What’s In A Folk Song? by Nathalie Cerin

Editor’s Note: This article was written by Nathalie ‘Talie’ Cerin, a Haitian singer-songwriter, teaching artist, podcast host & blogger currently living in Philadelphia. She is the Editor of @woymagazine. Follow her on Instagram.

It is often impossible to pinpoint the exact origin or creator of a folk song. This makes folk songs, unlike pop songs, belong to no one person, but rather have a group ownership by the people who keep them alive. It’s like a family inside joke where nobody can quite remember which aunt, uncle, or grandparent was the first to say it, but it still belongs to all of you. Tracing Haiti and New Orleans’ shared history and culture through songs brings forth similar unanswered questions. Perhaps the confusion in itself is an indication of the kinship shared between the two places, songs that sound and feel like either place, and therefore might belong to either place.

Lisette Quitteé La Plaine” for example, is usually credited as a Louisiana Creole traditional song with no known author. But a written history of Haiti in 1797 by Philadelphia based historian, Moreau de Saint Mery, traces the text back to a writer in colonial Haiti, St. Domingue, Duvivier de la Mahautière, in 1757.

And then there’s the Bamboula, a rhythm many attribute to Haiti that is said to have traveled to New Orleans with the thousands that fled the Haitian Revolution to seek safety in Louisiana. Bamboula is most characterized by the drums that carry the rhythm. A bit more research into the genre shows that this musical tradition is present in multiple islands in the Caribbean, as well as in South America. The common denominator remains the same: the drum–Africa.

Inside one folk song, (popular music as well, thanks to technology) you can meet a people, their linguistic tradition, the types of melodies and rhythms that make them tap their feet, and some of the everyday realities of their culture. The words “God’s gonna set this world on fire one of these days, hallelujah” reveal multiple truths about the enslaved Africans in America who sang this traditional song. There is a spiritual truth, a belief in a metaphysical existence on the other side of this reality where enslaved people will be able to “sit at the welcome table,” and “eat and never be hungry.” It reveals a political truth, a dissatisfaction with the conditions they were forced into, and a hope for a reckoning for the world that created those conditions. Just one round of this spiritual, if you’re truly listening, can teach you so much about being Black in America. 

I love the way one of my favorite podcast hosts, Combat Jack (may he rest in peace), broke down the difference between Cali and New York Hip Hop of the early 90’s on an episode of Gimlet Media’s Mogul. Cali hip hop, he said, hits best while driving in your car on a warm sunny day, a smooth beat to vibe to with the windows down. Whereas in New York, they were rapping to beats fit for a person riding the subway all day with their boombox. 

But this is 2021 where a kid in Philly could listen to nothing but K-Pop if they so choose, cultural specificities become less and less obvious in one song in such a globalized world. However, one song can still teach you these same things about the individuals who created them.

One listen to one of my songs could reveal to you that I am a child of a woman from the north of Haiti, where it’s more common to find women playing instruments than in the capital. You’ll find that I play a guitar with nylon strings because Haitians tend to finger pick more than they strum. You might glean from the vocal stylistic choices I make that I’ve spent most of my life in Philly listening to gospel, obsessed with Lauryn Hill, imitating Brandy’s ad libs. You might realize my dedication to keeping my mother tongue strong and present in my art because I worry about losing pieces of my culture as an immigrant in Philadelphia. You’ll find that like any other millennial, I’m seeking answers and explanations for the conditions of a world that I am dissatisfied with. But most importantly, you’ll find that I love Haiti.

As far as oral tradition goes, the tradition of song holds so much. It’s no wonder that certain founders of western music education philosophy were of the mind that folk song is where a child’s musical education should begin, the songs that feel most intrinsically like home for the child. The connection between Haiti and New Orleans might be long forgotten in the consciousness of the people in these respective places, but the shared themes of displacement and life under colonialism in the words of the folk songs, as well as the syncopated dance rhythms of the drums of the Bamboula live to tell the tale. After all, as the classic Haitian song by Septentrional says, tanbou frape Ayisyen kontan–the drum hits, Haiti rejoices. And apparently, so does New Orleans.

This essay was written by Nathalie Cerin for WXPN’S Kanaval: Haitian Rhythms & the music of New Orleans, which has been supported by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.