Louis Moreau Gottschalk: Bamboula, Opus 2 (Danse des nègres)


Bamboula, Opus 2 (Danse des nègres)



Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869): American Piano Music (Smithsonian Folkways 40803)

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Louis Moreau Gottschalk (composer),

Amiram Rigai (piano)


Recorded: No date given (album released in 1979)


Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

A letter from 1786, written by a visiting Spanish bishop, denounces the slave dances in New Orleans, lamenting “the wicked custom of the negros, who, at the hour of Vespers, assemble in a green expanse called Place Congo to dance the bamboula and perform hideous gyrations.” But by 1849, a Paris newspaper proclaimed that “everyone in Europe knows Bamboula," thanks to Louis Moreau Gottschalk, the New Orleans pianist-composer, who has “brought a host of curious chants from the Creoles and the Negroes; he has made from them the themes of his most delicious compositions.”

Chalk up a loss for the New Orleans would-be saints . . . and a victory for the sinners in Place Congo.

Few today know the bamboula, but anyone who cares to understand the origins of American music, ought to make its acquaintance. The very first use of the word “tango” to describe a dance comes from an apparent reference to the bamboula in New Orleans—a full century before the word shows up in Argentina. If one could trace the full history of this word, this music, this dance, it would clearly encompass the roots of a wide range of American performance styles and help us understand the complex interweavings of African, Latin and European currents in the New World.

At the center of this sublime turbulence in the aural atmosphere sits New Orleans. The city’s most famous classical composer, Louis Moreau Gottschalk tapped into these currents at age 18, when he composed “Bamboula, Opus 2 (Danse des nègres).” The concept of ethnomusicology didn’t exist back in 1848, nor did the discipline itself in any real sense. The fusion of different ethnic music cultures happened rarely and only in the most cautious manner. Yet here was Gottschalk, a prodigy who was partly of Haitian descent, comprehending the importance of this “wicked custom” of his native city and somehow capable of translating it into the language of concert music. More than 150 years later, this process is still underway, and—dare I say it?—still in its infancy.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia

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