At the Congo Square Rhythms Festival

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Published on: December 9th, 2010

On an overcast and sleepy Sunday I walked up to the Congo Square Rhythms Festival at the Old US Mint in downtown New Orleans to soak in the pulse and sounds of the world music flowing from the area.
The crowd was diverse and pretty colorful with many folks dressed up in traditional African dress. As I wandered around the area I noticed many artists selling jewelry and crafts and then I got a whiff of something delicious. It was of course Miss Linda’s catering. Miss Linda can be found at most festivals and events around the city and I was happy to find her on this particular Sunday as I had not had a bite to eat and the belly was rumbling.  After a few bites of her to-die-for mac and cheese (possibly better than my own granny’s recipe) I decided I wanted to know about this home cooking genius.
Danielle Small:   Miss Linda, how long have you been feeding the folks of New Orleans?
Miss Linda:  I cooked in the school system for many years before Katrina, afterwards my job was cut and I had to find another way.
DS: What is your most popular dish you serve?
ML: In the neighborhood, it has to be Ya Ka Mein.
DS: What is that?
ML: Ya Ka Mein is a cure for a hangover.  It is an old New Orleans traditional dish, a soup, made with noodles, usually beef, but I’ve even done it with sausage, soy broth and a hardboiled egg, served in a Styrofoam cup.
DS: And that will cure a hangover?
ML: Sure will!
DS: Ok, Miss Linda, I’ll be on the lookout for your Ya Ka Mein real soon!
After our chat and my morning breakfast of mac and cheese I went over to the New World Stage to check out Bamboula 2000. I was pretty full, but it was recommended to me to check out these guys.  And I’ll tell you what; whatever exhaustion I had been feeling disappeared when these guys took the stage. The energy that Bamboula 2000 displayed cast away the cobwebs and got my butt shaking. There were so many people on stage playing music and dancing together in harmony to the music. They incorporated sounds of Congo Square with influences from Trinidad, Jamaica and particularly Haiti, among other places.  There was so much love on the stage; you can see that this group works as a family.  We were given a treat when special guests Richard Morse and Mama Lola joined the stage to sing and dance with Bamboula 2000. Afterwards, I was lucky to have the opportunity to talk with Luther Gray, Bamboula 2000’s percussionist and founder, about his close-knit group.
DS: Luther, where are you and your group from?
Luther Gray: Congo Square. I am originally from Chicago; I came to New Orleans in 1982.
DS: So, you are pretty much from here now.
LG: Right. We started in Congo Square. The name Bamboula comes from the Congo, it means spirit. The Bamboula is the most famous dance that came out of Congo Square.
DS: It’s a love dance, is that correct?
LG: Yes, it’s a dance of love. We also have the Congo Square Foundation that we started in 1989. We’ve been successful getting Congo Square on the National Register of historic places. We work closely in conjunction with the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation.
DS: How long has your group been working together?
LG: We’ve been together 16 years, we have three original members but we’ve had 35-40 members in the course of our group. We are a big group. There are 13 of us in our group.
DS: Do you find it difficult to coordinate schedules with so many people? Is there anybody related or married?
LG: We practice all the time. The drummer and lead singer are married and the rest of us are really close friends.
DS: You can really feel the closeness when you all are on stage together.  I’m curious, Luther, what does the 2000 in your name symbolize?
LG: We started in 1994. So really what we’re talking about our group is like a fusion. We take traditional rhythms and write original songs to them, so we were referring to the future, now we’re just referring to that there is 2000 of us.
DS: Ha ha! I remember when 2000 seemed so far in the future. I enjoy how Bamboula 2000 plays different types of music from various places. How do you find these influences? Do you travel a lot?
LG: Coming from Congo Square those are the influences of Congo Square. We do research and I was in Trinidad earlier this year. We wanted to do something with this great man (referring to Richard Morse) and we wanted to bring some light on to Haiti and do a tribute.
DS: It was a magical show.
LG: It was special.
DS: What other festivals do you participate in?
LG:  We are playing at the Holiday in the Boulevard Festival December 10th at the Ashé Cultural Arts Center. We been together a long time, we can’t play a small place. We may not have the biggest audiences because we’re carrying on the history and traditions of the city, which go back 300 years, but we have an enthusiastic crowd.
While chatting with Luther, many of the people in his group came up to say hello. The group's lead singer, Cheryl Woods, told me a story about how 35 minutes before being on stage, she learned how to sing a few verses in Creole. I had her sing the sweet melody for me again and then I asked her what the translation in English would be and she told me, “Spirit of initiation, God can put us here, he wants good for us." So simple, yet so hauntingly beautiful when sung in Creole.
Pretty soon after my talk with Luther and the members of Bamboula 2000 I could hear some chants and drums and I turned to see a flurry of beads and feathers. The Mardi Gras Indians came out for the festival and had a friendly face off with a couple different groups, dancing and singing customary Mardi Gras Indians songs with the crowd joining in on the choruses.  After all that dancing, I wandered over for another snack. This time praline cheesecake from The Praline Connection. I think they spiked my cheesecake! That’s the way we do in New Orleans, ya heard!
I took my cheesecake and wandered back to see Haitian protest singer Manno Charlemagne take the stage. The New York Times has dubbed Manno “the Bob Marley of Haiti”. I expected his protest songs to sound angry, or sad but it sounded like love. Playing acoustic guitar, his voice was soft yet strong, and although I did not understand all of his songs it felt like hope and peace. I later read that Manno Charlemagne songs do sound like love songs to the non-Creole speaker but indeed they are songs of protest aimed at oppressive forces keeping his people down. Manno who was born in Haiti and who not only is a political folk singer but also lived in exile twice before becoming the mayor of Port-Au-Prince in the late 90’s now resides in the United States but continues to sing and be an activist for his people. He was kind enough to speak to me briefly about his trip to New Orleans.
DS: You no longer live in Haiti, is that correct?
Manno Charlemagne: I was the mayor of Port-Au-Prince and I resigned in 1999 and I moved to Miami in 2000. I have been in the United States ever since.
DS: How often do you find yourself in New Orleans?
MC: This is my first time!
DS: Your first time? Wow. Thank you for coming and playing here.
MC: You know that guy called Louie Armstrong? His voice has to do with who I am now. I listened to him, I was 5 years old I listened to his voice and that was it.
DS: You were an instant fan!
MC: Yes, yes, that guy gets me. I just made a trip to Congo Square to see where he lived and where he grew up.
DS: I’m glad you got the opportunity to visit. What else do you have planned while you are here? How long are you in town for?
MC:  Tomorrow. I leave tomorrow night.
DS: You are so close; you must come visit us in New Orleans more often and play.
MC: The Spring Jazz Fest, they invited me!
DS: That’s great; I look forward to seeing you again.
MC: Thank you very much Daniela.
And that concluded my evening. I once again thanked Manno Charlemagne for his time and wished him a good rest of his short trip. I walked off into the night with the sounds of music from worlds far outside my own but now closer to my heart, playing in my head a sweet harmony.
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