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New Orleans, an exemplary degree of tolerance (1817)



New Orleans in 1817 established an official site (Congo Square) for the Sunday slave dances.

The music that was performed at these dances which continued up until 1870s.

Traditional accounts indicate that they continued, except for an interruption during the Civil War, until around 1885. Such a chronology implies that their disappearance almost coincided with the emergence of the first jazz bands in New Orleans. More recent research argues for an earlier cutoff date for the practice, probably before 1870, although the dances may have continued for some time in private gatherings. In any event, this transplanted African ritual lived on as part of the collective memory and oral history of the city's black community, even among those too young to have participated in it. These memories shaped, in turn, the jazz performers' self-image, their sense of what it meant to be an African-American musician.

The mixture of African and European culture began, of course, long before the slave dances in Congo Square--in fact, at least one thousand years prior to the founding of New Orleans in 1718.

The decision of the New Orleans City Council, in 1817, to establish an official site ( Congo Square ) for slave dances stands out as an exemplary degree of tolerance. In other locales, African elements in the slaves' music were discouraged or explicitly suppressed. During the Stono Rebellion of 1739, drums had been used to signal an attack on the white population. Anxious to prevent further uprisings, South Carolina banned any use of drums by slaves. The Georgia slave code went even further in prohibiting not only drums, but also horns or loud instruments. Religious organizations also participated in the attempt to control the African elements of the slaves' music.


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