Congo Square

One of the earliest and important depictions of the banjo in New Orleans comes from the diary of Henry Latrobe, who in February 1819 offered his famous depiction of what would later be known as Congo Square. (I draw here on the 1951 edition: Benjamin Henry Boneval Latrobe, Impressions Respecting New Orleans, Diary and Sketches, 1818-1820 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1951), 49–50). It is worth quoting in full:


“In going up St. Peters Street & approaching the common I heard a most extraordinary noise, which I supposed to proceed from some horse mill, the horses tramping on a wooden floor. I found, however, on emerging from the houses onto the Common, that it proceeded form a crowd of 5 or 600 persons assembled in an open space or public square. I went to the spot & crowded near enough to see the performance. All those who were engaged in the business seemed to be blacks. I did not observe a dozen yellow faces. They were formed into circular groupes [sic] in the midst of four of which, which I examined (but there were more of them), was a ring, the largest not 10 feet in diameter. In the first were two women dancing. They held each a coarse handkerchief extended by the corners in their hands, & set  to each other in a miserably dull & slow figure, hardly moving their feet or their bodies. The music consisted of two drums and a stringed instrument. An old man sat astride of a cylindrical drum about a foot in diameter, & beat it with incredible quickness with the edge of his hand & fingers. The other drum was an open staved thing held between the knees & beaten in the same manner. They made an incredible noise. The most curious instrument, however, was a stringed instrument which no doubt was imported from Africa. On top of the finger board was the rude figure of a man in a sitting posture, & two pegs behind him to which the strings were fastened. The body was a calabash. It was played upon by a very little old man, apparently 80 or 90 years old.”


In the diary, the text is accompanied by this image of that instrument:




One Reply to “Congo Square”

  1. Thank you for this, Laurent. Latrobe is clearly a good source… I am as interested in the publication of this work (at Columbia UP) as I am in its first-person narrative.

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