Bloodline: The Power of Music and Memory


When we think of Louisiana music, often genres such as Zydeco, Jazz, and now Bounce music are at the forefront of these conversations. These cultural movements are preserved by their practitioners and globally recognized as part of the exotic fabric of music in the Gulf South region. However, classical music is hardly ever mentioned in the commercial narrative of Black Creole Louisiana music. This information is generally lost and the face of classical music is usually never associated with the Americas, especially not Black southern people.  As a composer and violinist, I have been fortunate enough to be a part of ensembles such as Les cenelles, named after the first anthology of poetry and art published by people of color in 1845.  We perform Creole folk tunes merged with technology. This involves resurrecting old manuscripts, courtesy of group member Joseph Darensbourg, and transposing them to fit our 7-piece ensemble. While learning their music, it was as if a memory was being triggered. Not of a specific event, but rather of an instinct. We transposed piano scores and even old plantation songs to suit the ensemble. It was a very intuitive process and felt like unlocking what psychoanalyst, Carl Jung called the “collective unconscious.”

Working with these manuscripts eventually led me to seek other resources and connected me with organizations such as the mother-daughter duo, Opera Creole (founded by Givanna Joseph and Aria Mason) and the Treme neighborhood’s, Petit Jazz Museum. The museum connected and helped me to join the historic B Sharp Music Club founded in 1917 by Camille Nickerson. These organizations were more than willing to pass my inheritance to me, and for that, I will forever be grateful. Edmond Dédé, Camille Nickerson, and Louis Gottschalk are just a few of the composers that have left an imprint on me creatively and spiritually. Gottschalk and Dédé were composing during slavery when Blacks were not allowed to read and write. Nickerson was a Black woman composer in the early 20thcentury, who was also working to archive the works of our ancestors and creating spaces for people of color in the classical world.

This led me to think about the mysterious power of memory and its connection to bloodlines. Jung is the founding father of analytical psychology. He believed that we carry our ancestors’ memories in our DNA and can inherit gifts as well as trauma. He believed that the primary motivating force is a spiritual force that strives toward higher levels of purpose and development of the human psyche. We assume that our minds are only contained in our physical bodies, but instead, we are linked to a higher order of intelligence which is all around. While understanding this concept, I started to expand my mind and to discover what causes us to forget ancestral knowledge. I began to unlock information beyond the standard way— through the power of memory and community.

As a classically trained violinist of 20 years and counting, I never knew of a Black presence in classical music until well over a decade into my training. I began to collect and draw inspiration from the fragmented stories I learned, such as the Caribbean-French composer, Joseph Boulogne. However, that admiration was often in solitude. I began to stray away from discussing him in classical settings because his music and legacy were hardly preserved by the institutions where I received my education and training. I began to realize that I was contributing to the erasure of my predecessors and my own legacy by not listening to and discussing their work.


What is memory?

“Memory is a selection of images, some elusive, others printed indelibly on the brain,” the first line of my favorite movie since I was a child, Eve’s Bayou. This 1997 film gave me a window, as I grew up in Virginia Beach, into the life of my Parrain and Nenan (Creole for Godparents) of Lafayette, Louisiana. This film taught me the power of memory along with the danger of remembering. History is memory and memory is time travel and is carried throughout generations carrying gifts as well as trauma. My first time-travel experience on this subject was with Gottschalk nearly four years ago when I was working at a women’s boutique in the French Quarter on Conti St. A man came in with no interest in the store, but the building instead. He explained that he only came in because a famous composer, Louis Gottschalk, was raised in our building. I was surprised that his name didn’t ring any bells and was astounded by his story.

Louis Moreau Gottschalk was a pianist and composer during the 19thcentury, who represented the very complicated history of the American South. He was born to a German Jewish businessman and a Black Creole woman in 1829. He grew up in the French Quarter where he was exposed to various musical traditions, courtesy of his Haitian Grandmother. Gottschalk started playing piano and was considered a prodigy having his official debut at 11 years old at the St. Charles Hotel. At age 13, he left for Europe with his father to continue his training by applying to the Paris Conservatory. He was denied. They refused to even listen to his audition solely because of his nationality. In the European classical world, they generally look down on classical musicians from the Americas regardless of other demographics they might occupy. That did not stop him from receiving the proper education, and he began to take lessons privately through his father’s connections. Heavyweights such as Camille Saint-Saens and George Bizet were his classmates, who are on record praising the talent of their fellow classmate. Gottschalk soon made his French debut and was adorned by his contemporaries including Frédéric Chopin, who titled him to be his successor. After a triumphant debut, he was quickly told that he wasn’t classical enough because the repertoire he chose reflected more current music than classics such as Bach. Gottschalk then began to compose works such as Bamboula that unapologetically referenced the music he heard in his home of Louisiana. In spite of this criticism, Gottschalk was the first American composer whose works were appreciated by Europe.

Gottschalk and I must have been bitten by the same bug,  as he became more interested in the traditional folk music of our ancestors, the ancestors that naturally influenced his sound. After years of being away, Gottschalk returned home relearning the music of his Black southern heritage –the same music that was looked down upon by many European classical audiences. He then began to look at our neighbors in my birthplace of Central America, South America, and the Caribbean. He integrated the sounds of the jíbaros, the Black Puerto Rican lower class, composing his first symphony titled, A Night in the Tropics. His relationship to memory had a profound influence on his compositions, and I became curious about how it affected his contemporaries.


Edmond Dédé’s relationship to memory was met with more trauma in comparison to Gottschalk. He too was born a free creole in New Orleans in 1827. He was a violinist and composer, who studied from another violinist of color, Constantin Debergue, director of the Philharmonic Society founded by free Creoles of color. Unlike Gottschalk, he had a different class position, being very dark-skinned and having to work as a cigar maker to earn his keep. To escape the racism he felt at home, Dédé fled to México and began to make cigars for money. When he saved enough money, he applied and was accepted to the same Paris Conservatory that denied Gottschalk without an audition. After receiving his education, he served as the orchestra conductor at the Alcazar Theatre in France for twenty-seven years featuring his own compositions such as Mon Pauvre, the oldest surviving sheet music by a composer of color. His famous symphony, Quasimodo Symphony was performed in his hometown of New Orleans in 1865, but he was not in attendance.

Dédé’s memory of his life in America during slavery was most likely very traumatic. He did not return to the United States for twenty-eight years. During his return in 1893, the ship was caught in a storm, and they almost died as they were washed to the shores of Galveston, Texas. After losing his violin in the wreck, he was met with another challenge. Dédé was not allowed to perform in the now-vanished, French Opera House or any other opera house. He was forced to perform in churches with poor acoustics that drowned his sound. The trauma of these events definitely left an imprint on his psyche.  Dédé performed his piece, Patriotisme for violin, which was his farewell to New Orleans due to the implacable prejudice. Dédé returned to France. I was met with grief to learn this information, as I too have struggled to find home. I began to see the correlation of how traumatic events such as these can birth the desire of wanting to forget and the impact that has on generations.


Sultana Isham

Psychoanalyst, Carl Jung says that the most important feature of the collective unconscious is a source of innumerable panhuman archetypes such as the Child, Healer, Wise Person, Mother, and Father by which we are influenced.  Camille Nickerson is definitely the Mother archetype of this genre of music, as she dedicated her life to the remembrance of Creole folk tunes. Nickerson was born in New Orleans in 1888 and was a pianist, vocalist, composer, and historian who archived creole folk music in the 20thcentury. She came from a classical family and was the daughter of William Nickerson, a violinist, and director of the first women’s orchestra in New Orleans called Nickerson Ladies’ Orchestra. She would perform in extravagant creole gowns and was known as “The Louisiana Lady” and trained at Oberlin, Julliard, and Colombia University.  Nickerson was a co-creator in birthing our own spaces, most notably the B Sharp Music Club in 1917. As a member myself, this active group is a network of musicians and composers of color that was created to lead to a wider field of musical thought and to cultivate finer artistic tastes and provided scholarships for music students for decades.

Nickerson was awarded the Rosenwald Fellowship and took leave from her position at Howard University to study, archive and arrange the sounds of New Orleans’ oral tradition. Nickerson’s’ thesis, Africo-Creole Music in Louisiana: A Thesis on the Plantation Songs Created by the Creole Negroes of Louisiana is available at the Amistad Research Center. She documents her challenges and success with resurrecting these creole folk tunes. These folk tunes were plantation songs and Nickerson described their quality; “simplicity is its keynote and spontaneity its life-blood.” Resurrecting these memories was challenging as she constantly heard, “mo pas ca pab chante’ arien maintnant; mo blie’ tou qui chose,” (I can sing nothing now, I have forgotten everything.) In her thesis, she explained the collection is sparse because of shame. The younger generations shunned their language and culture due to the growing American influence and were embarrassed by its slave origins and those that still remembered often changed the lyrics to  English. Nickerson says that we owe all of our music to the ebony-skinned enslaved African, as they were influenced by their new environment coupled with their natural abilities.

Carl Jung’s studies showed how people develop abilities after accidents or traumatic events such as slavery. DNA evolves in a lifetime and human body changes in different environments, and we inherit their superpowers as well as intergenerational trauma. Through my ongoing research, I’m learning that there is true power in music. Music is a tool that can aid one in time- travel to remember who we are.  Shame is an agent to the spirit of forgetfulness that can cause us to feel lost. In the process of self-discovery, I realized that only you can tell your story. Through the process of remembering, I found the gift of pride and self-worth in community— a way to collect our inheritance. The journey is not always pleasant, but to be honest, I wouldn’t have it any other way. It is in the challenges that real growth happens and the wholeness of all elements come together creating a symphony change.