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Gumbo In Congo Square

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The roots of blues, rhythm & blues, jazz, and rock 'n' roll are all in New Orleans, and the evolution of the music is inseperable from the evolution of the city.

"Gumbo" is the most common metaphor for New Orleans, and it most apt. A good homemade gumbo can take days to make - mine generally take three or four. The first thing you make is the roux, flour cooked in fat that provides the smoky foundation for the dish. Next you add stock, and finally you add the stuff - crawdads, shrimp, chicken, sausage, greens, whatever.

The gumbo that is New Orleans took centuries to make, and the roux was made in the earliest days of the original settlement.

The eminent New Orleans scholar Pierce Lewis has described it as, "an inevitable city on an impossible site." Inevitable because it is at the mouth of the Mississippi River, and impossible because there really isn't a "mouth." Rather, for 200 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico, there is nothing but swampland.

The site of the original French city, commissioned in 1718, has been described as, "wretched." It is too hot, too humid, prone to flooding and hurricanes, and the swamps bred untold numbers of disease-laden mosquitos. Respectable Europeans who had a choice did not choose to live in New Orleans. The original settlers were mostly hustlers, thieves, and opportunists.

The first slaves arrived directly from Africa in the early 1720's. But the French Catholic attitude towards slavery was quite different from that of the English Protestant colonials, and it resulted in a relatively large population of "free people of color" from the earliest days of the colony.

In the first place, slaves were allowed to earn money. City masters often loaned their slaves to others as wage laborers, and slaves were given the weekends off, when again they could work for wages. They used the money to buy their freedom.

Additionally, the French were quite open about secual liasons with slaves. Their mixed race offspring were frequently raised as free men or given their freedom when the father died. Many received an education, some going back to France for it.

These original settlers are the Creoles of New Orleans. They are French speaking Eurpoeans and Africans and, most importantly, everybody in between. In 18th century New Orleans there was no stark distinction between black and white, as there was in the English colonies. Africans and Europeans shared both genes and cultures, and the mixing of many rich shades of brown, both physically and culturally, was essential to the roux.

Another crucial ingredient was the infusion of Native American culture. Africans and Native Americans had much in common. They were both oppressed by the white man. They shared similar beliefs about nature and man's place in it. And they shared a love of music and dance. They were natural friends and allies.

Native Americans orchestrated the first documented escape of African slaves from the colony in 1725. The first account of Africans dressing as Native Americans - a sign of respect among neighboring tribes - comes from the Mardi Gras celebration of 1746.

Rampart Street in New Orleans demarked the inland boundary of the original city. Just outside the rampart was an open field. There are many conflicting stories, but it is apparent that it was a gathering place for Native Americans.

Creoles and Africans began to gather there too. There are stories about Creoles and Native Americans playing lacrosse together on the field. Over time, it evolved into a marketplace.

In 1744 this field was legitimized as the "Place de Negroes," where on weekends free people of color could gather openly to do business, trade news and gossip, and just hang out together. Slaves were allowed to join the congregation, and on Sunday afternoons they would come with traditional African drums and instruments. They would play music and sing, and dance.

Within a few years their numbers grew to hundreds, and Europeans, Creoles, African Americans, and Native Americans would all gather on this field for the weekly musical celebration.

The translation is not exact, but Place des Negroes became Congo Plain, and then Congo Square.

France ceded Louisiana to the Spanish after the Seven Years War in 1763, bought it back in 1800, and within three years sold it to the Americans. French Canadian refugees, the Acadians that came to be known as Cajuns, began arriving in 1764. And a few decades later black, white, and mixed race refugees from the slave revolts in Haiti began to arrive in large numbers. Sailors and settlers from all over the world would come, and some would stay.

Through all of this the Sunday afternoon gatherings continued in Congo Square, with more or less legitimacy. The Americans outlawed them in 1811, but the congregations simply reemerged elsewhere. So in 1817, in the interest of keeping them under watchful eyes, the city reestablished Congo Square as a place where, on Sunday afternoons, slaves could celebrate their heritage. As the city grew and flourished over the next century, this celebration of song and dance became renown throughout the world.

Congo Square is the cauldron in which the musical gumbo of New Orleans was cooked, and musicologists and historians point to all the stuff and stock added during the heyday of the 19th century as the source of most American musical genres.

But the roux was made much earlier, and without it the gumbo would not have been possible.



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