The origins of creole music in Louisiana
It is hard to think of anywhere else on earth with such an interesting cultural mix and where dance is so important. SW Louisiana finds itself the focus of interest for extraordinary reasons involving three very different main cultural groups: the Cajuns, the Afro-Caribbeans and the Native Americans. All were rural communities living off the land, all had oral languages i.e. with little or no written history and all were driven from their homelands at the hands of the European colonial powers of the day. Until their dispersal and, to a large extent, beyond their cultures were undiluted by external influence necessitating development of their own ways of doing things. Sadly, we know all too little about Native American dance or of its influences although the author hopes that this article may encourage some feedback.
The Cajuns of course were among the last arrivals in Louisiana and were therefore assigned to the less attractive regions, the prairies and swamps to the south and west. There they met and largely befriended the Native Americans they found there, much as they had done with the Micmacs of Acadie, present day Nova Scotia. The Native American tribes in the area included the Attakapas, the Opelousas, the Houmas, the Chitimatchas, the Caddos further north and later the Coushattas from Mississippi. It is still possible to meet four of these tribes today. Then there were the Afro-Caribbeans, the enforced labour force from West Africa, largely Senegal and The Gambia, who had often been 'weathered' in Haiti or San Domingue before being shipped to Louisiana to work on the sugar and cotton plantations.
To all three groups, music and especially dance was the vital social core. It variously provided a meeting point for the village community and relaxation from the chores of the week, it punctuated the year for example at harvest time, it celebrated key events, it was the route for social ritual including courtship and marriage, for birth, puberty and death. For the Native Americans and for the Afro-Caribbeans dance also provided an outlet for creativity and even art, it provided connection with a deity or the departed and it invoked good luck.
Similarities but essential differences
Simplistically, black dance in its origins tends to be sensuous, spontaneous, and unchoreographed. It exhibits rhythmic gyration involving whole body and is usually not progressive. Some dances contains a competitive element. White dance tends to be stylish, formalised, and choreographed. It is tuneful rather than rhythmic with sweeping movements involving mainly feet and is often progressive. A first time visitor to a genuine Cajun dance hall may be surprised to note the fast, gliding style of dance where nothing moves above the waist. The differences between black and white dance are fundamental and the conflicts they cause can be seen on many a dance floor today. Mostly, though, the differences have led to wonderful combinations and developments both in the music and in the dance styles.
Development of black dance
African tribal dances were reported by early explorers to be lewd, lascivious, even hideous but given that the introduction waltz had a similar reaction in the London Times of 1714, this may be overstatement and inaccurate. Three dances illustrate its diversity. The Calenda (Joan and Johnny) comprised two advancing and retreating lines, arms raised ballet-style. The Congolese Chica arrived in New Orleans via San Domingo and comprised a single female later joined by a man in a courtship ritual contact, which became increasingly suggestive. The Juba started similarly but was a competitive dance with the female goading the male into even more athletic achievement. The latter dances took place in defined areas, which subsequently developed in Louisiana into small portable dance floors large enough for just one or two performers.
Black slaves were often treated as an asset to be traded by tribal chiefs. Dance might be used to entice slaves aboard, and alcohol was used to create stupor. Women were often free to roam at the mercy of sailors. For exercise and to raise spirits, men shackled below were brought up to dance, with a whip to encourage laggards. The rhythm of a drum was used as accompaniment possibly supplemented by sailors with banjo, fiddle, pipes or harp. In absence of even a drum, anything would do even hand clapping. Rhythms were often syncopated and complex and dance subjects ranged from war dance to courting rituals. From ship, slaves were often seasoned in West Indies before being transported to American plantations. Commonly survival rates of the entire process were not much greater than 50%. Once ashore it was Catholic regions like Louisiana, which were more tolerant since their focus was on salvation/conversion rather than oppression/cultural destruction. Plantation owners allowed or often encouraged slaves to dance although precious little time was left in a working week for this to happen. Sexually suggestive dancing though was generally banned.
When the Civil War ended in 1865, the new African Americans were free, although many returned to their former masters having nowhere else to go. Dance freedom increased but with the southern economy in ruins, times were desperate. The origins of the Blues were born in this era and the crisis prompted ingenuity in both music and dance, much of it learned from the wide range of adjacent cultures. This can be seen in the instruments chosen and in the introduction of vocals and led through to modern day zydeco. Zydeco, or something like the word, is recognised as a dance style in the Seychelles, in Africa, in the Caribbean and in Louisiana. In the latter region, it has developed into a classic eight beat rhythm and has even been choreographed so that it can be taught, rather than learned. The process by which this happened, as for Cajun dancing, was almost certainly through visitors recording what they observed and how they interpreted it. Modern day visitors should visit the black dance halls of SW Louisiana and see unchoreographed, spontaneous black dancing - just wonderful and impossible to duplicate.
The people of SW Louisiana are frequently amazed, amused and excited that aspects of their culture, especially their music and dance, are celebrated and practised around the world. Although the styles often bear little resemblance to what they might regard as authentic, this generally adds to the interest and indeed there are signs that some of these styles are being assimilated back into the culture usually via the young. In Cajun country, generally speaking, except at festivals, there is little mixing among locals between Zydeco dancing and Cajun waltzes and two steps. Few bands play both styles and few audiences are there to dance both styles. Elsewhere in the USA and the rest of the world, we voyeurs on the culture often enjoy both styles of dance/music and our venues often play the alternate genre during the intervals.
Knowing that dance is for defining social groups, for exhibition, for demonstration, for intimacy, for courtship, for competition, and for occasion, anthropologists among you may be able to recognise in individual dancers which of these characteristics they exhibit. The hope is that all are having fun and are encouraging those on the sidelines to join in. Wherever you come from, dance and music are an international language and SW Louisiana is a Mecca.
Source material includes works of Carl Brasseaux, Barry Ancelet, Randy Speyrer and others.