Lisette: A Haitian song travels the history of Philadelphia and beyond

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Jean Bernard Cerin

Dr Jean Bernard Cerin, assistant professor at Lincoln University, uses both his musical and academic skills to follow the historical thread of a popular folk tune born in Santo Domingo (Colonial Hispaniola) in 1757.

The song was first published with lyrics in French in 1781 in a collection of writings by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It was titled Negro song. Lyrics provided by M. De Flammanville.

Cerin, a popular baritone in the Philadelphia area, devoted his academic research to this intriguing song attributed to Duvivier de la Mahautière.

On the island of Santo Domingo, where the song begins its parody life, the political situation is in turmoil. The French territory, highly prized for its lush crops of sugar, coffee and indigo, had become a profitable trading partner for its minority white European residents and was courted and prized by the newly independent United States, while Napoleon and the French corsairs were gaining millions of ships leaving the island.

The song arrived in Philadelphia at the hands of a Creole refugee from Martinique who released the song under the title Lisette left the plain (and he notes that it includes a versified translation into Haitian Creole) in 1797. He sold the complete volumes of his book, Topographical, physical, civil, political and historical description of the French part of the island of St. Domingue, in his shop at the corner of Front and Walnut streets.

For Napoleon, the island of Santo Domingo was an important source of commerce and profit, which he sought to use with the territory of Louisiana to dominate commerce in the New World. Unfortunately for Napoleon, Toussaint L’Ouverture, a heroic giant of Santo Domingo, successfully organized a rebellion of the enslaved inhabitants and established a benevolent reign of the country. Haiti’s economy flourished as fearful white Creoles took refuge in Cuba, Louisiana and Philadelphia. Napoleon, who wanted to reconquer Haiti, sent an army to reconquer the island. The Haitians pushed back the soldiers, so he abandoned his New World businesses and sold Louisiana territory to the Jefferson administration.

With so many white Creoles and slaves having fled to Louisiana, Lisette is part of musical culture. Clara Gottschalk Peterson learned it from her nanny, a Haitian slave, and later, Lisette to the music in New Orleans Creole Songs published by L. Grunewald in 1902.

The song has also remained a part of the musical life of Haiti. Haitian pianist Ludovic Lamothe (1882-1953) used the song Lisette as a basis for Meringue which are still popular today.

Camille Lucie Nickerson, born in New Orleans in 1888, wrote her master’s thesis at the Oberlin Conservatory entitled “Chants afro-creoles de Louisiane”. Boston Music Company released its Lisette in 1942 as part of Five Creole songs harmonized and arranged by Camille Nickerson. She made Lisette famous in her recitals like The lady of Louisiana.

Dr. Cerin was born in Haiti and raised with folk music and island traditions. He is also a specialist in early music, familiar with the style and interpretation of the early versions of Lisette, and recorded an interpretation of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s production with Les Délices. (Click here to hear his rich baritone sing Lisetto left the plain in French with Les Delices in an arrangement by Debra Nagy).

Ms Brandi Berry, Dr Cerin’s colleague at Lincoln University and project partner, is an award-winning teacher whose film work won a jury selection for African American Women in Film.

Dr Cerin and Mrs Berry will preview their work at the Florence International Prize Festival on Saturday, August 21, 2021. To register for this event, go to pricefest.org.

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