The grounds of the Plaquemines Government Complex in Belle Chasse, Louisiana, are so large that it was difficult to find the correct entrance to the site of an epic documentary movie shoot of Congo Square. Simonette, the daughter and Girl Friday of investigative reporter, prolific author and film director Jason Berry, chose this spacious site on the West Bank in Plaquemines Parish for a reenactment documentary filming of storied Congo Square. The documentary is an offshoot of Berry’s long-researched “City of a Million Dreams” that has now been released.
A 3-acre site located within live oaks where Saint Peter Street and Rampart Street come together at Saint Ann Street, Congo Square is far too small to house all the equipment and people involved in the filming of such a landmark documentary.
Hence the need for a much larger area for the historic reenactment movie shoot.
Allen Johnson, my peerless chauffeur, found the site after a few tries. Being on set with the drummers, dancers, actresses and actors proved to be a far more moving experience than I had anticipated. I was in a trance. Revisiting the clothing and unique rituals of those days, I was transported back 200 years, feeling the exotic atmosphere of that fabled time. That feeling possessed me and is still with me.
Earlier called Place de Nègres, Place d’Armes and Beauregard Square, Congo Square (Place Congo) had been used regularly as a sacred space and fall festival site by First Americans for many decades. However, in the early 1800s, a widespread killer disaster, perhaps a yellow fever epidemic, triggered a catastrophic die-off of First Americans, including the Houmas and several other nations.
Soon after the First Americans had moved out, African slaves moved in, eventually obtaining the blessing of the city fathers who saw what an attraction they were. That Sunday afternoon African routine – that was never routine – grew from an obscure, unknown Sunday gathering to a talk-of-the-town, must-see, must-be-at happening that drew locals, musicians from near and far, national and international tourists pursuing the exotic, the spectacular, the unique in music, dance and food.
At Congo Square, African rituals, music and dancing were blended in a dynamic exchange when slaves left Sunday worship at Saint Louis Cathedral and later Saint Augustine and other churches filled with soulful stories from the Old and New Testaments. Those stories were retold poignantly, uniquely in the music, chants, beats and dances of African slaves.
Local musicians quickly got wind of a totally different kind of music and hastened to Congo Square each Sunday afternoon, pressing close to hear storytellers of African history, to see singers at work and hear bluesy chants about Scripture stories from the Old and New Testaments. For the first time in history, Bible stories heard in church were rendered as what we now call Slave Songs, the Negro Spirituals or the Holy Blues.
It was a short distance from those slave songs/Negro Spirituals/ the Holy Blues to the secular blues Thanks to the excited local professional musicians who listened with rapt attention at Congo Square, then, returned to their gigs, played and sang their own version of the unique, inspiring music, making it the main part of their repertoire. Doing what all free-spirited musicians do, local professionals began to improvise, syncopate and riff as the spirit of the moment moved them, thus creating jazz, the only art form totally unique to the United States. So, an enslaved but spiritually motivated and deeply inspired group brought into being the only unique, originally-American art form. The blues and jazz have now captivated the imagination and hearts of peoples in many countries.
Aside from and at times together with log/hand drumming, the Congo Square celebrants also engaged in the practice of “patting juba” or the clapping of hands in a highly complex and rhythmic fashion. Further, the slaves manufactured a whole medley of drums, banjos and rattles out of gourds similar to those found in Africa.
They used all these in a sometimes serious, but at times joyous celebration, dancing the bamboula, caffana, calinda and Congo with as many as 500 people in large, concentric triple half-loops while singing their haunting lyrics and melodies. Storytelling about Mother Africa, about their being snatched away violently, about the trials and horrors of the Middle Passage and their entry into a strange land via the auction block filled periodic lulls between music and dancing. Our City of a Million Dreams is reaping the seeds of those dreams planted in Congo Square.