Despite uncharacteristically wintry weather, the scene at the 7th Ward’s Neighborhood Story Project was warm and convivial recently as 40 to 50 people gathered to eat, drink, dance and celebrate the upcoming release of the CD and book project "Le Kér Creole: Compositions from Louisiana."
“You dance in the winter to stay warm, and you dance in the summer to cool off,” said musician Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes as attendees hauled a sofa to the sidewalk, clearing space for a dance floor. “It’s New Orleans. You have an excuse to dance anytime.”
Outside, a fire pit warmed the assembly of University of New Orleans students, professors, musicians, neighbors and Neighborhood Story Project supporters. Inside, a candlelit altar for Juan San Malo and illuminated lithophanes by artist Francis Pavy cast a glow over the crowd as they two-stepped to sets by Barnes’ L’Union Creole, Don Vappy, Louis Ford and the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park’s Arrowhead Jazz Band.
San Malo led escaped slaves, known as Maroons, who settled outside New Orleans in the 1780s. San Malo evaded white authorities for years before he was hung in Jackson Square in 1784.
Attendee Ronald Dumas, a Wild Man with the Fi-Yi-Yi Mardi Gras Indian Tribe, thought the event resembled a Creole “house dance” in Vacherie, his hometown.
“When the holidays come, you spice it up a little — play a little cards, dance, have a good time,” Dumas said.
Barnes and Rachel Breunlin, co-director of the Neighborhood Story Project and ethnographer in residence in the department of anthropology at UNO, said the similarity was intentional, as the event was an opportunity to repatriate the Creole language in a historically Creole neighborhood. The anthropology department and the Midlo Center for New Orleans Studies at UNO, along with the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park, co-sponsored the free party, which included a buffet from the Coco Hut.
“We’re bringing people together in the 7th Ward, an old Creole neighborhood, so they can learn something about the actual Creole language through music and conversation,” Barnes said. “It is repatriation as well as moving forward.”
The aim of the CD "Le Kér Creole" (the Creole Heart) is similar: to preserve and celebrate Louisiana Creole music, culture and language. Created by Barnes, Breunlin, Leroy Etienne, L’Union Creole and the New Orleans Jazz National Historic Park, it includes classic and original Creole songs, photographs by Barnes and artwork by Pavy.
Pavy created 10 lithophanes inspired by San Malo, who established a colony of escaped enslaved people outside New Orleans in the late 1700s. The installation hangs in the Neighborhood Story Project through February. To create the pieces, Pavy manipulated his own photographs in Photoshop. The resulting image is carved into a lithophane by computer and illuminated by LED lights.
For inspiration, Pavy looked to San Malo and his own subconscious mind.
“I was reading any kind of accounts I could of San Malo, and generally what happens with me is I read something and these images pop into my head,” said Pavy, a Lafayette native who created the cover for Le Kér Creole.
The project also includes new and classic Creole songs.
“We have about 19 compositions in Louisiana Creole, (which) we translated into English, to help people know what the lyrics mean and what the language is all about,” Barnes said.
“The book will give you ability to engage actual (Creole) language,” Breunlin said.
Louisiana Creole was born on Louisiana plantations in the 1700s, Breunlin said, as enslaved people negotiated learning French with their native African languages. Though Creole was the dominant language in southern Louisiana for “a long time,” said Barnes, a native Creole speaker, it’s now in decline.
“Louisiana Creole is one of the most endangered languages in the world,” Barnes said.
Although Creole is rarely spoken within Orleans Parish, it has shaped the local vernacular.
“A lot of Creole expressions have been transferred into English — everything from ‘who dat’ to ‘let the good times roll’ and ‘passing by your mama’s house,’ ” Barnes said. “Even though people speak English, they use old Creole phrases to express themselves. It’s become part of the fabric of what makes south Louisiana unique.”