New Orleans was founded by the French in 1718. Shortly thereafter, the first generation of enslaved arrived. By 1817 a city ordinance was passed confining Sunday slave celebrations to one location - a public space called Congo Square. Throughout its history Congo Square was also the site of public executions, a whipping post, and the buying and selling of slaves. It is a place of conflicting emotions and multi-layered meanings. Another often overlooked reality is the influence of mixed race Creole musicians in New Orleans and Congo Square. During the early 1800's music in New Orleans was often described as more Caribbean than African. This unique mix of African, Creole, and Caribbean is what I've tried to internalize as I wrote Congo Square.
The antiphonal flugelhorn is heard in the beginning and throughout the work as a kind of warning, similar in sound and meaning to the ancient blasts of the temple shofar. The African drum quartet represents the West African influence. It begins by quoting an authentic Konkoba war dance in 3/4. The polyrhythms of the quartet grow in intensity. The middle section quotes Salangadou, an old Creole song about a mother in search of her abducted child. Near the end of the work an early jazz style song emerges in a stomp style as the drummer plays a traditional New Orleans "Second Line" style groove, both of which suggest the new music that will eventually grow out of Congo Square. These three musics - the African drums, a Creole song, and early jazz styles - overlap and sound at the same time to produce the emotional zenith of the work. From the point-of-view of the past, we hear that past, its present, and future music simultaneously. My hope is that it will produce a reflective moment that gives the listener a deeper understanding of the multi-layered realities of Congo Square. The music was commissioned by a consortium of 12 universities and completed in November 2014. This performance by University of Louisiana - Lafayette, William Hochkeppel, conducting.