Dance Calinda! Ba Doum ! Ba Doum!
This innocuous little park just across Rampart Street from the Vieux Carré is sacred ground to the indigenous musical culture of New Orleans. It was here that Jazz was actually born.
More importantly it represents the singular spot in America that was, and is, uniquely African. And the African expression here, the music, the dances, the food, the spirituality was Voodoo.
Ever since the Code Noir of 1724 slaves were given Sundays off to do as they pleased. This small plain just outside the city limits became a gathering place, a market and a place of celebration.
Voodoo is called the “dancing religion” because of the technique of inducing spiritual possession via the rhythms and manipulations of the dance. Each drum beat, each rhythm, is a signal to a different spirit to attend the convention. While spirits are not confined to time or place, there are certain things that only mortals can experience; singing, dancing, eating, drinking, smoking and sexual relations. The spirits are called in to take possession of the humans and in doing so be compensated for their spiritual powers and interventions by indulging in the human experiences.
Among the classic dances reportedly preformed in Congo Square were the Bamboula, the Calinda, the Yanvalou, the Counjaille, the Chacta, the Congo and the Voudou.
For each spirit that appears, or is called, a new rhythm is mixed into the experience. The people form circles with leaders who call out chants, then the chorus responds. The ceremony is improvised with no particular order or conclusion. The event also serves as a political forum in which the participants can vent their grievances and criticisms of anyone and everyone; so long it as it is done with satire. These four characteristics, jazz historians have pointed out are the four original bases of jazz; polyrhythmic sounds, lead and response dialogs, improvisation and humor.
The most famous, and perhaps most popular, of the dances was the sexually implicit Calinda dance. Known for its sexual gestures, men and women patting and striking their thighs together to the rhythms of the music, hip gyrations, pelvic thrust and pirouettes done only to separate and come back together, it typically received both public censure and private infatuation. The dances would lock arms and spin around and then with the same lasciviousness they slapped each other’s thighs and kissed. In some instances a man and a woman would stand in the center of a circle of dancers, bucking, jumping and pantomiming intercourse. And what is an African for sex? Jazz!
“Aie Calinda! Dance Calinda!”
“Aie! Aie! Voudou Magnan!”