- The Washington Times - Friday, April 28, 2006

Through his orchestral compositions, Wynton Marsalis has deciphered the temperament of the four seasons (“Suite for Human Nature”), chronicled the birth of the blues (“All Rise”) and examined the pain of slavery (the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Blood on the Fields”).

Continuing in his role as educator and cultural guardian, Mr. Marsalis again takes a page from America’s past with “Congo Square,” which takes its title from the once-thriving New Orleans landmark (officially named Beauregard Square) where slaves showcased their musical talents and business savvy.

The composer’s compelling new 80-minute opus premiered last week in the Big Easy. Tuesday evening at 8, it comes to the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, where it will be performed by the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, master Ghanaian drummer Yacub Addy and his group Odadaa! and a 24-voice choir.

The piece is “a joint composition between me and Addy,” Mr. Marsalis says. “It will deal with the integration of culture, chants, celebratory music, ballads and deep groove music — all things that are very much a part of today’s music.”

Congo Square (part of a larger area of land known as Congo Plains) was a public square where African slaves and other people of color gathered each Sunday from about 1740 through the mid-19th century to perform the dances and songs of their individual countries. Now part of New Orleans’ Louis Armstrong Park, it also served as an open-air bazaar, of sorts, where slaves sold assorted foods and handcrafted goods.

“Where else in the U.S. could blacks perform and also sell goods in their own marketplace?” Mr. Marsalis asks. “There was music and dancing, but the marketplace was the main thing. A marketplace means commerce, and commerce means freedom, so the city slowly began passing ordinances between 1806 and 1856 to destroy the participation and the performances. It was a systematic removal.”

Gradually, Mr. Marsalis says, European instruments were commingled with the African rhythms, fueled by intricate drumbeats, that were heard on the square. Often, he notes, the cadences contained a coded message for slaves — conveying news of lost family members, liberation from bondage or even planned revolts.

“Every combination of rhythm is like words,” he says. “There’s a lot of emphasis on meaning.”

“I knew about New Orleans and Congo Square long before I came to the United States, and I’ve always imagined the music that was played there,” Mr. Addy, 75, said in an interview with the Albany Times Union. “Without the Congo Square music, the slave music, there is no jazz or blues. This is the root of jazz — this drum.”

“Congo Square” had been a work in progress, Mr. Marsalis says, long before Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc on the city and its storied musical roots. “I never write pieces on topical issues,” he says, but adds, “we started the main work after the hurricane.”

As is the case with most of Mr. Marsalis’ works, the past and present are intertwined.

“These rhythms are the beginning of what we hear today,” he says of “Congo Square.”

“This is the origin of all music that has bass and drums.”

WHAT: “Congo Square,” by Wynton Marsalis, performed by Mr. Marsalis with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and Yacub Addy and Odadaa!

WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesday

WHERE: Kennedy Center Concert Hall

TICKETS: $40 to $85

PHONE: 202/785-WPAS

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