Congo Squared Redux

Congo Squared Redux September 12, 2013
Grave in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1

The following is a spoken word piece I wrote after my initial post-Katrina visit to New Orleans. The words ring as true today as they then. Just in case you were wondering, yes a tour guide did indeed comment on me and my friend while we were drumming and dancing in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 and call us a “supposed” voodoo ritual. I laughed out loud.

Congo Square Plaque photo by Lilith Dorsey. All rights reserved.
Congo Square Plaque photo by Lilith Dorsey. All rights reserved.

It’s the 21st century now, not the 19th but the ghosts of the Crescent City still whisper. After Katrina the spirit still floats. The trees of the Congo Square can remember what used to go on here; those that are still standing can anyway. The earth can remember to, the earth downtrodden and soaked still has a memory. The spirits of the dead here go by unusual names Baron Samedi, Gede Nibo, Maman Brigitte. They speak in an ancient creole, part Haitian, part Spanish, part drunk. It sounds like “wubba uba zeba iba do,” like the guy from Fat Albert. They like alcohol, and fruit, and cigarettes, and money. These things will fall from your hands, whether you like it or not. If you want you can dance here like the voodoo queen Marie Laveau must have done here almost 200 years ago. They said she would mesmerize the police so they would let her into the square, nowadays you hope you’re invisible to the police so they don’t take you off to Orleans Parish Prison, you hope real hard because you won’t make it out. If you want today you can drum like Dr. John, the first sacred drummer of the area, or sing like Dr. John the modern jazz icon who keeps the roots alive. The original Doctor had his face tattooed with red and blue snakes, and played the rhythms for the African gods of his homeland Senegal. Back then you would gather to celebrate the emancipation proclamation or Lincoln, now you gather across the street to celebrate the mambo’s return from Europe and parts beyond.

When you worship there today, the pulse of the sacred Bamboula rhythm radiates outward like a cone from the heart of the drum. When you worship there today you will get called a “supposed voodoo ritual … it’s during the day for one thing.” When you worshiped there yesterday you play the Bamboula for the ancestors and they call it a “frenzied” African beat.

Congo Square Sign, New Orleans

Today the park is lined with statuary honoring the great jazz legends, the rechristened Louis Armstrong Park bears the name of the man who signed his letters “red beans and ricely yours.” You can feel the energy of the global pilgrims hoping to capture your soul in that Polaroid and bring it home to grandma for cross-cultural reguritation. Back then you could feel the eyes of the master and other spectators gathering to watch your heathen “orgies.”

You gather there today to dance and drum and honor. You gathered there yesterday to dance and drum and honor.

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