Congo Square in New Orleans

Congo Square

GRADE: K-2, 3-5
SUBJECT: History, Culture
TOPIC: Congo Square, Collective Improvisation, Clave Rhythm
DISCIPLINE: Music General


In this lesson, students will learn the history of Congo Square in New Orleans. Students will gain an understanding of systems of slavery and Code Noir. Students will sing, dance, and demonstrate a clave rhythm, a tradition in Congo Square. 



  • Describe the history of Congo Square.
  • Identify with systems of slavery in New Orleans.
  • Understand the regulations of Code Noir.
  • Demonstrate a clave rhythm.
  • Demonstrate call and response singing and collective improvisation.
  • Perform a song and dance inspired by the elements learned from Congo Square. 



National Core Arts Standards

Music – Anchor Standard 1 Generate and conceptualize artistic ideas and work.
Music – Anchor Standard 2 Organize and develop artistic ideas and work.
Music – Anchor Standard 11 Relate artistic ideas and works with societal, cultural, and historical context to deepen understanding.

Common Core State Standards

ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.2 Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.
ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.3 Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric.

Social-Emotional Growth Skills

  • Students will look at and appreciate the diversity that is depicted in the essence of Congo Square and participate in a communal experience.
  • Students will reflect on ethical responsibility of themselves and others as they learn and understand the history of Code Noir.
  • Note SEAL Soundbites where additional social-emotional growth skills are worthy of a small conversation.



Teachers should review the media resources in the lesson prior to teaching.





  1. Display slide 3 of the presentation, Congo Square, to show the Sunpie in Congo Square video. Tell students about the video. Musician, Sunpie Barnes, is playing in Congo Square. The song is called “Brother Lee John is Gone.” It is an example of a “Call and Response” song, sung in both English and Creole. The rhythm played in the song is a Congolese concept that we now call “the backbeat,” which emphasizes the bass sound as the first accent in the rhythmic pattern. It became prevalent in spiritual music, blues, and later rock and roll, and hip hop. It’s known as a funeral song and the style in Louisiana Creole is known as jures (pronounced ju-ray), which means to testify or bear witness. 


  1. Introduce students to Congo Square in New Orleans. Show them a map at, take them on a virtual tour with Google Earth Congo Square, or show students the pictures on slide 4 of the presentation. Tell students that Congo Square is located in the present-day space of Louis Armstrong Park. Louis Armstrong Park, which includes Congo Square, is the closest public downtown park located adjacent to the French Quarter. Congo Square has nearly 300 years of activity associated with the struggle for freedom. Today the space represents modern-day struggles for full representation of all humans. Many issues around human rights remain, just as they did 300 years ago, and interpretations of laws still limit freedom of choice for many citizens. 


  1. Display the Congo Square video on slide 5 so students can learn more about the history, culture, and background of the space. Discuss the video with students. Ask: Why did enslaved people only have one day off from work? Why is it important to have an individual and/or group identity when it comes to freedom of expression? Discuss with students the correlations between past and present issues that could be expressed in a place like Congo Square. *SEAL Soundbite – Call and response singing, the dances and the sharing of African cultures is a great example of social-awareness in the community that is built in Congo Square. Through these experiences, people showed respect for each other, appreciated and celebrated the diversity among themselves and recognized the importance of community resources and togetherness.


  1. Share with students the regulations of Code Noir (The Black Code). Code Noir is a system of civil codes that were placed on people of African descent. The code regulated how they should behave in Spanish and French colonial Louisiana. It was later incorporated into the American Louisiana colonial system as well. These etiquettes of behavior were bound by laws and punishments for all people of color. Any citizen with 1/64th of African heritage was bound by these laws. 


  1. Show students the pictures on slide 6. Tell students that one example of the law was that all women of color had to wear a wrap (scarf) around their hair in public, called a tignon, to distinguish them from white women. Other laws included enslaved people needing permission slips to appear in town; they could not stay with or hold residence with anyone other than their owner. *SEAL Soundbite – Here we can pause and ask some questions that help students reflect on these laws and the ramifications they had on the people in New Orleans.
    • Can you give an example of any restrictive laws in our world today?
    • What problem might arise with laws like this? 
    • Does it seem fair or ethical to ask people to do this? 
    • In what ways have we moved away from these limiting laws and have more consideration for others who are different from us?


  1. Display the Instruments in Congo Square video on slide 7. Have students listen to Sunpie Barnes describe how enslaved people created their own instruments influenced by their homeland. 



  1. Tell students they are going to learn about clave rhythms. Demonstrate or show an example of a Clave Rhythms on slide 8. Teachers can use clave instruments, improvised instruments, and/or body percussion. 


  1. Introduce a metronome to students. Explain to students that they have an internal metronome inside of them. Have students clap, tap, nod heads, or use an adaptive tool to follow their natural response to the music. Students may not all respond in the same way because they are becoming aware of their own internal responses to music. 


  1. Play the Call and Response video for students on slide. The “call” (the main solo voice makes an initial call) and “response” (an immediate reply to the main solo voice) is demonstrated. Share the Lyrics: “Eh! la Bas” or Lyrics: “Li’l Liza Jane” with students. Practice call and response with students. 


  1. After students have established call and response, have them experiment with collective improvisation. The majority of students will hold the main clave rhythm while having an individual student add or subtract a different vocal or rhythmic element. When students begin to understand the concept, have 4-5 students improvise while still holding the main rhythmic element.



  1. Have students participate in a full-body Congo Square experience by incorporating a clave rhythm, body movements, and Call and Response song. Students can write their own song or use “Hey La Bas” or “Li’l Liza Jane.” Split the class into two groups, one group will sing the “call” and the other group will sing the “response.” Have students rotate clapping, use body percussion, and dance as they sing. Divide students into groups to create their own song and dance. 


  1. Have students perform their song and dance for the class. 


  1. Have students answer an Exit Ticket reflection question: In what ways have we moved away from the limiting laws of Code Noir and have more consideration for others who are different from us?



Used with permission. Portions of this work are based on the National Core Arts Standards Copyright © 2015 National Coalition for Core Arts Standards/All Rights Reserved – Rights Administered by SEADAE.

© Copyright 2010. National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and Council of Chief State School Officers. All rights reserved.

Sunpie Barnes, Curriculum Developer and Music Artist Liaison
JoDee Scissors, Content Producer
Elizabeth Peterson, Social and Emotional Artistic Learning (SEAL) Consultant



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