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The Caribbean Connection: NOLA Meets the Islands

You’ve heard it before: we might just be the northern-most city in the Caribbean, where the history, food, and music intertwine.

loa bar
The Loa Bar in the International House Hotel is a nod to the spirits of Haitian Vodou and Louisiana Voodoo. (Photo: Rebecca Ratfliff)

Tennessee Williams wrote about this city and its damp afternoons: when “an hour isn’t just an hour — but a little piece of eternity dropped into your hands.”

The full quotation may adorn t-shirts, mugs, and dishtowels at stores in the French Quarter, but that doesn’t necessarily lessen its veracity. This city will provide you with all sorts of moments, when a combination of time and place can open up: staying with you, taking you somewhere, or even changing you in some marked manner. The weight of change and the future is omnipresent in New Orleans; however, the past is always lingering about, giving us the chance to learn about from where this city came.

The Caribbean sphere. (Photo via Flickr Commons)

Like many residents and visitors, I am unconsciously building a memory bank of New Orleans moments — the first distant thump of a Mardi Gras parade, the worn charm of a new favorite bar on Royal Street, the earliest morning light splitting through tree branches on Prytania — and I’d probably test your patience by describing them all. But there’s another specific phenomenon here to which I’d care to draw your attention: the New Orleans’ Caribbean moment, where the membrane between them (the Caribbean) and us (New Orleans) breaks down.

In New Orleans, the past is always lingering about, giving us the chance to learn about from where this city came.

In acknowledging this city’s complicated roots in Western Europe — France, Germany, Spain, and Ireland — we must also note how we might just be the northern-most city in the Caribbean, where the history, food, and music of here and there intertwine. The notion of two distinct worlds smacking into each other is evident in New Orleans, putting us firmly in the “Caribbean sphere.”

Patrons dance to reggae music. (Photo courtesy The Street Cam and Caribbean Carnival)

So, it’s more than appropriate that the city has its own dedicated Caribbean festival. Each year (typically in summer), Publiq House hosts the Freret Street Caribbean Carnival, which organizer Joel Hitchcock Tilton describes as “a yearly, family-friendly festival that features the best in Caribbean-themed music, food, games, arts, and crafts.” The festival is a true grassroots effort, Tilton says, born out of a desire to fill the gap in Caribbean celebrations (from Jamaica, Brazil, Trinidad, and more) in the teeming New Orleans party, carnival, and festival world.

We might just be the northern-most city in the Caribbean, where the history, food, and music of here and there intertwine.

Tilton, who for the last five years has been promoting and producing reggae concerts at the House of Blues, The Howlin’ Wolf, Club Caribbean, Blue Nile, and Publiq House, gives a very simple reason for why the festival matters: “Our rich history, location, architecture, cuisine, music, and dance make New Orleans North America’s one true Caribbean city.”

In addition to historical elements that have forever linked this city to the Caribbean, an influx of Honduran and Haitians has brought more of what Tilton calls “Caribbean flair” in the past ten years. Buy your ticket to true Caribbean vibes here, and prepare yourself for a New Orleans Caribbean moment.

So, what exactly is a New Orleans’ Caribbean moment?

For me, it’s been those times where the sounds, smells, tastes, and views of this city take me far, far south; on a quiet Uptown street, where the color of the homes and state of the roads make me feel like I could be in Nassau. Or, as mentioned in an earlier piece, the shared architecture of the French Quarter and colonial French Caribbean. It doesn’t stop there. Here’s a look at some other concrete parts of the New Orleans-Caribbean connection.

History

A representation of Gede, a spirit who is present in Haitian Vodou and New Orleans Voodoo. (Photo: Christopher Garland)

This city wouldn’t be the one we know now if enslaved people in Haiti hadn’t mounted the world’s first and only successful slave revolution. The Louisiana Purchase was made possible because of the pressure of a truly revolutionary historical event, wherein empire was met by a furious resistance, and the French colonial project was shaken enough to relinquish a big chunk of its territory. Beyond that, there is concrete evidence of how the world’s first black republic has affected this city via a number of incredible historical resources here in New Orleans and its universities.

If you’re keen to delve into the transnational elements of Vodou/Voodoo and the profound influence of Haiti and Haitians on the origins of New Orleans, you’ve got the Amistad Research Center, the Latin American Library at Tulane, the Historic New Orleans Collection, and the Backstreet Cultural Museum in Faubourg Trème.

The iconic Sazerac has Caribbean roots. (Photo: Cheryl Gerber)

Food and Drink

The dynamic nations of the Caribbean have helped build this ongoing, amorphous thing called New Orleans cuisine, whether it’s through Nina Compton, born and raised in St. Lucia, and her recent contribution to NOLA’s ever expanding food cosmos, or through the Sazerac, our signature cocktail that owes its local prominence to Haiti. Antoine Amédée Peychaud, who created the bitters that are central to the Sazerac, was born in San Domingue, the pre-revolutionary name for the island from which Haiti emerged.

But asides from drinking a Sazerac or visiting Loa Bar in the International House Hotel (its name references spirits in Haitian Vodou and Louisiana Voodoo), head to Taste of the Caribbean just outside the city for a favorite Haitian dish, poule boukanen: grilled chicken with vibrant Haitian seasoning.

At Taste of the Caribbean you can get other island staples —Jamaican jerk chicken or the curry oxtail — but this is mainly an opportunity to eat Haitian cuisine. Why? The food is made by Elianne Charles and her family, who emigrated to the U.S. from the island nation in the 1980s. The best hot sauce I’ve ever had in my life was in Port-au-Prince, and any spice lovers will be able to indulge that dangerous addiction at Taste of the Caribbean.

Music

I’ll focus on just one part of the varied Caribbean/New Orleans musical connection by using the example of Cuba. Separated by fewer than 700 miles, the proximity of Cuba and this city grows when you look at central tenets of New Orleans jazz. Cuban music styles have distinct rhythms that affected early New Orleans jazz compositions, and Congo Square, a location strongly tied to the heart of New Orleans music, started out as a “Circus” founded by a Havana native popularly known as Signore Gayetano in 1816.

Congo Square revelry. (Photo via Flickr user Derek Bridges)

One last crossover between New Orleans and the Caribbean: drums. A couple of years ago I was in Little Haiti, a neighborhood in Miami shaped by the many people who came to the United States from Haiti to connect with family, pursue educational goals, and find jobs. I spent the night at a Vodou ceremony, and the sound of the drums not only controlled the ceremony’s procession, but also made its way into my head as I left the temple in the early hours of the morning. And it wasn’t until Mardi Gras, where the percussion shapes the movement of a city, that I had the same visceral experience; it was an uncanny reminder of this city’s position in the Creole world.

Christopher Garland lives in the Lower Garden District, where he enjoys evening strolls, happy-hour beer, and close proximity to the basketball court at the corner of Magazine and Napoleon. An Assistant Professor of Writing, Christopher reads and writes for work and pleasure. Find him on Instagram, @cjgarland12.

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