Congo Square Rhythms Fest Kicks Off March 23

By New Orleans standards, the Congo Square New World Rhythms Festival is relatively young, reaching its sixth year this month. But the music and culture that the two-day event celebrates made their way to the Gulf South region centuries ago.

Photo: Gerald Herbert, File/AP
New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans.

Beginning in the 1700s, slaves and free people of color gathered in Congo Square on Sundays to trade goods and play music. It’s where much of the city’s early jazz, blues and gospel music was born, and the square will serve as the centerpiece of the free festival, to be held March 23-24 in Armstrong Park.

“The music that was conceived in Congo Square gave birth to jazz, to our second-line tradition, and the call and response that we still incorporate in our music today,” said Luther Gray, a New Orleans drummer who will perform with the group Bamboula 2000 for the festival. Gray also is a member of the Congo Square Preservation Society, the group established in the late 1980s to help protect Congo Square from urban development.

“This festival is important because it celebrates the roots and soul of New Orleans culture, the spirit that comes out of Congo Square and the dances that were done there,” Gray said.

The Congo Square event is one of four two-day music festivals launched by the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 to give more employment opportunities to the city’s musicians. It also was designed to celebrate the city’s musical history and help stimulate the cultural economy, said Scott Aiges, spokesman for the foundation.

The foundation owns the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, which is the nonprofit organization’s primary fundraiser. Money generated from the festival benefits programs in education, economic development and cultural enrichment across the city.

The Congo Square rhythms festival will include an African drum circle and several African dance performances. There also will be a performance by, and tribute to, conga player Alfred “Uganda” Roberts, the New Orleans musician known for his work with Professor Longhair’s band.

Additionally, the Mardi Gras Indians will “battle,” with three New Orleans tribes showing off their feathers and finery in a tradition that goes back generations, when black communities were unable to participate in traditional Mardi Gras parades because of segregation. It led to the creation of their own neighborhood-based Mardi Gras traditions, and their drums, chant-like singing and dances have become synonymous with Mardi Gras and music festivals across the city.

Another highlight will be Cuban-born singer and drummer Pedrito Martinez, who was a hit at last year’s Jazz and Heritage Festival. Jazz Fest was launched in Congo Square in 1970 before it outgrew the space and moved to the New Orleans Fair Grounds horseracing track. Jazz Fest still has a Congo Square stage that showcases African-, Latin- and Caribbean-infused music. Martinez performed on the Congo Square stage last year.

Martinez said it was an honor to be invited back to the city that reminds him of home.

“There are so many similarities between Cuba and New Orleans – the beautiful vibe, the music there, the warm people,” he said. “In New Orleans, it’s about playing from the heart. It’s not so much about technique. When I play there, I feel like I’m home in Havana playing for friends and family, playing for really down-to-earth people who just love the music.”

Martinez is scheduled to perform March 23. The lineup also includes the Stooges Brass Band, the New Orleans-based Africa Brass band, the Cuban jazz group OTRA, and Cuban percussionist and bandleader Alexey Marti. The eight-piece North Indian rhythms band Red Baraat, which incorporates elements of jazz, go-go, brass funk and hip-hop, will close out the festival March 24.

The festival will include a second-line contest of high school and middle school brass bands in a “Class Got Brass” competition. The grand prize is more than $20,000 worth of instruments for the winning schools’ band programs.