Apr 9, 2018

Feeling the beat of the Congo Square Rhythms Festival

In New Orleans, springtime signifies much more than the return of greener grass, colorful courtyards and short sleeves.  That’s because the celebrating in the Big Easy doesn’t stop with the end of Carnival Season.  It just rolls on into Festival Season.

Roughly defined as the period of time between Mardi Gras and Memorial Day (right about when Hurricane Season starts … there really are no traditional seasons in New Orleans), Festival Season encompasses a variety of springtime musical, food and heritage celebrations.  These range from longtime heavyweights and top tourism draws like the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (more commonly referred to as just Jazz Fest) and the ever-growing French Quarter Festival to more local celebrations like the Mid-City Bayou Boogaloo

The Congo Square Rhythms Festival may be, in my uneducated opinion, on the verge of being the next festival to grow from being a local attraction to a real tourism draw.  I look back at French Quarter Festival pre-Katrina, and I see the same potential here.  Each year, the festival celebrates the influence of African culture and the historical significance of Congo Square to the city.  Held every March since 2012, the festival is operated by the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation, the same folks who have made Jazz Fest the city’s second most popular reason to visit behind Mardi Gras.  In other words, they know how to throw a party.

In March 2017, the festival marked its tenth anniversary.  Oblivious to this milestone, Punky and I learned the festival would be happening while we were in town, so we decided to check it out.  I was hoping for a second helping in 2018, but this year’s festival was held March 3 and 4, a little earlier than usual. 

Where exactly is Congo Square, you ask?  Today, you might be more familiar with Louis Armstrong Park, a wonderful section of greenery on Rampart Street directly across from the French Quarter.  Just look for the gates and the playful statues of jazz musicians inviting you in.

The site of Congo Square is preserved within Louis Armstrong Park.  Some historians say Jazz was born here.  Voodoo is still practiced here.  And this festival helps preserve those roots as well. 

As for the festival itself, the crowds are by no means overwhelming, at least during the early afternoon hours, but that just made it more enjoyable for Punky and me.  We blended right in with a diverse mix of festival devotees, curious bystanders and wandering tourists (like us). 

The music can be quite the learning experience.  The drums especially get you moving, and the performers are exciting to watch.  But there’s more to the music line-up than traditional African dance and drum circles.  You’re just as likely to see a group of Mardi Gras Indians or a popular brass band perform (Rebirth Brass Band has played the festival several times) as the day moves on.   

The festival also features a handful of food vendors showcasing their soul- and other African-inspired cuisines.  I was particularly happy to see the Praline Connection have a presence when I was there.  With its home base on Frenchmen Street, it’s one of my favorite spots for soul food in New Orleans.  

Seriously, check out their jumbo chicken wings, greens and rice – all for just $8.  It’s definitely worth getting if you’re looking for lunch at the festival.    

In addition to the food, the festival has plenty of arts and craft booths to browse through.  Punky fell in love with the Bayou Soap stand and the “Bob Marley” soap we discovered there.  She had excellent taste.  In fact, the soap we purchased remains one of the most luxurious exfoliating soaps we’ve ever tried.  We’re still trying to locate more.    

All in all, the Congo Square Rhythms Festival is probably a few years away from drawing a lot of tourists to town on its own, but it’s definitely worth checking out if it’s taking place while you’re in town.  That’s the beauty of visiting New Orleans during one of the “quieter” weeks of Festival Season – you’re bound to be celebrating something. 

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