Category Archives: Louisiana

Beasts of the Southern Wild

One of this summer’s great revelations was the film “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” It is remarkable tale — at once mythical and very real — of childhood, a flood, and finding one’s place in a world that seems to be ending. The work of a film collective based in Louisiana, it was directed by Behn Zeitlin and performed by a cast made up entirely of locals, most startlingly the incredible 6-year-old star of the film Quevenzhané Wallis.

You can read about the making of the film, and Zeitlin’s encounter with Cajun culture, here. The film has initiated some great discussions about race, culture, and the meaning of America. Here’s a useful and critical examination of the film by Carrie Leelam Love; the comments on the article are also particularly interesting. Jarvis DeBerry, meanwhile, a regular contributor to New Orleans newspapers, offers this spirited celebration of the film at the blog Colorlines.

I’d urge everyone to go out and see the movie on the big screen — it’s an experience not to be missed.

L’influence du Banjo aux Etats Unis

En explorant un peu plus la visite du Don Vappie que j’ai beaucoup aime, j’ai trouve quelques vidéos qui pouvait vous intéressent. La première est un clip d’un documentaire qui s’appelle « Le Banjo Project. » Don était un contributeur de cette vidéo. Ce clip explore un peu l’histoire de l’instrument et comment les origines du banjo étaient influencées par la race. Il incorpore la musique avec des citations et des entretiens des personnages connus comme Steve Martin et Mark Twain. Cette vidéo m’a aidé de mettre ce que M. Vappie a dit dans un contexte historique.

La deuxième vidéo est la musique de M. Vappie lui-même.

On Don Vappie

Don Vappie will be visiting Duke on Monday and Tuesday, March 22nd-23rd, giving a public performance/lecture in the Rare Book Room at Duke University at Noon on Monday (See below).

To learn more about him in advance of his visit, read this interview done with him as part of a documentary on the history of the banjo. Don is on his way to Boone, where he will be participating in the Black Banjo Gathering.

Don Vappie was part of Otis Taylor’s album Recapturing the Banjo, and performed here at Duke last year as part of that project, which you can learn about here:

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New Orleans Banjo Virtuoso

Talks about and performs the music of the CREOLE BANJO

March 22 at NOON

Rare Books Room, Perkins Library

Painting of Don Vappie by Jane Lovett Holt

Don Vappie is one of New Orlean’s most remarkable musicians, who has recovered and performed largely forgotten French Creole music, as well as working to help artists in New Orleans in the wake of Katrina. He will be discussing and performing his music during the event. All are welcome!

Sponsored by the Center for French and Francophone Studies and the Department of Music.

New Orleans Banjo Virtuoso Don Vappie to Visit Duke March 22-23


New Orleans Banjo Virtuoso

Talks about and performs the music of the CREOLE BANJO

March 22 at NOON

Rare Books Room, Perkins Library

Painting of Don Vappie by Jane Lovett Holt

Don Vappie is one of New Orlean’s most remarkable musician, who has recovered and performed largely forgotten French Creole music and played on Otis Taylor’s CD Recapturing the Banjo. Having performed here last year in Duke Performances, he returns to Duke to discuss and perform his music.

Sponsored by the Center for French and Francophone Studies and the Department of Music.

Ned Sublette Narrates his Journey to Duke

Here is Ned Sublette’s funny account of his recent visit to Duke, and to our class, taken from his “Nedslist” newsletter:

“La théorie de postmamboism est très intéressante.”

Damn. That’s what I thought too, but I didn’t think it in French.

Postmamboism has had an impressive rollout since the publication on December 15 of the Principles of Postmamboism. Major scholars have adhered to the theory, and dozens of inquisitive Postmamboists are wearing the T-shirt. It has been discussed in at least three college courses, both graduate and undergraduate, including the course I’m teaching this semester at Baruch College.

But I never imagined it would be so enthusiastically discussed in French, the very language of theory. Yet there it was, in both French and English, in the comment section of the Global France blog associated with Dr. Laurent Dubois’s class of the same name at Duke University. Posted are numerous questions from the students, and it would be quite an undertaking to answer all the queries they posed.

What an experience I had last week at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, a place I had never been. Anyone who’s talked history with me knows I’m a big fan of Laurent Dubois’s book Avengers of the New World, which besides presenting the clearest explanation of the twists and turns of the Haitian Revolution is a model of how to write history for a general reader. For three days I shadowed the movements of the busy Dr. Dubois, making in effect an ethnographic study of a Duke professor.

The travel was a story in itself, since yet another storm was bearing down. I was supposed to go from New York Penn to Durham (pronounced “Durm”) on Amtrak Tuesday morning, but Monday night I got a call from “Julie.” Julie, it turns out, is the name of the Amtrak “automated agent,” i.e., an impersonal recording that pretends to have a personality, in this case female, with a tone of voice that implies she is pleasant and has something of a sense of humor even though she’s all business. In the future we will increasingly interact with Julie and her non-human colleagues, perhaps even intermarry. “Julie” advised me that the train was cancelled due to weather complications. The strange thing about this was that the snow wasn’t scheduled to start for another day. Julie was all I was gonna get, since the wait time to talk to a human was estimated at 40 minutes, but a trip to Amtrak’s web page revealed that the problem was not snow on the tracks, but downed power lines on the portions of the tracks maintained by CSX. And I reflected:

I see this not so much as an indication of Amtrak’s incompetence as of its marginalization, here in this backward country that doesn’t have high-speed intercity rail. But then, we barely have any passenger-rail infrastructure. Amtrak has to use tracks belonging to private freight lines. The longer we go without a passenger rail infrastructure, the harder it will be to get high-speed rail, and the less of a priority it will continue to be to get rail lines clear in times of emergency. Even in Louisiana, where a high-speed evacuation channel from New Orleans would seem to make a lot of sense, New Orleans-hating obstructionist exorcist-governor Bobby Jindal vetoed the part of last year’s stimulus package earmarked for high-speed rail connecting New Orleans to Baton Rouge. For more about how we’re not making progress on high-speed rail, see

Oh, well. Jetblue had a seat available for the next morning, and I made my gig, making the 70-minute flight to Raleigh-Durham before the blizzard blew into New York. What this meant, however, was that I couldn’t take my guitar, which was the reason I wanted to take the train in the first place. I don’t dare fly with my guitar any more. My Ramírez doesn’t go in the baggage, ever, and I haven’t had a cheap travel guitar since 2008, when Jetblue confiscated the guitar I was traveling with as I was boarding the plane and handed it back to me smashed.

Since I got there ahead of schedule, I was able to sit in on Laurent Dubois’s high-powered class on Haitian culture in the 20th century, which that day was discussing Karen McCarthy Brown’s Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn. The previous week’s unit had been titled “La Longue Durée.” Baby, I’m home, in Durm of all placesthat longue durée stuff, that’s my thing, because I’m a serious Braudelian. I felt like I’d been in this class all along without realizing it. The week before that, they’d read Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, a slim, profound volume which I had happened to read that same week they were reading it, after I found a copy lying around the Center for Postmambo Studies.

Just so you know what the hell I’m talking about, I should probably quote a little from the concluding paragraphs of Chapter Three of Trouillot, “An Unthinkable History: The Haitian Revolution as Non-Event,” which considers the way that the Haitian Revolution, a turning point in world events, was left out of the world-historical narrative consensus:

” . . . [W]hat happened in Haiti . . . contradicted most of what the West has told both itself and others about itself. The world of the West basks in . . . [the illusion that] what happens is what must have happened. How many of us can think of any non-European population without the background of a global domination that now appears pre-ordained? And how can Haiti, or slavery, or racism be more than distracting footnotes within that narrative order?

“The silencing of the Haitian Revolution is only a chapter within a narrative of global domination. It is part of the history of the West and it is likely to persist, even in attenuated form, as long as the history of the West is not retold in ways that bring forth the perspective of the world. Unfortunately, we are not even close to such fundamental rewriting of world history, in spite of a few spectacular achievements.”

Down with the fixity of pastness, I say. And talk about a twofer: Laurent was team-teaching the course with Jean Casimir, visiting Mellon professor and former Haitian ambassador to the US. From the syllabus:

>This course brings together history, anthropology, literature and sociology to explore Haiti ‘s complex 20th century. The course will begin with a broad introduction to the history of Haiti since the eighteenth century, but will focus in particular on the experience and impact of the U.S. Occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934 and on the cultural and political movements it inspired in Haiti . Throughout the course we will focus in particular on the writings of Haitian writers and intellectuals, and seek to understand the historical roots and causes of the political and economic situation in contemporary Haiti.

Needless to say, when this course was programmed Haiti was not on the media agenda at all. Suddenly it’s urgent.

The next day, Laurent took me on a quick trip to Durham’s historic African-American district, which is called Hayti, pronounced Hey-tie. It was almost half a century ago that Durham was yet another victim of interstate highway construction, which in city after city bulldozed key parts of historic black and other urban neighborhoods.  The Hayti Heritage Center is housed in a former AME church built in 1895, and atop its steeple is . . . a vévé. When Laurent first told me about this, I thought he meant, there’s something that looks like a vévé painted somewhere.  No.

It’s a vévé, specifically for Erzulie Freda, in wrought iron that points straight up like a weathervane from the steeple.  Here’s a crop from the previous picture:

What’s that doing there? There is no easily available answer as to why this deconsecrated church has a vévé on top of it. It shouldn’t be hard for a local historian to establish, and maybe someone has done work that I don’t know about, but it’s not on the Hayti Heritage Center’s website or anyplace else I’ve checked. I understand that Lewis Shiner got into the subject in his novel Black and White, which takes place in Durham and which I haven’t read (novels and me, we don’t get along so well). They were a bit busy at the Hayti Heritage Center when we dropped in, because they were hurrying to get an Ernie Barnes show up on the walls, but I got to see their beautiful wood-and-stained-glass auditorium where souls were once saved, presently under the protection of Erzulie Freda.

This image of an Erzulie Freda vévé has been much on my mind lately, since the forthcoming Postmamboism T-shirt #002 (with a femme-cut version like y’all Postmamboistas asked for) is precisely that, and is not unlike what’s atop the Hayti Heritage Center. Here’s a sneak preview of the image, about which more later when I have it in cotton:

That night, as the winds and snow descended on New York City, I did a reading and mini-concert at Regulator Books in Durham, playing a fine borrowed guitar. It felt good. Journalist Sylvia Pfeiffenberger was there and reported it on her blog with a photo:

Interspersed into all this were short hangs with various brilliant people in the area. I learned something from everyone I talked to. I met Deborah Jenson, who developed a Kreyol course at Duke (which leads to a consideration of Kreyol within the umbrella of Romance languages) and – wow — taught The World that Made New Orleans in a class last year. These people are so together that eight days after the earthquake they announced a course, “Haitian Creole for the Haitian Recovery.”

And you can also play in a charanga in the music department at UNC Chapel Hill. After singing my brains out at Regulator, I got to have a beer with David García, who leads the aforementioned charanga (something all music departments should have) and is the author of Arsenio Rodríguez and the Transnational Flows of Latin Popular Music. Somebody should have done a biography of Arsenio long ago, but it’s not too late to praise the guy who finally did it, so I got to toast David’s achievement on the occasion of our first-ever meeting. He’ll be in New York to participate in a panel attached to what should be a splendid concert: “Arsenio Rodríguez in the Bronx,” by the re-energized Grupo Folklórico y Experimental Nuevayorquino, March 20 at Hostos Community College. (Incredibly, there is no page of great hype about this concert on the web. That’s how real it is — it’s too cool for the web.)

The next day, sitting in on Dr. Dubois’s Global France class, I met Reginald Patterson, a graduate student originally from Mississippi via the Bay Area who spent quality time in Guadeloupe and is part of the Kreyol force at Duke. He’s been working on Joseph de Boulogne, the Chevalier de St.-Georges, a favorite figure in my pantheon of 18th-century music stars. Here’s what I wrote a few years ago (unpublished still) about the Chevalier:

Born in Guadeloupe in 1739 [1] to an aristocratic French Creole father and a Senegalese mother, Boulogne began studying the violin as a boy in Saint-Domingue, where his father also had a plantation. He would have been accustomed from early on to seeing black musicians playing orchestral instruments, which might be a novelty in France but was a common enough sight in Guadeloupe and Saint-Domingue. He was acknowledged by the planter and raised as his son, with the best education possible. Though Boulogne’s father had a white wife, his mother seems to have had “plantation wife” status as well.

Boulogne has the distinction of being perhaps the only composer in what we now call “classical” music – a designation about as meaningful as “classic rock” — to have been born a slave, and also the only composer to have excelled in so many other pursuits: champion fencer, equestrian, dancer. These two facts are perhaps related: in his early years in the Antilles, with African culture all around, the differences between the various forms of physical and artistic endeavor which are separated by European culture into distinct disciplines may simply not have existed for him. A warrior, a dancer, a musician: in Africa, these things would all coexist in one person and not be separated out. His music, it should be noted, has nothing identifiably African about it. It sounds rather like Haydn.

At the age of ten, Boulogne arrived in France. When he was thirteen, his father enrolled him in the Academy of Nicolas Texier de La Boëssière, where he studied a full curriculum that included fencing, mathematics and dancing as well as science and humanities. With the end of the war, his father returned to Guadeloupe, but continued to support his son in Paris, who was thus living on the profits of slave labor. In 1760, the young man was named to the King’s Guard, receiving the title of Chevalier of Saint-George (which is how I will subsequently refer to him). He studied with Paris’s two most eminent composers, Jean-Marie Leclair and the Belgian François-Joseph Gossec, and was at the center of the newest musical events.

A curious new form of music was becoming popular, one perfectly suited to the era of the worship of logic and abstraction: the symphony, which had outgrown its status as an incidental piece of music to a stage work. Concerts were being staged where an audience sat and watched a group of instrumentalists play a long-form music, without words or mise-en-scene.

The development of the symphony owes much to the influential music city of Mannheim, Germany. The most famous Mannheim composers, the father and son Johann and Karl Stamitz, were familiar faces in Paris. In 1769 (some sources place the date later), Saint-George was one of the founders of the Concert des Amateurs, a symphonic orchestra of some 70-plus players that included the younger Stamitz. The term “amateurs” did not have the connotations it has today; the orchestra featured many of the finest players in Paris, and presented the great virtuosi of Europe to the Parisian audience as guest soloists. Though the ensemble was under the direction of Gossec, Saint-George was first violinist and batteur de mesure — literally, keeper of the beat, or a less developed version of what we would now call the conductor. He directed the orchestra in rehearsals and often in concert as well. During their four-month season they played twelve concerts a week, introducing the Paris audience to the works of Franz Josef Haydn, who was becomng widely known throughout Europe. In 1773 Gossec left, and Saint-George became director, a post in which he continued until the orchestra dissolved in 1781, apparently because of its patrons’ financial difficulties occasioned by the costs of supporting the American Revolution.

Saint-George was known not only as a conductor and a virtuoso violin soloist, but also as a composer. The string quartet had been more or less invented by Haydn in 1760; in Paris, Saint-George was one of the avant-garde who took up this new form, beginning in 1773, and he wrote stage works, concerti, and symphonies. In 1775, he was a strong contender for the vacant post of Director of the Paris Opéra, but three of the Opéra’s female artists, two divas and a dancer, not wanting to take orders from a mulatto, wrote a letter of protest to Marie Antoinette and his name was withdrawn from consideration.[2] As part of his celebrity, Saint-George had a reputation as a Don Juan, but then, he had no opportunity to marry anyone of his class: on April 5, 1778, marriage was prohibited between whites and people of color, one of a spate of increasingly racist laws.

Saint-George was a Mason, possibly the only Mason of color in France, and in 1781 he was a founder of Le Concert de la Loge Olympique, a grand orchestra sponsored by the Olympic Masons’ lodge, with mostly Masonic players, set up to succeed the Concert des Amateurs. In 1784 this orchestra commissioned a set of symphonies from Haydn, by then the most popular composer of his time besides Mozart. Being a newly inducted Mason, Haydn was enthusiastic about the aims of the orchestra, and, since he was Austrian, the commission was sure to please the autrichienne, Marie Antoinette. The Guadeloupe-born ex-slave traveled to Vienna to work out the details of the commission, which paid the composer 25 louis d’or for each symphony, plus 5 louis for publication.[3] Saint-George conducted the premieres of the six symphonies at the Tuileries, Nos. 82-87, the “Paris” symphonies, in 1787, with Marie Antoinette in attendance (No. 85 is known as “The Queen” Symphony). With 70-some pieces, the orchestra was possibly the largest orchestra in Europe. It was certainly the most finely dressed. Decked out in embroidered blue coats trimmed with lace, with plumed hats on their heads and épées at the player’s sides, the musical Masons playing this supremely rational new music looked nothing like the grave symphonic penguins of later times.

[1] Many sources cite his birthdate as 1745, but Dominique-René de Lerma insists it was 1739. Lerma, 3.

[2] Quoted in Ribbe, 118.

[3] Smidak, 163.

The class kicked off with a tripartite (as I heard it) violin solo in honor of the Chevalier by Reginald Patterson, who had also organized a fencing match for the following week. After the class was an afternoon conference on Haiti, with presentations by Drs. Jensen, Dubois and Casimir. (Alex Dupuy, invited feature speaker, had to cancel because of weather.) And then . . .

It was time for the Miguel Zenón concert (a good advance article about it, by the aforementioned Ms. Pfeiffenberger, is here). My visit to Duke was scheduled to coincide with the arrival of Zenón’s Esta Plena Septet, which juxtaposes a Latin-jazz quartet (Macarthur laureate Zenón on alto, Luis Perdomo on piano, Hans Glawischnig on bass, Henry Cole on drums) with three pleneros playing panderetas: Héctor “Tito” Matos, Juan Gutiérrez, and Obanilú Allende. I was supposed to do a pre-concert interview with Miguel and Tito, but they wound up having to drive in from New York that day – the airport was a mess but the interstate was open — and they got to town just in time for sound check, so I wound up giving a hastily prepared solo talk on plena.

Apologies for the lousy shot-from-my-seat picture. I was predisposed to like it anyway, if only because I’m a plena fan and the pandereteros in question are my buds. Tito Matos, whom I’ve plena’d with in San Juan, is the co-founder of the group Viento de Agua, whose debut album, De Puerto Rico Al Mundo, I produced for Qbadisc/Agogo in ’98; also in Viento de Agua was Juan Gutiérrez, cultural hero of the barrio in New York for his decades of work with Los Pleneros de la 21. And there was Obanilú Allende, soulful young heir to the traditions (his father played with Charlie Palmieri and La Lupe), and who’s been playing in Bobby Sanabria’s big band, which I’ve been hanging with on Wednesdays at Fonda Boricua on 106th. (Come by this week, more about that later.)

I had caught an early version of Miguel Zenón’s project at the Jazz Gallery in NYC and I had been listening to the album Esta Plena (Zenón’s fourth album for Marsalis Music, the label headed by Durham resident Branford Marsalis, who was present at the concert) for some weeks, so I knew the tunes. My favorite number on the album, “Pandero y Pagode,” is the least typical, folding Brazilian pop into plena at their point of contact: the Brazilian pandeiro and the Puerto Rican pandereta. With Jobim-esque harmonies in place of the usual tonic/dominant of plena, it gives the jazz guys more to work with, and the melody, sung in samba-style octaves, sticks in my brain. The lyrics on the album are Miguel’s, something relatively unusual for a jazz horn player to do, and they’re effective because they’re simple and direct, in the folkloric style: “y tú no me puedes negar / que mi plena te llega hasta el alma.” The big surprise of the evening for me was that it was Zenón himself singing the high-voice part, quite effectively.

They didn’t play like they had just spent ten hours in a car.

Tito laid a copy of the new Viento de Agua album, Fruta Madura, on me, and we finished out the night toasting Puerto Rico at Durham’s Latin-music Thursday night hotspot, a restaurant called Revolucion Cubana in a converted factory space with huge faux-pop-art pictures of Che, JFK, and Marilyn Monroe, whose connection to the Cuban Revolution was somewhat indirect.

To top it off, I had asked Laurent Dubois if he might possibly have a copy handy of John Thornton’s article “African Soldiers in the Haitian Revolution,” which was published in 1991 in a hard-to-get journal and which I’d been needing for my work. Not only did he have it, he just happened to have included it in a new anthology he’d co-edited called Origins of the Black Atlantic, in an intriguing-looking series of volumes of revisionist-oriented history called “Rewriting Histories” from Routledge. He laid a copy on me, and in signing it declared himself a “fervent disciple of Postmamboism.” With the wind at my back, I snapped a picture of the latest model for the Postmamboism T-shirt:

Happy Mardi Gras, y’all.  I’ll miss it this year, but I’m off to New Orleans on Thursday for a quick visit . . .

Ned Sublette on the Haitian Revolution, Louisiana and the Making of American Music

Ned Sublette, who will be visiting Duke this week and coming to our class this coming Thursday, has written two books about music in Louisiana. (You can find out more about these books in this post about his visit). His books explore the ways in which the culture and music of New Orleans and Louisiana came into being, and how they have shaped American culture.

Click here to read about his approach, which he has dubbed “Post-Mamboism”

One of his arguments is that the Haitian Revolution, and the social and demographic transformations it produced in the broader Atlantic world, was “one of the generative explosions of popular music of our hemisphere.”

Here is a short excerpt from an interview he did about his work, in which expands on this idea. Read the full interview, from the magazine BOMB, here.

“Ned: I’ve started to see the Haitian Revolution as one of the generative explosions of the popular music of our hemisphere. We can see evidence for this in all kinds of ways. The tumba francesa — black antiquarian societies of eastern Cuba that dance contradanza to purely African-style drumming — have a dance that they call frenté, in which a drummer sits on his drum and plays a duet with the steps of the male dancer, who is festooned with kerchiefs. It’s almost the same dance I saw a Puerto Rican bomba group from western Puerto Rico do. Bomba — that’s a Kikongo word meaning “secret,” and it shows up in Saint Domingue, in the revolutionary hymn that Moreau-de-St.-Méry wrote down without knowing what it meant:

Eh, eh, bomba! Hen, hen

Canga bafio te

Canga moune de le

Canga do ki la…

The bomba in Puerto Rico shows strong signs of having descended from something that was going on in Saint Domingue (which is the name I prefer to use for pre-revolutionary Haiti.) And I suspect there was something going on in Congo Square very much like this.”

Last year, I participated in a discussion at with Ned about Haitian music and its relation to the revolution — thanks, Zachary, for bringing that up in your comment — which you can read here.

Drawing on this interview with Ned (and, if you wish, on the New Yorker forum) and on your reading of Avengers of the New World for this week, comment on some of the ways in which music shaped the Haitian Revolution, and the Haitian Revolution shaped music.

Ned Sublette Visits Duke and Durham February 10th-11th

Writer and musician Ned Sublette will be doing a reading from The Year Before the Flood, as well as performing some of the music he writes about in the book, at the Regulator Bookshop on 9th Street in Durham on February 10th at 7 p.m.

(Directions to Regulator Bookshop)

Sublette is a remarkable author, musician, and producer who has written about the links between history and music in Cuba and Louisiana. His reading/concert is part of a three-day visit to Duke February 9th-11th, during which he will also participate in a pre-concert conversation with Miguel Zenon organized by Duke Performances.

You can read a preview of his visit from a local fan here.

He has published three major books: Cuba and It’s Music, a sweeping and magisterial investigation of the African, Iberian, and Caribbean sources for Cuban music; The World that Made New Orleans, a history of the city that emphasizes the links between the Caribbean, notably Haiti, and North America, and most recently a memoir on the music and culture of New Orleans, The Year Before the Flood.

To read about Ned’s arguments about the place of the Haitian Revolution in American popular music, click here.