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Wednesday, April 30, 2008 03:10 pm

What’s a Creole?

New Orleans scholar to expose UIS to unusual music, culture

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Dr. Sybil Kein
Untitled Document Dr. Sybil Kein was devastated after Hurricane Katrina swept through New Orleans. The storm destroyed not only her home, her car, and her 5,000-plus books but also her entire collection of Louisiana French Creole research — one of the largest in the world. Kein began traveling in the 1970s from the University of Michigan, where she worked as an English professor, to her native New Orleans to interview people who knew and played music with jazz legend Louis Armstrong. After nearly 20 years of work, she compiled their stories into a jazz musical, Didn’t He Ramble: Lil’ Louie in New Orleans. It’s the only known account of Armstrong’s early life, Kein says, from the time the musician carried coal to Storyville — New Orleans’ prostitution district — until he left the city in 1922. “It contains the elements of Louis Armstrong’s early life in New Orleans — no one else has done that,” Kein says. “It took years and years of research and having the luck of interviewing people who knew New Orleans.”
Kein thought that the creation had been lost in the flood, but then her good friend Todd Cranson, the band and orchestra director at the University of Illinois at Springfield, realized that he still had a copy from years earlier, when the duo performed a suite from the musical with other New Orleans musicians. In a special tribute to the world-renowned Creole scholar and composer, the UIS Chamber Orchestra and Chorus will perform “Suite from Didn’t He Ramble!” as the conclusion to the group’s annual Spring Showcase Concert, 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 2, in the UIS Public Affairs Center’s Studio Theatre. Kein’s complete jazz musical has yet to be performed, but Cranson says he hopes that this performance will spark the interest of Springfield’s art community. “Louis Armstrong went to Chicago when he left New Orleans, so it’s likely that he came through here,” Cranson says. “Springfield doesn’t seem like that unusual of a place to premiere it, so I think we should go for it.”
Kein will present a brown-bag lecture, “Gumbo People: Celebrating and Teaching the Creole Culture of New Orleans,” noon-1 p.m. Friday in the UIS Visual Arts Gallery, located in room 201 of the Health Sciences Building. She’ll share folklore and personal stories collected for the musical, including some from Julia Boudreaux, Kein’s great-aunt, a lacemaker who provided women’s undergarments for the infamous brothel owner Miss LuLu White. Because many aren’t aware that Louisiana French Creole even exists, Kein says, she’ll speak about the language and culture, how they originated, and how the Creole culture compares to the Caribbean French culture. Kein will also play selected songs and read poems, including one she penned after seeing the devastation of her home in New Orleans. “I haven’t read it to any audience,” Kein says. “I haven’t been able to, but I think I can now so students can get an idea of how it feels when you lose everything.”
Kein says she hopes that students and other members of the community will walk away from her lecture and the performance with a greater appreciation of Creole music and of Armstrong’s contribution to jazz. Kein’s visit is being sponsored by UIS Music, the sociology/anthropology and African-American-studies departments, and the UIS Speakers’ Awards Committee. 

Contact Amanda Robert at arobert@illinoistimes.com.
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