Tom Dent Congo Square Symposium March 2012

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Exploring the origin of art - all art - in African antiquity as a cry of the human spirit for help from the gods... and its travels through space and time to the vernacular traditions seen on the streets of today's New Orleans.

Photo Gallery

Joyce Marie Jackson

Note: This event was presented on March 24, 2012. Video from the event is available online here. Links to the three individual videos are in the Videos section below.


The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation presents the fourth annual
Tom Dent Congo Square Symposium

Saturday, March 24, 2012
10 a.m. to 1 p.m.
The Joy Theater
1200 Canal Street, New Orleans
Free Admission


Video from this event is available online here.


“Between Heaven and Earth:
Soothing the Troubled Soul With the Arts of our Ancestors”

Some of the world’s top experts on African and African-American culture will speak on art as a healing force in a Jazz & Heritage Foundation symposium on March 24 at the Joy Theater.

“Between Heaven and Earth: Soothing the Troubled Soul With the Arts of our Ancestors” will explore the origin of art as a spiritual release from Earthly pain – and its continuing expression in modern culture.

Robert Farris Thompson of Yale University, one of America’s most prominent scholars of African art, will lead a discussion tracing connections between early African customs and cultural trends in the New World – and on the streets of modern New Orleans.

He will be joined at the symposium by a former Yale colleague, William Ferris, who is a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities as well as an author, documentarian and history professor at the University of North Carolina.

Freddi Evans, author of the award-winning book "Congo Square: African Roots in New Orleans," will give the opening remarks.

The conference also includes Titos Sompa, a master dancer, choreographer, musician and healer from the Congo, who will be part of a panel discussion titled, “Get You A Healing: Music and the Ancient Art of Spiritual Relief.” Also participating are:  Joyce Marie Jackson, the director of African and African-American studies at Louisiana State University; famed New Orleans jazz drummer Shannon Powell, who grew up in the spiritual church and brings the healing power of joy to each performance; and Felice Guimont, a practioner of Haitian vodou, musician and registered nurse whose own life story tells of healing through music and spirituality. The panel will be moderated by "American Routes" radio host Nick Spitzer.

The symposium is part of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation’s Tom Dent Congo Square Lecture Series. It will address the connections between art – especially music – and spiritual solace, as well as the link between art forms practiced in antiquity and in the present day.

The symposium is presented in conjunction with the Congo Square New World Rhythms Festival, a free event presented by the Jazz & Heritage Foundation in nearby Armstrong Park March 24-25. Admission to the festival is free. For details, please see

Congo Square is the location just outside of New Orleans' French Quarter where, starting in the mid-1700s, African slaves were permitted to gather on Sunday afternoons to practice their ancestral traditions of drumming and dance. Visitors from around the world marveled at the rich culture. It was the mix of African influences with those from Europe, Latin America and elsewhere that led to the development of jazz and all that followed. Congo Square is truly the birthplace of American music.

Throughout history humans have coped with daily struggles by seeking help from the spirit world – often invoking musical or other artistic expressions in their prayer. These expressions, passed down through the centuries, became the art and culture that we now experience in theaters and museums.

Especially in the traditions of African-Americans in the Gulf South, the music and culture that we see today bear striking resemblance to those practiced by ancestors an ocean away and centuries ago.

Music, and indeed all art, is often referred to as “spiritual.” Many religious traditions use music and other art forms to help us get closer to God. We think of art – or at least good art – as being “inspired,” with the artist channeling a heavenly spirit.

While much great art is born of joy, it often seems that the greater fuel is pain. Many would say that the stronger the pain, the more urgent the plea for help from above – and the more impactful the art, and the greater its ability to heal others.

Mahalia Jackson or Louis Armstrong are but two of the famous examples of American musicians who could translate pain into art that brings joy to millions.

But darker spirits also have played a role in American music, as with legendary bluesman Robert Johnson’s fabled deal with the Devil – bartering musical ability for his soul. Johnson suffered for his art, while using it to help others manage their own suffering.

Our forebears sought help from the gods through music and other art forms, just as artists of all kinds do today.

The struggles we face may be different, but the impulse to seek help in facing them through music remains the same.


10:00 a.m.
Opening Remarks: Freddi Evans, author, "Congo Square: African Roots in New Orleans"

10:15 a.m.
Panel Discussion: “Get You A Healing: Music and the Ancient Art of Spiritual Relief”

Titos Sompa
Dr. Joyce Marie Jackson
Shannon Powell
Felice Guimont
Moderator: Nick Spitzer
As spiritual healers and artists, our panelists bring ancients traditions into the modern world by emphasizing the connections between the Earthly and spiritual planes – not just in their own creations, but in their service to others as spiritual guides who heal wounds both emotional and physical.

11:00 a.m.
Prof. William Ferris
, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
“Give My Poor Heart Ease: Music As a Healing Force for Body and Soul in the Gulf South”
Prof. Ferris will discuss how the great American music of the Gulf South – the Blues – was shaped by artists coping with struggles rooted in African-American history. The music they made, and the lives they lived, were a born from a uniquely American experience. But their drive to rise above Earthly pain through music is common among peoples throughout history.

12:00 p.m.
Prof. Robert Farris Thompson
, Yale University
“Into the Circle and On To God's Square: From Congo Square to the Rise of the Bounce”
Prof. Thompson will explore the history of artistic expression as a tool for spiritual solace in Africa and the New World. The striking similarity of African traditions to popular culture in modern New Orleans amplifies the historical links between these people and the struggles they have faced.

About the Speakers:

Freddi Williams Evans (born 1957, Maddison, MS) is an alumna of Tougaloo College, Tougaloo, Mississippi where, as a music major, she began studying traditional African music on a study-travel to the University of Ghana at Accra. Evans is the award-winning author of three historically-based children’s books: A Bus of Our Own (2001), The Battle of New Orleans: the Drummer’s Story (2005), and Hush Harbor:Praying in Secret (2008). Her writings for general audiences have appeared in local newspapers, as well as several compilations and anthologies including The Storytelling Classroom: Applications Across the Curriculum (2006) and Kente Cloth: Southwest Voices of the African Diaspora (1998). Her essay “New Orleans’ Congo Square: A Cultural Landmark” appears in Ancestors of Congo Square: African Art in the New Orleans Museum of Art published in 2011. Evans latest book, Congo Square: African Roots in New Orleans, received the 2012 Humanities Book of the Year Award from the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities. Her research on Congo Square has taken her to numerous local and national archives as well as back to West Africa. Evans resides in New Orleans and works as an arts educator and administrator as well as an independent scholar. In 2011, she received the Community Awards Award in Education from the Arts Council of New Orleans.

Joyce Marie Jackson, Ph.D., is an associate professor of geography and anthropology and the Director of African-American Studies at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. A widely published author with interests in African-American culture and music, sacred and secular rituals in Africa and the Diaspora and the roots of jazz in rural and coastal Louisiana, she was the co-curator (with J. Nash Porter) of a Smithsonian exhibit titled, "New Orleans Black Mardi Gras Indians: Exploring a Community Tradition from an Insider's View." She received a National Endowment for the Arts Heritage and Preservation grant for "Rockin' for a Risen Savior: The Louisiana Easter Rock Ritual." She served from 2002-2006 as the director of the LSU in Senegambia Study Abroad Program. From 2010-2011 she served as president of the Louisiana Folklore Society.

Titos Sompa (born Brazaaville, Congo) is a renowned dancer, choreographer, musician and healer from Brazzaville, Congo. In American and around the world, he has inspired artists, students and audiences with his African cultural perspective that holistically integrates music, dance, singing, folklore and spirituality. Seeing African culture as a sustaining force, he utilizes his multiple talents to make known and keep alive Congolese musical and cultural traditions that offer healing, spiritual grounding, and affirming community to the Western world. performed with James Earl Jones and Ann Miller, along with such jazz greats as Elvin Jones, Eddie Jefferson, Sun Ra, Ron Carter, Leon Thomas, Pharoah Sanders, Dave Murray, and Arthur Blythe among others. He is a tireless advocate for the wisdoms, variety, beauty, inspiration and power of African cultures. Through spirituality, he enables people to tap into the power within and the guidance of our ancestors.

Dr. Robert Farris Thompson (born December 30, 1932, El Paso, Texas) is one of America's most prominent scholars of African art. Starting with an article on Afro-Cuban dance and music published in 1958, he has devoted his life to the serious study of the art history of the Afro-Atlantic world. As the Colonel John Trumbull Professor of the History of Art at Yale University, Thompson (also known as “Master T”), he attended Yale as an undergraduate and received his PhD from Yale Graduate School. He has presided over exhibitions at the National Gallery in Washington D. C. He lived in the Yoruba region of southwest Nigeria for many years while he conducted his research of arts history. Thompson has studied the African arts of the diaspora in the United States, Cuba, Haiti, Puerto Rico, and several Caribbean islands. He is also an authority in hip hop culture. His first book, “Black Gods and Kings,” was a close iconographic reading of the art history of the 40 million Yoruba people of southwestern Nigeria. He has published texts on the structure and meaning of African dance, “African Art in Motion,” and a reader on the art history of the Black Americas, “Flash of the Spirit,” which has remained in print since its publication in 1983. Thompson has published two books on the bark cloth art of the pygmies of the Ituri Forest, plus the first international study of altars of the Black Atlantic world, “Face of the Gods,” and, most recently, “Tango: The Art History of Love.” In addition, he has published an introduction to the diaries of Keith Haring, studies the art of José Bedia and Guillermo Kuitca and has been anthologized 15 times. Certain of his works have been translated into French, German, Flemish and Portuguese.

Dr. William Reynolds Ferris (born February 5, 1942,Vicksburg, Mississippi) is an American historian, author, photographer and documentarian who is a widely recognized leader in southern studies, African American music and folklore. A former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, he co-founded the Center for Southern Folklore in Memphis, Tennessee. He was the founding director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. He currently serves as the Joel R. Williamson Eminent Professor of History and senior associate director of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Prof. Ferris  co-edited the "Encyclopedia of Southern Culture" (UNC Press, 1989), which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. His other books include: "Ray Lum's Tales of Horses, Mules and Men," "Local Color,”  "Images of the South: Visits with Eudora Welty and Walker Evans,” "Mississippi Black Folklore: A Research Bibliography and Discography” and "Blues from the Delta.” His films include "Mississippi Blues" which was featured at the Cannes Film Festival. A nationally acclaimed expert on blues music, Ferris has produced numerous sound recordings. He hosted a weekly blues program on Mississippi Public Radio for nearly a decade. He also has published his own poetry and short stories. His most recent book is, “Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues.”

Nick Spitzer is the host and producer of the Public Radio Exchange program “American Routes.” He is a folklorist and a professor of anthropology and American studies at Tulane University. Spitzer specializes in American music and the cultures of the Gulf South, and received a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Texas in 1986 with his dissertation on zydeco music and Afro-French Louisiana culture and identities. From 1978 to 1985 he served as Louisiana State Folklorist, and he has created films, festivals, exhibits and recordings of regional music. He was founding director of the Louisiana Folklife Program, and edited and co-wrote “Louisiana Folklife: A Guide to the State” (1985) and “The Mississippi Delta Ethnographic Overview” (1979) for the National Park Service. He created the Folklife Pavilion for the 1984 Louisiana World Exposition, where he curated “The Creole State: An Exhibition of Louisiana Folklife.” He has also served as senior folklife specialist at the Smithsonian Institution (1985-1990), the artistic director for the Folk Masters concert/broadcasts from Carnegie Hall and Wolf Trap (1990-97), and the Independence Day concerts broadcast live on NPR from the National Mall (1992-2001).

About the Tom Dent Congo Square Symposium

The Tom Dent Congo Square Symposium is a program of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation. The symposium is part of a lecture series created by Tom Dent (1931-1998) - a jazz scholar, playwright, oral historian, journalist and cultural activist – during his tenure as executive director of the Jazz & Heritge Foundation from 1987 to explore the history of New Orleans music and the ways its artists have responded to the world around them.

About the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation

The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation is the nonprofit that owns the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival presented by Shell. Since its founding in 1970, the Foundation has been active in the areas of education, economic development and cultural enrichment, with year-round programs and events that support the musical culture of Louisiana.

Co-presenters of the March 2012 Tom Dent Congo Square Symposium:

New Orleans Center for the Gulf South, Tulane University
Amistad Research Center, Tulane University
American Routes
Treme 200
New Orleans African American Museum
Backstreet Cultural Museum
Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities

Links & Downloads:

Flash of the Spirit
Robert Farris Thompson's book, Flash of the Spirit, is cited here, with videos showing similarities of dance in Ghana and in the New Orleans bounce rap of Big Freedia.


Click the links below to play videos.

Panel Discussion
Panel Discussion
Panel discussion moderated by Nick Spitzer
William Ferris
William Ferris
Dr. William Ferris speaks on music as a healing force.
Robert Farris Thompson
Robert Farris Thompson
Prof. Thompson on the African origins of American street culture.


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