The mid-tempo rumblings of congas move into focus accompanied by the rattling of shakers and African tribal chanting and we know we’re in for a treat.
The piece that’s landed on our table is a collection of movements – Congo Square Suite by composer Big Chief Donald Harrison from New Orleans.
It’s not often we’re presented with works so intricately focused on bringing forth the cultural rhythms of the Congo, but that’s not exactly what makes this piece so interesting. Big Chief Donald Harrison, who was dubbed as such by Queen Diambi Kabatusila in 2019, fuses the style with his own unique blend of jazz and swing music to create a truly moving experience over the course of its three pieces.
As the chanting continues, it would appear that movement 1 is simply our curious introduction to the adventure that is due to unfold as we move into movement 2.
Movement 2 begins dramatically with ever present orchestral swells, pronounced trumpets and horns as though to stylishly welcome you into the kingdom that Harrison has built for you. It marches onward as staccato violins keep the pace, leaning a little anxious but nonetheless exhilarating and equally enchanting. They are the types of flourishing arrangements that bring fourth boastfulness and impending liberation and cause our own hearts to move within their intricate pulse.
Perhaps it’s a silly comparison to make but our mind can’t help but wander back to our early childhood as we sat in front of the TV watching Disney’s Fantasia for the first time, gripped equally by the visuals before us as to the score that bled out behind it. It’s a feeling of ambitious nostalgia that we’re flooded with as we escape back into the fantastical worlds of fairy tales, princes and magical beasts like dragons.
We’d be remiss to exclude that the orchestra that is beautifully carrying us through these next movements is the Moscow Symphony Orchestra, who emotionally transcends through their craft; quivering through each bow of the string, each beat of the drum, and each pump of a horn. When you hear this after the introduction of the African Congo singing that precedes it, it mesmerically combines two vastly different cultural experiences in a remarkably unique way that no words of my own could ever properly encapsulate.
Harrison, almost expertly crafting this, then merges all of these different styles within the final stretch of the piece, combining them with his own Louisiana jazz background with a feverish swing.
The place in which the movement gets its namesake, Congo Square in New Orleans is undoubtedly significant. Made famous for the influence it brought to African American jazz music. For a time, it was the only place in the United States where formerly enslaved descended people were openly able to share and showcase their culture through music and dancing, but that certainly didn’t happen overnight. Today, it is more prominently embraced and celebrated and Congo Square remains remarkable for being the birthplace of the African-based culture and music of New Orleans.
While many composers aim to fuse their own influences in order to innovate new sounds and structures, seldom do you hear it completed in a way that transcends generations and cultures as effortlessly as presented in Harrison’s Congo Square Suite, which can be attributed to his own experience and extensive knowledge of Congo Square’s history.
The piece ends in a sprightly oscillating sputter, fading out as the band plays on and we make our apprehensive exit.
For more, check out Donald’s website and social media channels.