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  • From the Kingdom of Kongo to Congo Square: Kongo Dances and the Origins of the Mardi Gras Indians by Jeroen Dewulf
  • Timothy David Fritz
From the Kingdom of Kongo to Congo Square: Kongo Dances and the Origins of the Mardi Gras Indians. By Jeroen Dewulf. (Lafayette: University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press, 2017. Pp. xx, 242. $20.00, ISBN 978-1-9357-5496-1.)

The vibrancy of New Orleans is a cultural standout from other southern cities because of its colorful festivals, musical distinction, and parades. Jeroen Dewulf, however, argues that much of what we understand to be representative of New Orleans culture already existed in parts of Africa before Louisiana experienced the advent of African slavery. From the Kingdom of Kongo to Congo Square: Kongo Dances and the Origins of the Mardi Gras Indians reframes the origins of the African-inspired dance performances of the Mardi Gras Indians. Rather than arising directly from the solidarity between oppressed Native Americans and African Americans, the dances evolved from the centuries-older expression of a syncretic tradition to which "Arab-Islamic and European-Christian—predominantly Iberian-Catholic—elements had contributed substantially" (p. xix). Dewulf's monograph consists of eight chapters that trace the transmission and evolution of the sangamento, a Kongolese mock war dance, from Africa, to the Portuguese islands off the coast of Africa, to Latin America and Louisiana.

African culture is a vital component of that of wider Louisiana, and Dewulf recounts the spectacle of the Kongo sangamento dance in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century New Orleans as he begins his exploration of its transmission [End Page 966] from Kongo's King Afonso I, across temporal and imperial boundaries, to French and Iberian America. King Afonso's conversion to Christianity is central to this story, as his application of Catholic social and popular culture likely impacted the traditional sangamento. In ritual transitions of power in Kongo, the sangamento played an essential role. Dewulf proposes that when power passed to Afonso, who had already been baptized into Catholicism, elements of Portuguese performances honoring St. James combined with the sangamento. From that point on, Catholic social structures, such as brotherhoods and mutual aid societies, buoyed the performance ritual by providing a religious calendar and cultural space for the sangamento's continued practice.

Dewulf draws parallels between performances in New Orleans and others in Latin America to demonstrate this continuity, linking together the headdresses and symbols of royalty in Ŝao Tomé, the Indian elements of Brazilian parades, and the Vodou influences of Haiti with contemporary parade and demonstration structures. Disparate locations caused the sangamento to develop in different ways throughout the Kongolese and greater African diaspora. One of the monograph's strengths is Dewulf's meticulous inclusion of observers' accounts, ranging from those of local government officials, religious leaders, and amateur and academic researchers to those of modern journalists. The sum of these accounts manages to support Dewulf's theories with visual language at times when the multidisciplinary threads that he endeavors to weave together in his account could otherwise become confusing to the reader.

The theoretical underpinnings for Dewulf's work come from Robert Goffin's 1932 study on New Orleans jazz, in which Goffin noted sonic similarity between jazz and music in the Belgian colony of Congo. Stemming from this foundation, Dewulf's arguments also contribute to a corrective conversation critical of the Americanization of the origins of jazz as advanced by such works as Ken Burns's 2000 television documentary on the subject. By contextualizing New Orleans as the northern outpost of a Kongolese diaspora centered in South America, Dewulf joins such scholars as Matthew Mulcahy and Paul M. Pressly in depicting South Carolina and Georgia, respectively, as parts of a wider cultural region, such as the Caribbean or Atlantic world. Dewulf's work highlights the subtle syncretism, cultural accommodation, and appropriation that defined many aspects of enslaved culture. The longevity of the sangamento, despite new meanings and purposes ascribed to it in disparate locations and societies, shows that the dance was not simply an escape from oppression but part of a systematic response of Africans and their descendants to captivity.

Timothy David Fritz
Mount St. Mary's University...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2325-6893
Print ISSN
0022-4642
Pages
pp. 966-967
Launched on MUSE
2018-11-20
Open Access
No
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