Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Bamboula Dance and Music - Then & Now, Part 3

Edited by Azizi Powell

This is Part III of a four part series of posts on the African roots, and the music & dance traditions of the Bamboula in the Caribbean, and in the United States.

Part III of this series focuses on the Bamboula in the United States, features a 19th century sound file entitled "Bamboula", features selected videos of contemporary gatherings in Congo Square in New Orleans, Louisiana. Videos in this series of posts are numbered in consecutive order throughout the entire series. No order of preference is given to these selected videos.

Part I of this series provides an overview of the Bamboula, and features several videos of dance traditions from a few African ethnic groups in West Africa, the region from which most Black people who were enslaved in the Caribbean and the Americas came.
Click for Part 1 of this series.

Part II of this series focuses on descriptions of the Bamboula dance in the Caribbean, and features several videos of the Bomba, which is considered to be similar to the Bamboula. Click for Part 2 of this series.

Part IV showcases videos of selected recordings that mention Bamboula and/or Congo Square. Click for Part 4 of this series.

These posts are presented for historical, folkloric, educational, and aesthetic purposes.

Part III

"Central to Creole musical activities was Place Congo (in English: Congo Square). The much quoted 1886 article by George Washington Cable offers this description:

"The booming of African drums and blast of huge wooden horns called to the gathering... . The drums were very long, hollowed, often from a single piece of wood, open at one end and having a sheep or goat skin stretched across the other... . The smaller drum was often made from a joint or two of very large bamboo...and this is said to be the origin of its name; for it was called the Bamboula."

Cable then describes a variety of instruments used at Congo Square, including gourds, triangles, jaw harps, jawbones, and "the grand instrument at last", the four-stringed banjo. The bamboula, or "bamboo-drum", accompanied the bamboula dance and bamboula songs. Chase writes, "For Cable, the bamboula represented 'a frightful triumph of body over the mind,' and 'Only the music deserved to survive, and does survive...'"
Among other Creole dances mentioned by Chase (p. 312) are the babouilee, the cata (or chacta), the counjaille (or counjai), the voudou, the calinda, and the congo. "Perhaps the most widespread of all was the calinda..." The melody "Michié Préval", for example, was sung to the calinda. In Spanish, the name of this dance is calenda."
In 1886 E.W. Kemble drew a picture entitled "The Bamboula". That picture shows a young Black man holding the arm of a young Black woman toward the center of a semi-circle of other Black folks. The shoe-less Black man wears nothing but cut off pants tied on the side of his waist. The shoe-less Black woman has a scarf on her head and appears to be wearing a shirt & midi length skirt. In front of the semi-circle to the right, drummers are crouched down to the ground. All other people forming the circle are standing. This drawing is found on page 161 of Lynne Fauley Emery's book Black Dance From 1619 to Today (second, revised edition).

Th following description from Henry Didimus of a dance that he identified as the Bamboula is also found in Emery's book:
"Upon entering the square [Congo Square in New Orleans, Lousiana] the visitor finds the multitude packed in groups of close, narrow circles, of a central area of only a few feet; and there in the center of each circle, sits the musician, astride a barrel...there, too, labor the dancers male and female...The head rests upon the breast, or is thrown back upon the shoulders, the eyes closed, or glaring, while the arms, amid cries, and shouts, and sharp ejaculations, float upon the air, or keep time, with th hands patting upon the thighs, to a music which is seemingly eternal.

The feet scarce tread wider space than thir own length; but rise and fall, turn in and out, touch first the heel and then the toe; rapidly and more rapidly, till they twinkle to the eye, which finds its sight too slow a follower of their movements.
quoted on pages 160-162 op. cit."
Emery indicates that Didimus' description of Bamboula was unlike other descriptions of that dance and "sounded nearly like a Don Petro dance". (page 162).

Didimus was the biographer of White New Orleans musician and composer Louis Gottschalk. One of the most famous compositions by Gottschalk was inspired by his observations of the Bamboula dance in Congo Square.

Video Example #9: Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Bamboula (Dance des N'egres)

Uploaded by sonictravelers on Aug 26, 2011

Composed in 1859
Notwithstanding the importance of Congo Square to the music & dance legacy of African Americans & other Americans, it should be noted that, contrary to the often repeated assertion, Congo Square wasn't the only public place in the United States where enslaved and free Black people ever congregated to dance and make music.

Click to read about the New York state holiday called Pinkster. Here's a brief excerpt from that page:
"Pinkster as an African-American celebration reached its height in New York between 1790 and 1810. Before the holiday, temporary shelters were built, frequently based on styles imitating African shelters. The festival could continue for three to four days, including sports, dance, and music. The highlight was the Toto or the Guinea dance, performed to the beating of drums...

Their dances were combinations of African and European steps and elements, creating new dances that were precursors to modern tap and break dancing."
An observers' description of the scene and the drummers but not the dancers can be found toward the end of this page

Nowadays, there is still drumming & dancing held in Congo Square. While there are drum "circles", the formation doesn't usually appear to be a semi-circle or a circle. Instead, numerous videos of Congo Square gatherings mostly show observers standing in front of the drummers & other musicians, taking photographs & videos with their cameras. Instead of crouching down to play their drums, these modern day Congo Square drummers either stand erect facing their audience of sit on chairs and benches. Also, it appears that most of the observers aren't potential participants in the dance as was the case in the very old days of Congo Square. What dancers there are do their movements in the "stage" area in front of the musicians. Furthermore, when there are dancers in the center of the semi-circle or circle, or in front of the drummers, they aren't dancing as male/female couples or any other kind of couple. In videos that I have seen dancers are either "doing their own thing" or they are doing a choreographed dance routine.

This is far different from the descriptions of the Bamboula and other old Congo Square dances. In addition, notice that a considerable number of the Congo Square observers, and some of the dancers and drummers in the following videos are either non-Black (or appear to be non-Black.) Obviously, some of the observers of the 19th century gatherings in Congo Square were non-Black, as evidenced by the quoted passages found on this page. However, the active participation of non-Black individuals in Congo Square dancing and music making is worthy of notation, although that integrated participation does not mean that the United States is post-racial.

Video Example #10: Congo Square Fest New Orleans 9.30.07

Uploaded by SneakinSal on Oct 23, 2007

Congo Square Dancers and drums at the fest Spet. 2007

Video Example #11: The New Generation Jam in Congo Square // "Lil Liza Jane"

Uploaded by nolamml on Jun 12, 2011

Sunday June 12th, 2011, 2:00pm - 5:00pm
"The New Generation Jam in Congo Square"

Positive Vibrations Foundation and the Congo Square Foundation present "The New Generation Jam in Congo Square" in partnership with the Golden Feather. Youth organizations, Mardi Gras Indian organizations, artists, parents, and the general public are invited to join the Jam this Sunday. Luther Gray will lead the drum circle and give an educational presentation on the history, beats, rhythms, and traditions of Congo Square. People are encouraged to bring drums, instruments, their voices, and smiles. A limited number of drums will be provided for the event.

Video Example #12: Congo Square - New Orleans part 2 of 2

uploaded by cjam001 on Jul 1, 2011

Friends from Africa visit the historic area to honor Louis Armstrong and share African tradition. Big drum jam with internationally known drummers including Bill Summers. Huge crowd participation with dancing and singing. Join the fun Sundays 2-4.

Video Example #13: Louis Martinie Drumming The Bamboula Voodoo Rhythm

Uploaded by KRaynewolfe on Jun 29, 2010

Louis Martinie of the New Orleans Voodoo Temple Sharing the Bamboula "birth" rhythm (The House is Brought to Order --"Settle Down and Focus Up" ) June 13, 2010 during a visit to Our Haven in French Lick, IN. Recorded at Dragon Circle during some beautiful evening thunderstorms and lightning. Background drummers included Za El, Kat, and Kay...

"This rhythm can be traced back to the dances on Congo Square (Luther Gray, Bamboula 2000) during the time of Marie Laveau and Dr. John . It is at the heart of New Orleans second line drumming. This is the name of our most sacred rhythm and Bamboula is the name of the spirit honored as the loa of the drums.

Congo Square was a great market, loud and colorful and mysterious in a way that all markets are mysterious. The physical space it occupied stretched outward from New Orleans ramparts (now Rampart Street) into the far reaches of the imagination. Free and enslaved Africans talked and laughed and bargained. Native Americans sold and traded produce. Poor Whites, new from Ireland and famine marveled at the profusion of food. The sellers vied to attract the buyers. Objects and foods were waved in the air to be appraised and purchased or passed by. Bargains were struck and arms filled with food and fabrics. Drummers and dancers gathered into small groups playing the rhythms of their homelands in Africa. One group seemed to be a bit larger, a bit more organized. Here Priestess Marie Laveau presided and Dr. John drummed. Here the Bamboula sounded."

Video Example #14: Bamboula 2000 at the French Quarter Festival 2011

Uploaded by cjam001 on Apr 12, 2011

Bamboula 2000 playing and dancing at the French Quarter Festival. I Ye Bamboula, Eyes, (Grammy Nominated) Big Round World, Bring It Now! (featuring our new dance "The Bamboula Slide"), We Got It Goin On. April 10, 2011.

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