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Heart of Louisiana: Congo Square

Published: Jan. 2, 2022 at 8:38 PM CST
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NEW ORLEANS (WAFB) - The playing of African drums has been a Sunday afternoon tradition in New Orleans’ Congo Square for the past 30 years. And it’s a revival of an African custom that dates back more than three centuries.

“All throughout Africa, drums were used for communication from village to village,” said Luther Gray. “So, they might say, ‘Come to the river in the morning.’ And so, people would know that a great tree has fallen. That means someone passed away.”

Gray leads a Sunday afternoon drum circle in New Orleans, Congo Square. The drumming singing of African songs and dancing is a tradition that started on the edge of the French Quarter. In the 1740s, Congo Square was a weekly gathering place for enslaved Africans.

“You could drum, you can dance, you can celebrate your ancestors. You can sell things. You can speak in your own African languages. There are over 19 African nations that were brought into Louisiana as well,” added Gray.

There is a very distinct New Orleans beat. And these are the beats. These are the rhythms that were brought from Africa.

“Exactly, the most famous one is one called the bamboula. And so, when you played the bamboula, it was like honoring your ancestors. What rhythm is that? That’s the second line,” explained Gray.

He helped found the Congo Square Preservation Society in the 1980s. Its mission was to not only restore the square but retell its history. Co-founder Jamila Peters-Muhammad encourages tours by children and adults.

“We bring them here into Congo Square,” said Peters-Muhammad. “We teach them from the historical prospect of the native people who lived here honoring and knowing who they were.”

The large bronze statue in the square is a reproduction of a lithograph drawn in the early days of Congo Square.

“And I don’t say slavery. I say enslavement. We was stolen people but when we truly look back that that was only a dot in the timeline of who we are. When we look at ourselves from a historical place, it helps us to then know how great we can be, how great our children can be,” added Peters-Muhammad.

From Congo drums to the beat of a second line, it’s a uniquely New Orleans rhythm and its origins are celebrated every week in Congo Square.

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