Creole NYC is different things to different people. At its broadest, Creole is a living language formed by children blending two mother languages. It is also European mixed with everyone else.
In the Caribbean, Creole is often code for the Haitian Diaspora in New Orleans, the French-speaking Caribbean, Trinidad & Tobago, and French Guiana. Actually the Haitian Revolution caused a Diaspora throughout the Caribbean. The Creole presence is hidden under layers of colonization and blending.
In Latin America, the Spanish equivalent “Criolla” often means European Indigenous or European American. It implies something good from the Americas, that is not European.
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The French Caribbean
After an initial attempt on St. Christopher (Saint Kitts) in 1626, Martinique became the first French colony in 1635.
Today the French Antilles are Guadeloupe, Martinique, Saint Martin and Saint Barthélemy. French Guiana is in South American between Venezuela and Brazil.
The French Caribbean includes the independent countries of Haiti, Dominica and Saint Lucia.
French America includes New Brunswick and Quebec in Canada. In the United States New Orleans is a French Caribbean city. There are also French influences in northern Maine and coastal south Florida.
The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 was roughly the middle third of today’s United States. The original French Louisiana (1682-1762) included a large swath of land on both sides of the Mississippi River.
Creole, Acadian, French-Canadian, Haitian, Cajun and Louisiana Creole are all remnants of French America.
Creole isn’t a people, but is an important cultural group whose story is not well told. We can’t say this is all perfectly correct because we are figuring it out ourselves, but it’s a great story. We are not aware of anyone who has put the story together this way.
Creole is important because the main roots of popular culture in the United States are African. African American cultural forms including marching music, gospel, ragtime, blues, country, jazz, swing, Latin jazz, rock, salsa, hip-hop, reggaeton and Latin trap, all have deep African roots. So does Broadway. The roots are Creole.
The roots of African American culture are Creole through New Orleans. In the Colonial Period Africans were not allowed to celebrate their own culture, but for a time they were allowed to drum, sing and dance and hold a market at Congo Square in New Orleans.
New Orleans is a Caribbean city. The Caribbean is Indigenous, European and African, but there are footprints of African French “Creole” culture all over the Caribbean, even in places that weren’t French. The first family of Puerto Rican bomba, the Cepedas, say their culture comes from a French plantation in Mayagüez.
The French sugar colony of Saint-Domingue (1659-1804, now Haiti) was the richest Caribbean colony and the richest of all the French colonies. The cruelest form of colonization was practiced there, but because it was so profitable, the model was copied around the Caribbean. So this was the first round of the Haitian Creole diaspora around the Caribbean.
The Spanish island of Trinidad didn’t have enough people to protect it from invasion by other colonial powers. So in 1777, the Spanish invited French plantation owners to settle. They came mostly from the Lesser Antilles. This was another round of the Creole diaspora.
Trinidad Carnival grew out of African-French mockery of French Mardi Gras masquerade balls. Trinidad Carnival is the mother of Caribbean Carnival. Its traditions were copied around the world. New Orleans Mardi Gras, New York’s West Indian Day Caribbean Carnival, and even London’s Notting Hill Carnival are all Trinidadian carnivals.
When the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) destabilized Saint-Domingue, another Creole diaspora spread around the Caribbean including to New Orleans.
Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869) is one of the father’s of ragtime. He was Jewish, English, French, Creole. His family home overlooked Congo Square. He grew up listening to those rhythms. After being trained in European conservatories, Gottschalk wrote those rhythms down in his famous compositions “Bamboula,” “La Savane,” “Symphony No. 1: A Night in the Tropics” and others. He also traveled the Caribbean and South America. He died in Brazil.
In the same way that European dancers created ballets from folk dances, Gottschalk created classical compositions from the music he heard. He is a window into our Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Brazilian past.
Gottschalk’s very rhythmic and syncopated compositions become ragtime. Jazz develops out of the blues and ragtime.
To rewind a little, there is African culture in Africa. That’s stage 1. There is African culture in the Caribbean which is blended with Indigenous and various colonial cultures. That’s stage 2. Then there is Caribbean culture in what is now the United States through New Orleans. That’s stage 3. From this we get all the rich African American culture of the United States which dominates popular culture.
What a story.
The Haitian Diaspora
First the riches of the French sugar colony Saint-Domingue (Haiti) and then the chaos of the Haitian Revolution caused a Haitian diaspora. This French, Creole & African diaspora spread Creole culture across the Caribbean including to New Orleans and Veracruz, Mexico.
The popular music and dances of the Americas (all of them) have Creole roots. It’s all related to Carnival which was the only time Africans were allowed to celebrate their own culture.
The story is not well told, but Creole footprints are everywhere. For example, bomba is a Puerto Rican music and dance tradition. La Familia Cepeda, the first family of bomba in Puerto Rico, says that their tradition comes from a French sugar plantation in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico.
There is also a rough hillbilly accent around Hatillo, Puerto Rico. It’s Spanish spoken from the back of the throat. Puerto Ricans will tell you that the accent is a French accent. Indeed French is spoken from the back of the throat using the mouth to form a tunnel that modifies and softens the sound. This Puerto Rican accent drops the tunnel and it sounds really rough.
Creole is hard to define. It is not one people. As European mixed with something, it’s many peoples around the world. But Caribbean Creole is often French-African. It’s the French version of Spanish “Criollo,” meaning the American-born children of Europeans.
French-Creole begins with the children of French colonizers in the Americas. In colonial thinking, anyone born in the Americas was already second-class, but these were the first-class, leading families in the Americas. Often mixed-race, Creoles were highly-educated. Many studied in Europe.
The contribution of Creole peoples to the music and dances of the Americas is tremendous, but largely unspoken.
Blues is from Africa, but it took the form we know today in the French Americas. It’s the root of jazz, country, rock, and their successors, essentially all the popular music of the United States.
Trinidad Carnival set Caribbean Carnival traditions which were copied around the world. Carnival was the only time of the year Africans in the colonies were allowed to have a little fun. Out of that we get Latin jazz, salsa and their successors.
A lot of Black and Latin music and dance has Creole roots. It has Spanish- and Portuguese- and even British-African influences too, but the French-African contribution is just not talked about.
Somehow the story is connected to Haiti, formerly the French sugar colony Saint-Domingue. Being the richest French colony and the richest sugar colony in the Caribbean, it influenced the entire region. The Haitian Revolution caused a diaspora across the Caribbean, including to New Orleans which was originally a French city anyway.
The French-Creole story has been suppressed because after the Haitian Revolution slavers feared uprisings. In the United States Jim Crow (institutional racism from the U.S. Civil War to today) destroyed this sophisticated, highly-educated community of African-Americans.
Still we are left with a rich legacy of music and dance from the Creole community and it’s still around in the Caribbean.
When jazz found its way to Europe with the Harlem Hellfighters in World War I, the French immediately loved with it. Probably without knowing why, they instinctively felt a bit of themselves in the rich Creole music we now call jazz.