“When I joined this band in 2011, I just identified as African American, but now, through years of travel and learning, I also identify as Creole,” said Desiree Champagne, the washboard player in Watson’s band. “The importance of preserving the culture and identity is to understand who you are and where you come from, what you are part of.”
Kouri-Vini originated in Louisiana, but in the early 1900s, it spilled over the border to eastern Texas, Watson’s native state, and he grew up hearing elderly relatives exchange neighbourhood news in the language. As they died, Watson, who is African American, realised that his ancestral language was dying with them. He began using his stage as a platform to revitalise this language that is deeply rooted in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
In the early 18th Century, newly enslaved people created an amalgam of their native West African languages and the French that colonists used to communicate on the Louisiana sugar and indigo plantations where they toiled. “It’s the first language all these Africans coming from different tribes and caste systems would speak when they were enslaved,” Watson said. “They had these pidgin languages they would speak for a couple of generations, but it eventually became an organised language, which is Creole (Kouri-Vini)” – whose name comes from the Creole pronunciation of the French verbs “courir” (to run) and “venir” (to come).
Watson not only keeps the language extant through his live performances, but on La Nation Créole, the radio show he hosts on Lafayette’s KRVS-88.7. He spins Creole grooves from Louisiana as well as from across the French Creole-speaking world, such as Haiti and Guadeloupe.