Coming out of Congo Square – Bamboula 2000
23rd June 2014 · 0 Comments
By Geraldine Wyckoff
Bamboula 2000 celebrates and sings about its 20th anniversary on a new release, The Wild Bamboulas. In 1994, percussionist and vocalist Luther Gray founded the group in order to pay homage to Congo Square, the site that was once sacred ground to the Houma Native American tribe and later an area where, on Sundays, slaves were allowed to sell their goods, play music and dance. Just the year before Gray established the ensemble, through his and others’ efforts, Congo Square was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The album opens with the title cut that is, in part, a history of the group — “We come out of Congo Square,” Gray sings after the songs percussive introduction. With its Mardi Gras Indian lyrical and rhythmic references, it also recognizes the Black Indians’ link to the people who once gathered there.
“The Mardi Gras Indians are the closest ones that carry on the Congo Square tradition,” Gray informs. “They have the rhythm, they have drums and tambourines, they practice on Sunday, they do call-and-response, they use words outside of English, they mask. They are bearers of the Congo Square culture that evolved from the African traditions. The Mardi Gras Indians really personify the independence that our people had. It’s the free spirit of New Orleans.”
The word bamboula, Gray explains, is defined differently, sometimes even derogatorily, in various places around the world. In New Orleans and through most of the African diaspora – places like Puerto Rico and Cuba – it means “remember our ancestors.” Originating in the Congo, bamboula also refers to a rhythm, a dance and a drum.
“The bamboula rhythm has evolved into the second line,” he says of its importance in New Orleans unique street beat.
It seems somewhat ironic that Gray, a native of Chicago who didn’t arrive in this city until he was 30 when he got a job with Bell South, should be the one to bring such focus on Congo Square and, in the naming of his band, to the bamboula itself. Gray, who played percussion professionally in Chicago, knew about Congo Square before he ever stepped foot in New Orleans.
When he was a sophomore in high school in 1968, he became involved in a gang fight that turned into a gun battle. “The next day I asked my father to take me two places — a music store and a book store. I knew I wasn’t going to be going out any time soon.”
It was then he got his first conga and among his readings were LeRoi Jones’ (Amiri Baraka) Blues People and Lerone Bennett’s Before the Mayflower, two important books on the African American experience and culture that referenced Congo Square. “So when I got here,” says Gray, “that’s the first place I wanted to find out about.”
Before forming Bamboula 2000, Gray was a member of Percussion Inc., a band, as the name implies, with a focus on percussion instruments. In forming Bamboula 2000, Gray’s aim was not only to pay homage to Congo Square but to incorporate more melodic instruments and include dancers. The numerical aspect of Bamboula 2000’s name signifies that the ensemble didn’t just want to reflect on the past and the music’s African roots but to also represent a continuum of the heritage into the future. To that end, Bamboula 2000 includes instrumentation such as trumpet, bass and keyboards while retaining the traditional African percussion instruments such as a djembe drum, djun-djun drum, a talking drum and, of course, congas.
The material on The Wild Bamboulas, with all but two being originals by various collaborations among members, represents an array of genres including contemporary rhythm and blues, reggae and even a touch of pop. The inclusion of the trumpet of Jeremy Thomas, the group’s newest member, adds modern jazz textures. Often, as heard on the gentle “Our Ancestry,” Eric Hornsby’s keyboards mimic the tonal qualities of a vibraphone or kalimba (African thumb piano).
Ivory Coast native and now New Orleans resident, Seguenon Kone, a noted percussionist and choreographer, contributes one of the album’s high spots and most purely African cuts, “Ployo.” It, as the liner notes explain, is a song that celebrates the rites of passage for males and females in Kone’s homeland. The ensemble captures the spirit of a festive occasion particularly in the voices of Drena Clay and Cheryl Woods.
South African vocalist and guitarist Ernie Smith contributes the other song not written by a group member, “Bamboula Crazy.” A quite modern, almost pop tune on which Smith adds his guitar, it benefits from lilting rhythmic quality and the drumming of Gray, Cameron Woods and Clark Richardson.
Gray tells a special story about how the sound of children singing came to open his self-penned tune, “African Sunrise.” He arrived in South Africa on July 27, 2011 and the next day was Nelson Mandela’s 93rd birthday. Naturally, he went to Mandela’s house to mark the day and there he found the children and turned on his recorder. He calls the song a travelogue of sorts of his trip. Its title stands as a recollection of looking out his window while staying in Durban and the sun coming up over the Indian Ocean. “It told me to write a song,” says Gray.
While Bamboula 2000 delves into various musical genres and instrumentation, it’s roots in African drumming remain firm. “We come out of Congo Square, any Sunday you’ll find us there,” Gray sings on “Wild Bamboulas.” And that has been true for decades as the group forms a drum circle at the site every Sunday and invites everyone to join them. Gray estimates that the core group of some 15 drummers plus dancers can grow to about 50 people including many of those simply touring Armstrong Park. “It’s a participatory thing – we bring extra drums and percussion instruments. We share,” he explains. “You know when you have a musical performance you might have 10 people playing and maybe 100 people watching. What we wanted to do was to have 100 people playing and 10 people watching.”
In celebration of its CD release and 20th anniversary, Bamboula 2000 boasts a hefty schedule of live performances. It will be at Sweet Lorraine’s on Thursday, July 3, at the Maafa Commemoration at Congo Square, July 5, from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m., the Louisiana Music Factory, July 5 at 3 p.m. and Inter-Fest — African Diaspora Drum Celebration, 4300 Washington Avenue, July 5, at 10 p.m.
This article originally published in the June 23, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.