Garth Cartwright takes a trip around the bayous and dance halls of Louisiana and discovers a musical wonderland in the parishes of French-speaking Acadiana. PLUS enjoy our Cajun Classics playlist on Apple Music
Our flatbed boat leaves McGee’s Landing, crossing the dark waters of Lake Henderson in the Atchafalaya (name derived from the Choctaw Indians, meaning ‘long river’) Basin Swamp. Seventy-seven-year old Curtis Allemond navigates the flatbed, speaks in a sing-song Cajun accent and smiles plenty. “Cindy,” shouts Curtis at an alligator sunning itself on the bank, “Cindy, c’m ’ere.” Amazingly, Cindy does and Curtis starts throwing pork fat chunks wrapped in chicken skins to her. Slowly four more alligators appear, one is huge and approximately 45 years old. “Do you hunt ’em?” asks a Texan tourist. “I used to,” replies Curtis, “but I don’t no more. They’re my friends.”
Cajun Country consists of 22 of Louisiana’s 64 parishes and roughly runs from west of New Orleans to the Texan border (and 100 miles inland). It is rich in swamps and rice farms, bird life and friendly locals (and alligators). And music. New Orleans remains Louisiana’s urban musical Mecca – the Big Easy throbs to the sound of jazz and brass marching bands, soul and rap, a city more Caribbean than American – but around Lafayette and its surrounding environs, there is a great reservoir of talent. Here North America’s richest regional music scene thrives.
In 2011 the UK was fortunate enough to witness concerts by Feufollet, The Savoy Family Band and Lil’ Band O’ Gold, all three hailing from Cajun Country. I’d been to New Orleans previously but never headed into Cajun Country. Inspired to visit by these great bands I found something of an American wonderland: immense natural beauty, superb regional food and tasty music. Today Cajun culture includes not only the descendents of the French-speaking Acadians (hence ‘Cajuns’) who fled Nova Scotia in the 18th century but all else who have settled on these fertile lands: black Creoles and whites with surnames like McGee and Riley indicate how this French-flavoured culture embraces outsiders.
All kinds of music thrives across Cajun Country – most famously Cajun and zydeco, the white and black folk music forms that are New World descendants of Breton jigs and reels. Until the folk revival of the 1960s, Cajun and zydeco music were rarely heard outside of Cajun Country. Then the Balfa Brothers played at the Newport Folk Festival (on Rhode Island) in 1967 to great acclaim. Chris Strachwitz, founder of Californian roots music label Arhoolie Records, started recording such veterans as fiddler Dennis McGee (who had recorded with pioneering black accordion player Amédé Ardoin in the 1930s) and accordionist Nathan Abshire. Arhoolie also launched accordionist Clifton Chenier (the king of zydeco). Louisiana’s forgotten folk music quickly achieved renewed local popularity as well as national and international audiences. This continues today with a remarkable number of talented musicians making great music.
Right in the centre of Lafayette there is the Blue Moon Saloon. On Wednesdays it hosts a Cajun jam. This involves a dozen or so musicians gathering in a large semi-circle to play laidback acoustic music on guitars, accordions and violins. A local mentions to me that the players “are some of the best guys in the county.” The following night I head to the nearby Grant St Hall where Horace Trahan leads a band playing zydeco with a hard dance beat. Trahan, I’m informed, is one of the big names on the local scene, having enjoyed a huge 2001 hit with ‘That Butt Thing’. Trahan hasn’t drawn a large Thursday night crowd but those who are here dance with great enthusiasm. CC Adcock (Lil’ Band O’ Gold’s guitarist) says to me, “in Louisiana everyone comes out to dance, not to clap. You see those two girls dancing together? That’s not provocative. It’s an old Cajun thing from when there was a shortage of single men as most were married or away in the army.”
In Crowley, a small town west of Lafayette that dubs itself the ‘Rice Capital of America,’ a drafty cinema hosts a concert in honour of JD ‘Jay’ Miller, the late producer and record man who once recorded nearby (the local government building that now occupies the site features a small museum dedicated to Miller’s recordings). In the 1940s Miller started out recording Cajun music and Bear Family recently compiled Acadian All Star Special, a box set collecting his Cajun recordings. Miller, finding that Cajun records didn’t sell strongly beyond southern Louisiana, focused on recording local swamp blues artists, hitting gold with Slim Harpo and Lazy Lester, their laidback, sensual songs being covered by the Rolling Stones and the Kinks. And tonight Lazy Lester leads the veterans as they pay homage to Miller. Amongst them is Warren Storm, a swamp pop star and drummer on many Miller swamp blues recordings. The late DJ Charlie Gillett travelled to Louisiana in the early 70s and licensed swamp pop (that blend of New Orleans R&B with Cajun flavours) songs from Miller (amongst others) for his seminal 1975 compilation Another Saturday Night. Gillett’s album helped win Cajun music a British audience. Today Storm (age 75) fronts Lil’ Band O’ Gold, the swamp pop ‘supergroup’ whose 2011 album The Promised Land is an absolute gem. Storm’s singing and drumming remain supple and he spends most weekends playing clubs and casinos across Louisiana and Mississippi.
“Cajun and country music is all we heard when I was a child,” Storm tells me. “Then I heard Fats Domino and knew right then that I wanted to sing like him. The music of this region has always been a mix of black and white and while there were lots of problems in the 60s it never hurt the music. We enjoy making music together and skin colour is never an issue.”
Rising early on Saturday morning I drive to Breaux Bridge, a boutique town south-east of Lafayette – and the ‘Crawfish Capital of the World’ – where the Zydeco Breakfast is held at Café des Amis. The music starts at 7:30am and by 9am there’s a queue to enter: inside Leroy Thomas & the Zydeco Roadrunners pump out an accordion-led groove and scratch washboards. The dance floor is packed with couples waltzing and dancing the two-step – Cajuns, a local tells me, work hard and party hard. So it seems.
Breakfast finished – I ate boudin (spicy Cajun sausage) omelette – I get on the road, radio tuned to KBON 101.1, a station playing local music, heading north to Eunice’s prairies where the Savoy Music Center sits on Highway 190. Marc Savoy has been based here since the mid-60s and his Saturday morning Cajun jam session finds nine musicians, none a day under 60, playing fiddles, guitars, accordion and lap steel. Rows of chairs are filled with locals appreciating the music. Where this morning’s zydeco was hard, pulsing, very rhythmic, the Cajun jam is sweet, light and very melodic. No one dances – most of those attending are past their dancing days – but they listen appreciatively. I introduce myself to Marc and he mentions that one of today’s players is 93 and another is 91. “Nope, I’m only 90,” corrects the veteran with a smile.
“There’s a linguistic and cultural and musical revival going on in southern Louisiana right now and that means there’s a big, young audience for us.”
Everything winds up at midday and Savoy, who sat in on several numbers, ushers people out then goes back to work on building accordions. Marc displays a beautiful accordion he has just finished. “Sixty hours work,” he says. I mention how much I enjoyed this morning’s music and he replies, “I’ve had everyone in here. From Dennis McGee and the Balfa brothers to Steve Riley when he was knee-high. He learnt to play accordion in that corner over there.”
Marc then asks if I have read the angry, hand-written signs decorating the walls. Indeed: one berates locals who can’t speak French even though they ‘have lived in a French speaking area all your life.’ It rants on at them for becoming stereotypes, ‘clones of Anywhere, USA’ who ‘turn their back on a hot bowl of gumbo in favour of a cold, tasteless American hot-dog.’ Marc, locals will note, is something of a Cajun fundamentalist.
Marc’s two sons, Joel and Wilson, both play in the Savoy Family Band, while daughter Sarah is based in Paris and leads the Francadians. Wilson leads The Pine Leaf Boys and Joel runs Valcour Records. Joel is as gentle as his father is intense and, when we finally catch up, tells me “Valcour has released 16 CDs of Louisiana music – from indie rock to hardcore traditional music. We’ve had five Grammy nominations!”
Valcour certainly do issue an excellent range of music and Joel recalls that “as a teenager I got really interested in punk music and my parents bought me a guitar and this big Marshall stack. They let me go my own way. But being surrounded by all this great traditional music just made us want to be part of it.”
Later that afternoon I meet up with Philippe Billeaudeaux and Anna Laura Edmiston, two members of Feufollet, the young Cajun band who were so impressive in concert (and have recorded for Valcour). Feufollet’s 2011 album En Couleurs [a Top of the World review in #72] is the best contemporary Cajun album I’m yet to hear, its songs shimmering with possibility.
“We all love similar kinds of music,” says Edmiston of Feufollet. “We start with Cajun but don’t deny our influences. There’s a linguistic and cultural and musical revival going on in southern Louisiana right now and that means there’s a big, young audience for us.”
“For our parents’ generation Cajun was seen as something poor and a bit shameful,” adds Billeaudeaux. “Our generation are embracing the language and culture. In the 1960s Cajun was very country, very rural. Zachary Richard and Michael Doucet crossed it over in the 70s. With us, well, we’re Cajuns but we’re very urban and we consciously don’t sing about gumbo and rice farming and bayous.”
Feufollet, the Savoys and almost everyone else I meet mention Steve Riley as a pioneer of contemporary Cajun music. Riley, who plays accordion and sings, started leading The Mamou Playboys in the 1980s and has gone on to release 11 albums, including the Grammy-nominated Grand Isle. He also plays in Lil’ Band O’ Gold. Good fortune finds Riley and his Playboys at La Poussiere, the oldest (57 years) Cajun dancehall in the region, on Saturday night. La Poussiere – literally ‘the dust’ (named after the dust dancers’ feet kicked up) – has always been run by the same family and this long, rectangular building looks unassuming from the outside. Inside, Riley’s band are at one end and there’s a bar at the other. There are Formica tables and metal chairs and a good-sized dance floor. Riley’s Playboys play Cajun dance music that gets the crowd two-stepping while imbuing their sound with elements borrowed from blues, country and rock. La Poussiere’s owner – whose father founded the dancehall – surveys his half-full venue and despairs. “Once we used to have people queuing to get in. One out, one in. Now, well, they’ve got so many other options for their entertainment. Cajun music is still popular but it doesn’t have the same hold on the community as it once did.”
“When I was 15 I met Dewey Balfa,” Riley recalls between sets, “and started playing with his band. It was my dream to meet Dewey – he was like my John Lennon – he was such a great ambassador and spokesman, what I learnt from him I still use today. We’d play a lot in Louisiana and by the time I started the Playboys when I was 18 a lot of people knew my name.”
Having recorded for Rounder and toured widely, Riley is one of Cajun music’s leading exponents.
“We’re an American band but we live on an island of French culture in an ocean of English culture. We’re like world music but we come from the US. It’s good, man! We play the kind of places we want to play. In Louisiana you play four-hour dances and people just want you to give it to them hard. They work hard and want us to play hard. On the road it’s often a sit-down audience and we talk more about the culture, act as ambassadors. It’s great to be able to do both.”
Riley’s Playboys play so well that I head out to hear them on Sunday when they play Whiskey River – a dancehall built on the bayou, right next to McGee’s Landing on Lake Henderson. Hearing Cajun music played as sun sets over the bayou is magical. During my time in Cajun Country I caught lots of music I’ve not had space to report on here – black fiddler Cedric Watson moves like a rock star and gets the girls screaming, David Egan sings fabulous songs in a piano bar, blues and country musicians hang out at the Wild Salmon, a dive bar with real True Blood ambience, Prejeans serves great, smoky gumbo – but to tell all that, well, I’d need a book. Maybe someday I’ll write one.
This article originally appeared in Songlines #85. To find out more about subscribing to Songlines magazine, visit: www.songlines.co.uk/subs