Understanding Creole Culture - Past and Present
Through the eyes of Voodoo Queen Kalindah Laveaux
Photo by Cheryl Gerber
When you think of New Orleans – from its rich cultural heritage and centuries-long history – it’s essential to dig into its roots, the origin and legacy of its descendants. And a big part of that history follows the Creoles and their impact on shaping the way of life in the region.
We’re taking this time to explore Louisiana’s Creole culture with one of our closest Illuminators and friend – Voodoo Queen Kalindah Laveaux.
Ms. Laveaux is a proud Louisiana native whose lineage comes from New Orleans, Léonville, and Lake Charles. She is an interdisciplinary artist who shines a light on Louisiana’s Afro-Creole spirituality and culture through ritual, music, dance, visual art, film, storytelling, and language. Weaving in teachings and experiences in Voodoo, Louisiana languages, cooking and Zydeco from generations of her family.
How would you define Creole culture to someone that may be unfamiliar? How has it played a role in your life and how do you see it represented within New Orleans today – woven into the fabric of the city and its celebration of life?
KL: The word Creole in Louisiana has had more than one definition throughout history. During the seventeen and eighteen hundreds, Creole referred to anyone who was born in Louisiana, as opposed to those who had migrated from other places. The term has also been used to refer to families who can trace their lineage in Louisiana to its origins, before the Louisiana Purchase.
Today, the most common use of the word refers to those of us who can identify as Afro-Creole. We are primarily of African, Indigenous, and French descent. Some Creoles also have Spanish and German ancestry. We have our own language called Kréyòl Lalwiziyan (Louisiana Creole) or Kouri Vini (Come and Go). Everything that makes New Orleans a great place to live and visit comes from our culture. Creole food has been inaccurately labeled "Cajun" in commercial settings. All of our signature dishes bear a strong likeness to popular African, Afro-Caribbean, and Afro-Latin dishes.
The misunderstood spiritual tradition of Voodoo also came from our African ancestors directly to Louisiana. The drum rhythms, dances, symbology, and vibrant artistic expression are present in every aspect of the city's culture. The rhythms and styles of Jazz and Secondline music come directly from Voodoo drumming. Our African ancestors created new forms of music based on the instruments available to them. This music is the battery for Mardi Gras parades, Black Carnival Masking Traditions, Secondline Sundays, and Jazz Funerals. Our beadwork in Black Carnival Masking Tradition (Mardi Gras Indians) comes directly from the Ancestral Masquerading traditions in Voodoo. This can also be seen throughout West Africa and also the Caribbean. Creole culture is the heart of my spiritual practice of Voodoo, my beadwork, my music, and my values.
Photo by Cheryl Gerber
With each generation, cultures inevitably change and grow. But, elements of the Creole cultural are still very much alive in the region. Do you feel any aspects have not withstood time or have largely disappeared?
KL: The culture is not disappearing. It is surviving in the way that it always has; by evolving to meet the needs and conditions of the times. But, there is a deficit of acknowledgement, appreciation, and compensation. There are many of us who work hard to preserve the various aspects of Creole culture including, language, cuisine, spirituality, music, dance, art history, and folklore. This is a full-time vocation. Yet often, there is not sufficient financial support to aid in perpetuating this culture. It is also the case that we are not the ones who receive the acknowledgement and most of the financial compensation when there is a spotlight on Creole culture. We are still here. The culture is still here. But there must be reciprocity.
Mardi Gras is an important cultural celebration for the region and you work readily to preserve these customs and traditions. We’d love to learn more about your process, inspiration and your work tied to it.
KL: The most important thing to remember is that these are not costumes. They may be referred to as "Suits", "Regalia", or "Ancestral Masque". We do not wear them for fun. They have deep spiritual and cultural significance. We do this to honor those who came before us, and gave us these traditions. I am a part of Black Carnival Masking Tradition here in the city. I have masked with The Guardians of the Flame Maroon Society and Yellow Pocahontas. We sew all year long in order to create these beaded suits that we wear on Mardi Gras Day. There is only a needle and thread; one bead at a time. I sew symbols pertaining to Voodoo and Afro-Creole history into my suit. I created The Mystic Seven Sisters (TM). We are a group of women dressed in white, who bring spirit medicine to the streets on Carnival morning. We sing, dance, conjure, and cleanse the streets. We continue the traditional healing work of the women in Voodoo who came before us.