditions of African music
African music left a lasting imprint on the New Orleans sound, and was certainly heard here in the past. In 1819, Benjamin Latrobe, architect of the United States Capitol and designer of New Orleans’ first waterworks, walked down St. Peter Street on his way to Bayou St. John and found dancers, “five or six hundred persons assembled in an open space or public square. All those who were engaged in the business seemed to be black…they were formed in circular groups.”
Latrobe was in Congo Square, just off Rampart Street. In one circle “the music consisted of two drums and a stringed instrument,” pictured as a long-necked banjo or lute. In a larger circle was “something in the form of a cricket bat, but with a long and deep mortice down the center. This thing made a considerable noise, being beaten lustily on the side with a short stick.” Latrobe’s drawing seems to include grooves along this instrument’s sides: it was another rhythm instrument, a rhythmic scraper that continued in local use.
A reporter for the Picayune described an encounter with a street musician on August 17, 1854: “We strolled down Royal Street about five o-clock, when our attention was arrested by an old negro playing upon…an instrument formed of two joints of a cane, split lengthways and marked by a hundred notches, over which he ran a slight stick with such force and rapidity of motion that it could be distinctly heard for several squares. This, together with the strange accompaniment of rattles or jingles, formed of small pieces of tin like a fringe about his knees… soon woke up all the neighborhood.”
The instrument the musician was playing was a reco-reco – the African predecessor (possibly borrowed from the Portuguese, in Africa since the 15th century) of a scraper, a Brazilian rhythm instrument still in use today. (To hear one, catch a Casa Samba performance or the Tudo Bem Brazilian music show. WWOZ-FM 90.7, Saturdays 2-4 p.m.)
The idea that a musician might have musical jingles around his knees should be familiar to those Orleanians who remember “Sweet Emma” Barrett, the late Preservation Hall veteran called the “Bell Gal” for the bell-laden garter she wore while playing jazz piano.
Congo Square and its dancers would get wider notice, even after the weekly dances had ended, because of New Orleans composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s Caribbean and African influenced music, and two late-19th century writers, Lafcadio Hearn and George Washington Cable, who covered the topic in national magazine pieces.
Cable’s 1885 article in Century magazine included an engraving by Edward Windsor Kemble titled “The Bamboula” (a drum, song, or dance), depicting Congo Square dancers in a ring with musicians. A similar scene was depicted in the 1630s by a German, Zacharias Wagner, in Pernambuco, Brazil. Wagner’s drawing even shows a notched scraper.
Besides instrumentation, African music influenced New Orleans singers.
“Rhythms of Resistance: African Musical Heritage in Brazil” by Peter Fryer, notes that one African singing style was the falsetto: a man singing in a high voice as well as his usual tone. An early New Orleans street vendor nicknamed “Old Corn Meal” was so popular that he sang, with his cart and mule, on the local vaudeville stage. He sang falsetto: the July 18, 1840 Picayune noted “Camp Street was vocal with the voice – the two voices – of Old Corn Meal again yesterday.”
There’s a more recent local singer in that style: Clarence “Frog Man” Henry. His signature tune “Ain’t Got No Home” had the words: “I sing like a girl…I sing like a frog,” and he did. Appropriately, he recorded the song in 1956 in Cosimo Matassa’s studio: across Rampart Street from Congo Square.