Songs In The Shade Of The Flamboyant Tree: French Creole Lullabies And Nursery Rhymes, collected by Chantal Grosléziat, arranged by Paul Mindy, and illustrated by Laurent Corvasier
I have to admit that I found this collection of materials pretty pleasing on a variety of levels. As part of my family’s planned upcoming trip through the Caribbean, there are a few French-speaking islands that we plan to see, and our plans to view these places provide for a lot of interest in French-speaking culture as well. I have always been interested in nursery rhymes and lullabies as a whole, not least because there is a great deal of insight to be gained in paying attention to the sort of culture that is aimed at children. Some cultures seek to protect children from an understanding of the pain and difficulties of life, as is the case with our own, but plenty of cultures throughout history have seen it as necessary to point out to children the reality of existence and to some of its horrors, and this book, although it is somewhat simple and aimed at a young audience, does a good job in pointing out the sort of evils and problems that Creoles of the French islands (mostly, but not entirely, in the Caribbean) saw children as needing to be able to handle, and that makes for some compelling reading.
This particular short book starts with abbreviated stanzas of nursery rhymes and lullabies illustrated cutely, with the verses showing the title, location, and some of the material of the rhyme. We have material from Guadeloupe, Haiti, Martinique, and Reunion, with some islands (Guadeloupe in particular) being very well represented. Some of the rhymes are told from the point of view of people, some of animals, and they deal with such subject matter as family, food, religion, and other subjects, some of which deal with questions like the devil as well as the struggle to gain strength with the limited diet that many poor people had, like breadfruit. After this there is a brief discussion about the songs themselves as well as longer versions of the songs in both French Creole as well as English translations that describe the songs being sung as well as their message and meaning. There is also a cd that accompanies this particular book that allows the reader to listen to these songs sung as part of the children’s repertoire of Creole music, which also adds somewhat to the reading experience.
Admittedly, I am not particularly familiar with the children’s repertoire of music in the various French islands that exist in the Caribbean and off the coast of Africa. That said, there is a great deal of interest here. The songs present the sorts of fears and concerns that children and adults faced in such societies, whether those fears related to death and the afterlife or even having enough food to grow big and strong and survive into adulthood. Even when the poems are told from the point of view of animals, there is still this concern about the birds becoming prey to the hunger of the people around. A beautiful bird, after all, may be a tasty addition to someone’s pot, and may be the difference between a child growing up with some protein or being limited to not very nourishing food that is all that is available to those struggling to survive. The poems tell a serious story and provide a context to a life where children were expect to know the facts of life and how to deal with problems of scarcity from the very beginning, and they demonstrate the sort of folk wisdom that can be found in lullabies and nursery rhymes that is often overlooked by those who do not think childhood is or should be filled with painful truths about existence.