It’s not an easy thing to save a language. But New Orleans musician Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes and University of New Orleans anthropologist Rachel Breunlin of The Neighborhood Story Project are giving it their best shot.
For the last three years, the pair have been collaborating with Lafayette musician Leroy Etienne, L’Union Creole and the New Orleans Jazz National Historic Park on a project called Le Kér Creole (translated “The Creole Heart”), a forthcoming CD and book that together aim to preserve and repatriate Creole language, history and music in a city that has tended to forget it. The project includes new, original compositions by Barnes and Etienne as well as some historic pieces, all of which are transcribed in their original language and translated into English.
On Friday, Dec. 8, The Neighborhood Story Project hosts a free live jazz concert and art show at its headquarters, 2202 Lapeyrouse St, in celebration of Le Kér Creole and the stories and legacy that inspired it. The event, which will go from 6 to 9 p.m., will feature Don Vappie, Louis Ford and the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park’s Arrowhead Jazz Band, as well as L’Union Creole.
Co-sponsored by the Department of Anthropology and the Midlo Center for New Orleans Studies at the University of New Orleans, the celebration will also include an opportunity for visitors to view an altar dedicated to Juan San Malo, leader of the escaped slaves who became 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. Such altars have been erected around the city, including at The Music Box Village, the Old U.S. Mint and Bullet’s Sports Bar.
Also on display during the event, “In the Company of San Malo,” an installment of works by Lafayette artist Francis X. Pavy. The exhibition consists of 10 illuminated lithopanes constructed of translucent porcelain that pay tribute to the Maroon villages who are believed to have spoken Louisiana Creole. The artwork will also be on display at The Neighborhood Story Project headquarters through February.
Barnes, an Arkansas-born musician with roots in Louisiana, has become a beloved mainstay of the Louisiana music scene. Fronting Sunpie and the Louisiana Sunspots, he plays zydeco with a mixture of blues, gospel, R&B and more, in a distinct musical genre steeped in Creole French, a language he says he connected with instantaneously.
“I felt that there was a definite need for a CD project recording that spoke directly to the original Language that was created in south Louisiana, Louisiana Creole,” Barnes said. He said he turned to Breunlin because The Neighborhood Story Project seemed a natural home for work that aims to reacquaint New Orleanians with their own stories, stories that might otherwise be forgotten if not chronicled and shared with the community.
The Neighborhood Story Project works in partnership with the University of New Orleans to create books and published materials that create relevant literature documenting local culture and history. while empowering people to author their own stories, providing writing, interviewing and photography workshops and more.
The public is invited to the Dec. 8 celebration, which includes dinner by Coco Hut. Two sets of music will begin at 6 p.m., and will include songs from Le Kér Creole, which are forthcoming in 2018.