Keeping the African Beat Alive
It was in the Nineteenth Century in Congo Square in New Orleans that observers heard the beat of the bamboulas, the wail of the banzas and saw the multitude of African dances that had survived through the years. This square located across Rampart Street on the back side of the French Quarter was in use as a gathering place for the residents of New Orleans almost since the city began. It had been an area outside of the fortified walls of the original city where Native Americans and later slaves had sold their wares in an open market by the Bayou St. John, the major avenue for transportation of goods into the city.
Town's folk would gather around the square on Sunday afternoons to witness what went on inside the square. In 1819, a visitor to the city, Benjamin Latrobe wrote about the celebrations in his journal. He was amazed at the sight of five or six hundred unsupervised slaves that had assembled for dancing. He described them as ornamented with a number of tails of the smaller wild beasts, with fringes, ribbons, little bells, and shells and balls, jimgling and flirting about the performers legs and arms. The women, one onlooker reported wore, each according to her means, the newest fashions in silk, gauze, muslin, percale dresses. And the males covered themselves in oriental and Indian dress and covered themselves only with a sash of the same sort wrapped around the body.. except for that they go naked.
One witness from the time pointed out that several clusters of onlookers, musicians, and dancers represented tribal groupings with each nation taking their place in different parts of the square. In addition to drums, gourds, banjo-like instruments and quillpipes made from reeds strung together like panpipes, marimbas and european instuments like the violin, tamborines and triangles were also used.