Friday, May 13, 2011

Goin' Up the Country

Cajun or Zydeco? Zydeco or Cajun? Which of the Southwest Louisiana-centered Francophone cultures--Black and mixed-blood Zydeco, or White Cajun--is the more vibrant, even perhaps becoming dominant in this second decade of the 21st century?

And, anyway, shouldn't we be talking "Creole" (a social/historical term) rather than Zydeco (a type of music, with some attendant activities)--that is, concerning the folks of Spanish-French-Caribbean derivation, but mixing in gens libres de couleur and migrant Blacks bearing their ex-slave heritage, all of whom moved up-country from New Orleans--when attempting to comprehend such a thriving culture?

The two days we spent zipping around the diamond-shaped area defined by Ville Platte at the top, the Eunice-to-Opelousas horizontal axis, and on down through historic Grand Coteau to Breaux Bridge, gave us only a brief taste of either. We enjoyed Louisiana hospitality everywhere; saw rice farms and running horses and flat expanses to the horizon, as well as beat-down Zydeco dance clubs and abandoned shacks and modern homes up on blocks (for flooding, which the government is about to allow!); sampled Gulf cooking (blackened fish! shrimp gumbo! ubiquitous bright-red crawfish in too many dishes!), savoring all at first but quickly reaching overload; and, forced to travel midweek, heard not nearly enough local music, live or on the radio.

We bought CDs, both Cajun and Zydeco, at Floyd's Record Shop, the six-decades center from which Floyd Soileau issued Swallow and Maison du Soul singles and albums grand and galore. We found the best of Cajun music and quiet, cheerful camraderie at Marc Savoy's spare but packed factory-cum-weekend jam headquarters, where he and main assistant Tina Pilione and an occasional Savoy son build handmade Acadian accordions selling for hundreds and thousands of dollars. And we did manage to catch a couple of terrific sets offered by three of the key players from the young band Feufollet--the basic, traditional Cajun, trio line-up of squeezebox and support fiddle (Chris Stafford), lead fiddle (Chris Segura), and rhythm guitar and vocals (Anna Laura Edmiston)--which really only whetted the appetite... But, sadly, there's not much music happening midweek now.

So we missed out on hearing Zydeco and seeing the dressed-to-the-pommel, boots-to-Stetson-garbed dancers go at it for hours on a Saturday night. And "missed" is the right word, because just two days after our brief visit to Breaux Bridge, the annual Crawfish Festival began, and its music stages were packed with all of the name Zydeco bands, new or established, of the prairies: Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas, sassy Rosie Ledet, Keith Frank, Zydeco Force, Terrance Simien, the Carrier clan in some configuration, and umpteen others, but most significantly early Black accordionist/composer Amede Ardoin's third generation descendent, the young accordion genius Chris Ardoin (prime mover in the adaptation of modern Black Music into Zydeco), performing hours on end for three amazing days... or so I assume, not having been able to stick around to experience the festival's music. (Conspicuously missing from the previous list are Boozoo Chavis and Beau Jocque, the recently deceased leaders of two driving-riffs, mainstay groups.)

So we came that close to encountering both Black Creole and White Cajun in a much-compressed timeframe. Few would say that racial divides don't still exist in Cajun country. The two musics have their separate clubs and adherents and occasional incidents. But there's much crossing of lines back and forth by the musicians themselves. Master fiddler Michael Doucet and younger accordionist Steve Riley play Zydeco as well as Cajun and appear on Black artists' CDs. Older figures like Buckwheat Zydeco and Rockin' Dopsie have played with Eric Clapton, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, and other rockers. Generational bandleaders Nathan Williams and Geno Delafose routinely welcome White contributors to their hot Zydeco releases, and both men are quite willing to draw on Cajun classics as well as old Creole tunes for their inspiration. Cajun rocker Wayne Toups mixes the two musics and calls his group the ZydeCajuns. Even original Zydeco king Clifton Chenier, who certainly experienced decades of segregation's offenses, cut one album with Elvin Bishop guesting and later welcomed slide-guitar great Sonny Landreth into his Red Hot Louisiana Band.

Zydeco has become hugely popular around the world, and Cajun music struggles to keep up, still somewhat tied to the old ways and smaller venues, the front-parlor fais do-do dancing and front-porch musicmaking on weekends. Groups dedicated to preserving, and carefully updating, Cajun tradition include Mike Doucet's BeauSoleil, the Savoy Family Band, and the terrific trio merger known as the Savoy-Doucet Cajun Band. I recently learned that Doucet and the Savoys are all coming to Port Townsend, Washington's Fiddle Fest this July. (Fifty-some miles away? You can bet I'll be attending a concert/dance/casual jam or three!)

And at the soon-to-come Seattle Center's 2011 Children's Festival, Geno Delafose and his French Rockin' Boogie band will be performing over several days. The Delafose family has been a mainstay of Zydeco for nearly five decades, and I recommend Geno's geniality, exciting accordion work, and solid mix of Zydeco, soul and r&b, old Cajun and older Black Creole, all-spiced with a smidgin of Hip-Hop, and cheerfully blended to make you get up and dance. As he sings, "Everybody dancin' all night long, Somebody dancin' to my song."

Southwest Louisianans? You can steam them and boil them and drench them in oil, but--merci le Bon Dieu--you can't wash them away. And you can't keep them up-country isolate, cher, no more neither.

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