An account of The Las Vegas International Creole Symposium 2005
“The process of creolisation was a preconfiguration of globalization. Creole Culture has always been global. ”
- Pr Raphael Confiant.
While the 17th &18th was devoted to reviewing the 1999 Symposium and building up the International Organisation of Creole People, the subsequent days were devoted to lectures and questions gearing towards exploring commonalities in the Creole world.
The first paper was presented by Raphael Confiant, lecturer at the University of the French West Indies and Guyana, on the development of Creolism in the Caribbean, and in the other parts of the world. He started by saying that in the Caribbean alone, there are around 8 million creoles and if we were to include those who are in the Unites states, in Europe, in the Indian Ocean, Australia and in the Pacific we would come up with a few more millions. The word Creole comes from the Latin word “creare” meaning to create. It was first mentioned during the Spanish colonization as “criolio”; it was first a white definition but changed as blacks were coming in. However, the word Creole never had racist connotation, was not anthropocentric as it was applied across the board, to humans as well as to plants and animals, eg la bannane Creole, le chochon Creole, la musique Creole, etc…He then went on to give a historical account of colonization of the Caribbean and the American world for 1740 on wards going through the twice exterminations of natives by the Spanish and the repopulation. “Linguistic insecurity in the colonies developed into a local Creole language spoken from Louisiana to St Lucie to French Guyana. Creole language was not born during the plantation economy but well before; the natives had to communicate and give names to various objects and food.” He also underlined that on the human side, those white colonists men were having so much liaison with black women because of lack of French women that some prostitutes were sent to the colonies.
Pr Confiant then elaborated on the development of the Creole culture and how in 1789 with the French revolution mullatoes seized power in the colonies, and rejected Creole language and culture. After the abolition of slavery even the black rejected the Creole language, as they thought that only the French language would set them free and obtain a position. However, after the abolition of slavery, the indenture labour coming from
India used Creole for integration and the language and culture continued to flourish without interruption. Since 1981 started a movement of Creoleness to reconcile people with the Creole culture all over the world, in praise of their Culture- the slogan was -We are Creoles, everybody is Creole. He finished by saying “Creole Culture and melting pot in the Caribbean as well as in the Indian Ocean. A mixture of all cultures. How can you not be proud of such a rich heritage?’’
Oral traditions in the Creole world were presented by Carine Gendrey, a native of Guadeloupe who graduated in Creole and now teaching Creole language, Creole literature and Creole history in the Secondary schools.
She started by stressing on the richness of the culture that has been passed on from one generation to the other and the importance of the Creole language in that process. The language has always served as a vehicle of communication among slaves and also used by the plantation masters to talk to their servants. “Creole language was the only thing left to the black slaves as, being in chains, they did not bring anything with then except their memories and their traditions eg rituals, tales and riddles”. As the slaves had to live in an absolute negation of their origins, the story teller would contribute to keep alive another side of history, the oral traditions. The story teller was the transmitter of values and culture….he is considered as a wise man, a guardian of traditions. Use of riddles to shape his rhythm, was a special way to ease the tales’ reception and memories. Riddles used animals as characters but with special signification. She pointed out the similarities of the West Indies and the Indian Ocean using animals as characters in riddles i.e. using the same compere lievre, compere lapin…and Ti Jean, the most famous actor in tales, is a young boy of social status who will always end up marrying the king’s daughter. Another striking point is the way story telling in all the islands finished the same way…. “and they kicked me and I landed here to tell you this story”. She then elaborated on the rules of story telling eg it should only be told at night or and very popular the night prior to the funeral. “Religious instructions and story telling has for long been the only educational methods in the islands and Creole tales remains a form of Creole literature today.” Carine also spoke on the Creole proverbs and how they could be are satirical, cynical, and at times downgrading.
Panel debate: In between the papers the delegates also had the opportunity of debating on issues affecting the Creole world like globalisation, racism and how in the different parts of the world there are still opposition to the Creole language and culture. Racism seems to be a big issue in the United States and this is how we learned that the Creoles of the United States have for long been denied an identity because they were a mixed people. The one drop policy applied by the United States Government would classify people as either black or white. This really hurt the Creoles, while some had to “passé Blanc” meaning pretend to be white; others have to join the African Americans. It also started a process of migration out of Louisiana to other states of the USA, others simply left the country as they still had relatives in France and Belgium and others went down to Mexico. Those who stayed, now form the Cane River community. Contrary to popular beliefs, not many creoles now live in New Orleans and in Louisiana; Los Angeles has a big Creole community followed by Huston and Chicago.
Creole Chronology was presented by Mr. Gilbert Martin, a Creole Activist and Historian who is probably the only one alive who can give a vivid and empirical description of life as a Creole in New Orleans. He now lives in California; he shared with the delegates his experience growing up as a Creole in New Orleans and his fight against the United States Government for the recognition of what he called “The French Creole Culture”. It is worth explaining here that in the USA, the largest and biggest Creole community of Creoles is of French, Haitians, African and Indian decent from the days of colonization. There also Spanish creoles and newly arrived Haitians immigrants also call themselves Creoles. A black Creole, like Gilbert Martin is surely not part of the African American like Colin Powell, Eddy Murphy, Denzel Washington, Herly Berly, or Condoleezza Wright or Opera Winfrey, as their history is totally different. French Creoles, black or white or coloured come from Louisiana. Cane River is the birth place of Creolism and even today there is still a community of Creole living there and the area is protected under the Preservation and Patrimoine laws.
The town where Gilbert Martin grew up, New Orleans, was populated by Creoles and was one of the most prosperous city in the USA. The creoles living there were very skilled; they were in business and virtually controlled the economy of the state of Louisiana. These are the words of Gilbert Martin:
”Creolism was developed as a system, as a community with its own rules. Creoles were linked to Catholicism and marriage. It was a unique culture. Creole slaves of New Orleans were the most sophisticated and skillful people around. They could buy their own freedom as well as those of their spouses. There was a strong sense of belonging and closeness of the Creole that enabled them to prosper. Well Before the arrival of people from Haiti, there were already Creoles in Louisiana. Black as well as coloured people in Louisiana were prosperous and that was an exception from the other black population.” He made reference to Grace King’s book “New Orleans” page342 who described the creoles as a nation, a civilization.
The second part of Gilbert Martin’s expose was to explain the contents of the Louisiana Purchase Treaty, the legal implication, and how the United States of America breached the Treaty “The Louisiana Purchase Treaty was breached by the USA and so Creoles could do anything they wanted. Eg I sued the American Govt for $5b. as a test case.
The Govt answered that an individual cannot sue a government. I then wrote to the Attorney General arguing about the Breach of the treaty. No answer and so I kept doing things my way. My next move was to open up a lottery all while knowing that I was in breach of the law.” he said and in view of such a situation the question remains:
Are the French Creoles of the United States an independent nation? ”
George de Lamare-Lamvohee, from the Creole Heritage Centre of Australia gave an account of the Creole Diaspora of Australia and how they are a vibrant community who is keeping the Creole culture alive even while living in a western and predominantly Anglo-Saxon country. The children of the Creoles in Australia are very much in touch with the community and participate freely in all Creole events be it the La faya, balls, fancy fairs or soccer. The Creole community in Australia who comes mainly form Mauritius, the Seychelles and Rodrigues, share the same bondage through their common language, cuisine, music and dance.
George gave two exposes one on the development of the Creole Cuisine and another one on the evolution of Creole Music in the Indian Ocean starting way back from the days of slavery to the present day.
The Creole cooking started as a survival where slaves had to use products of nature like greens (bredes) and made food out of it. Fish and octopus which were abundant in the islands were eaten fresh but they also had to find ways of preserving it by salting and drying them. Today these are delicacies. There was no rice and so sweet potatoes, manioc and corn/maize were used as base but also to make cakes. Pigs and chicken were raised to supplement the diet and it was found that they made optimum use of the pork, for black pudding, sausages, du lard, gratton, etc…The same thing happened in the other parts of the Creole world eg the Caribbean and Louisiana. Gradually creoles became more and more creative with their food by inventing new ways of cooking. We also found that beans and bean harvesting also had a common significance in the Creole world.
With the coming of Indians as indentured labour more spices were added to the Creole food so much so that today a curry is also a Creole dish. The modern Creole cuisine is today characterized by its diversity and creativity as a blend of the three continents Europe, African and Asia: a melting marmite full of flavor and a real eating experience.
It is worth mentioning at this point that the project undertaken by Mr. Nolan Melonson to publish and International Creole Cuisine book. Nolan, a Creole from Huston, explained his project to the delegates and also about the Creole Cultural Scholarship award.
The origins of music and dance in the Indian Ocean has two facets, the African and European influence.
Music, singing and dancing has always been at the heart of the slave culture, it made their bondage more bearable, it kept their spirit up and relieved their fatigue. Whether they were cutting sugar canes, planting maize and beans or just carrying their masters in palanquins, the slaves would compose and sing a song about it. The plantation songs, the rhythm of which mostly correspond with the movement of the task at hand and locked in the words made up on the spot, was probably the first form of music of the islands. They are today called the sega plante or sega zarico. Jean Pierre Laselve drew a parallel of the sega zarico of Rodrigues and the Zydeco of Louisiana. All this was happening while their European white masters were having their Saturday night ball dans le grand salon with the waltz, mazurka and the quadrille.
As the slaves came in chains, the did not bring any instrument with them and had to so made music with whatever could produce a sound eg pieces of wood, bottles, spoons, dried bamboos, filled dried coconuts with grains and shake them and hitting an iron bar in another triangular one; but they needed a drum which they made out of a hollow circular piece of wood and with a dried goat skin stretched over it. Now we have everything for a merrymaking round a bond fire and this will be called the sega. While the plantation songs were slow and melancholic, the sega was vibrant, expressive and at times erotic.
This traditional form of sega has now evolved to include electric instruments like guitar. Keyboard and other modern instruments like the trumpets and saxophone, etc…and at the same time moved in the salons of the bourgeoisie who at first rejected it as a low class dance. With the influence of modern music the sega has also incorporated the reggae to form the seggae and the rapt music to form the ragga well as other Caribbean rhythm... So the music keeps moving without however loosing its traditional base.
While in Mauritius, the violin and the accordion have disappeared with the death of Alphose Ravaton, they are still present in Reunion, Rodrigues and the Seychelles. These instruments carry the legacy of European, mainly French, peasants who came to the islands, mixed up and introduced their dance to the slaves. In Rodrigues the accordion is very popular and the dances are called Danses traditionelles or danse Kordeon while in the Seychelles, the violin is the main instrument for the Contre danses or the Kamtole. Just as the name has changed from Mazurka to makoz, just to mention one of the many, so has the steps and the rhythm which has now a purely a Creole cadence.
The audience could listen to the different types of music, from the traditional to the modern sega, seggae, raga, as well as the accordion of Rodrigues and the kamtole of the Seychelles.
Dr Jocelyn Gregoire, a lecturer at Pittsburg University in the United States and a priest explained how he revolutionalised the way of preaching the evangile in Mauritius, by using the local language, the Creole language and the sega to reach the soul and heart of the Catholics. The Bible, he said was introduced to the islands in the colonization period in a colonizing method as well, by foreign missionaries using a foreign language mainly the French ; it was never adapted to the reality of life and context. Even in the modern era the church was very slow, if not reluctant to be progressive. The universality of Christendom and Catholicism means that it should take into account the reality of the day. Dr Gregoire then played some of his hymns which made such an impact that everyone wanted to buy a cd and wanted him to say the mass the next day.
The Las Vegas symposium was closed by passing some resolutions that Creole around the world should keep on fighting to defend their language and culture and to unite and get bigger and stronger and that more international meetings should be held in the United States. An award was presented by George, on behalf of the CHC of Australia, to Mr. Gilbert Martin for his everlasting fight and contribution towards the recognition of Creolism in the United States.
Rendez vous was given in Melbourne- November 2006.