At the root of ‘Congo Square’
ASPEN Victor Goines was born and raised in New Orleans, began playing clarinet at 8, and knew by the time he was in St. Augustine High School, where he picked up the saxophone, that jazz would play a major role in his life. Still, Goines didn’t pay much attention to Congo Square. The square was little more than a patch of land, part of Louis Armstrong Park, just off the famed French Quarter, and not a spot loaded with musical and cultural history.”I wasn’t that aware of it,” said Goines. “Like most kids in New Orleans, it was just part of the city. It’s something I’ve learned about reading, playing the music.”What Goines – who is the artistic director of jazz studies at the Juilliard School in New York, and saxophonist with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra – has come to understand is that Congo Square is, in a very real sense, the launching point of American popular music. It was in Congo Square, in the 18th and 19th century, that slaves were permitted to gather on Sunday afternoons and play the drum-oriented music of their African homeland. Slaves in other parts of the U.S., if they were allowed to play music at all, were often stripped of their drums, which slaveowners often saw as a tool of communication and empowerment. But, owing to the French roots of southern Louisiana, and the sympathy of the local native American population, slaves in New Orleans had a somewhat expanded experience of freedom. Those African-derived rhythms begat blues and jazz, the foundation of American music.
Over the past year, Goines’ understanding of Congo Square has been broadened. In April 2006, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra premiered “Congo Square,” a piece co-composed by Jazz at Lincoln Center artistic director and New Orleans native Wynton Marsalis, and Ghanaian drummer Yacub Addy. The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra is currently touring with the work; the tour lands in Aspen on Tuesday, June 26, for a concert at the Benedict Music Tent. The Aspen Music Festival and Jazz Aspen Snowmass are presenting the performance, conducted by Marsalis and featuring Odadaa! a percussion ensemble led by Addy. (Addy himself was scheduled to appear but canceled because of illness.)Goines observed that the rhythmic aspect of “Congo Square,” combining beats from Africa and New Orleans, has been enlightening, and a challenge. “African musicians aren’t so constrained by the bar lines – 3/4 time, or 4/4 time, or, in Afro-Cuban music, 6/8 time,” he said, referring to the most popular musical time signatures. “We’re pretty loose, but they have patterns that can be pretty complex. It was a learning experience.”Playing “Congo Square” – a recording of which will be available at the concert tonight – has also deepened Goines’ connection to Marsalis. The two were kindergarteners together, and Goines joined Marsalis both in the latter’s renowned septet and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in 1993. Goines remains impressed by his friend’s ability to collaborate and communicate.”His ability to take this unique language and interpret it for everybody to hear it – that’s special,” said the 45-year-old Goines. “Wynton’s playing the role of interpreter – analyzing it, and then communicating it to the musicians, and then the audience.”Goines says that, even with the contribution of African performers and instruments, even with the inclusion of formal portions and the improvised segments, “Congo Square” remains infused with the sound and spirit of the blues. It is, to him, an indication that the ties between Africa and New Orleans have not withered.
“The foundation is always the blues,” he said. “The blues is prevalent throughout the piece. Like Duke Ellington, Wynton is a modern blues musician. Even ‘War,’ a real wide-open piece [of “Congo Square”], the blues is in there. It’s ever-present in Wynton’s music.”Goines has lived in New York since 2000, and has been away from New Orleans longer than that. But the more he investigates what happened several centuries ago in his hometown, the more the music of Congo Square is ingrained in him.”It’s there, and you are a part of it,” said Goines, who studied classical music at Loyola University, in New Orleans, and as a graduate student at Virginia Commonwealth University. “I didn’t play much New Orleans music growing up, but now, looking back, you see it’s become a part of what you are.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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