Facebook R&B crooner Mario has been relatively quiet on the music front for…
- Posted on Nov 27th 2007 12:00PM by Steve Hochman
And at each instance we'd shake our heads in wonder and muse, "You just don't see this in the U.S."
Well, there we were a few weeks ago outside Lafayette, La., watching performances by . . . exactly that! The Pine Leaf Boys, a group of local musicians in their early and mid-20s, are onstage. The band, in just two quick years, has become one of the leading forces in a surging new generation that has dived into the Cajun and Creole heritage of the region with remarkable vigor and a fresh sense of discovery. Accordions and fiddles, waltzes and two-steps, tales of sorrow and celebration, all sung in the French dialect that developed here in the swampy Southwestern Louisiana bayous after the area was settled by French colonists kicked out of the Canadian territory now known as Nova Scotia by the Scottish more than 250 years ago -- a setting and culture truly unique in this country.
The occasion this day is the second annual Blackpot Festival, a rapidly-growing two-day gathering of Louisiana-rooted music and traditional outdoor cooking (hence the "Blackpot"), organized by members of the Red Stick Ramblers, a local band that has combined Cajun, Western swing and gypsy jazz to become an increasingly popular draw at clubs and festivals around the country.
In many ways, these young musicians are standing on the foundation formed by their parents' generation, led by such figures as violinist Michael Doucet (who put a rock spin on Cajun music with his Grammy-winning band Beausoleil), and Marc and Ann Savoy (who stand among the leading crusaders keeping the old sounds and ways alive). But at the same time, there's an organic purity to what the kids are doing that makes it their own. Watching this evolve on regular visits to the area since the early '90s has been exciting.
"This generation right now is very interesting," says Kristi Guillory, media archivist for the University of Louisiana, Lafayette Center for Cultural and Eco-Tourism. "A lot of these guys are children of the Michael Doucet class of '68."
Guillory just happens to be one of those "guys" herself. A onetime accordion prodigy who was making acclaimed recordings by her early teens before she turned to academia, getting her master's degree in folklore and receiving a grant to oversee the digitization of a vast and crucial audio archive of Louisiana life, she's resumed an active performing life leading Bonsoir, Catin, which has recently released the CD 'Blues à Catin.'
"I started playing when I was 10 and there wasn't a large group of young people playing then," says Guillory, now 28. "It's such a social thing now with everybody our age. We're always planning something. Next Saturday we're going to see the Ramblers, then somewhere else this cohesive group of musicians and friends. E-mail's great for that, and we have a MySpace bulletin."
Guillory traces this upswing in interest to something not local, though, but something that happened far away. The past generation was stimulated 40 years ago by the advent of the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (Codofil), a state-sponsored program to renew the French roots of the area. By the late '60s, French was being lost as a language, though as late as the 1950s it was common for kids to learn French before they spoke any English -- though in many communities they were punished for being so "backward." Codofil clearly stimulated the interest in the culture and music that brought Doucet and others to their roots.
But then many of the next set of youth started to drift away from that. Another spike of interest, though, happened in the '90s as it became popular among Cajun youth to retrace their ancestors' steps back to the land once known as Acadia (the name "Cajuns" is, in fact, a corruption of "Acadians"), to attend French-language immersion summer programs.
"We all started hanging out about 10 years ago, when they started the immersion programs in Nova Scotia," she says. "A lot of us, 18, 19 or 20 years old at the time, would go there. That's where I met a lot of people. Every year there's a larger crowd that goes and immerses themselves for six weeks and comes back with a cohesive sense of the culture. Now we'll come back and speak French. I can name you 30 people who are all friends now who did this."
Wilson Savoy, the Pine Leaf Boys accordion player and, with Creole fiddler Corey Ledet, a co-leader of the band, says it was just too easy to take Cajun culture for granted while growing up. As the son of Marc and Ann Savoy, he lived more or less at ground zero of Cajun revival -- his dad runs the Savoy Music Center, where he hand-crafts what are considered the finest Cajun accordions around and hosts the Saturday jam sessions in which old-timers pass down the music of generations to eager youngsters; his mom wrote 'Cajun Music: A Reflection of a People,' the definitive collection of Cajun songs and oral history, which many see as crucial in the preservation and renewal of interest in the culture. And together they've toured the world in various bands, including the Savoy-Doucet Band, their acoustic trio with Michael Doucet. While growing up, though, Wilson became a whiz at Jerry Lee Lewis-style barrelhouse piano and showed little outward interest in the local music, rarely participating in the jams at the store or at various community events hosted at the family's home on the bayou in Eunice, about half an hour northwest of Lafayette.
"When you grow up in a culture and see it all the time and hear it all the time, it's not something that special," he says. "I kind of make the analogy of if you grow up with a refrigerator, it's not that special. But when they were new they were pretty amazing."
And like Guillory, he had to leave home to fully understand how much this was a part of him. But he didn't go to Nova Scotia. He went to Baton Rouge -- just an hour or so down the road.
"I moved to Baton Rouge at 18 and became homesick," says Savoy, now 25. "I'd brought this accordion my dad had built me when I was 10, put it on a shelf as an ornament, a symbol of where I was from. But I started taking it down and playing it and found I got good very quickly. So I started driving to jam sessions in Lafayette. Then I moved out here as quick as I could and started learning more about the music and the history."
Savoy shakes his head a little about his peers going to Nova Scotia to learn French when he found his own immersion program right at home. "We still have an abundant source of old people who speak fluent Cajun French in our backyard," he says.
He also acknowledges that the interest in Cajun culture expressed by outsiders helped him gain appreciation for his own world. In particular, he cites the streams of visitors who come by the Music Center to watch the Saturday jams and sample the boudin sausage and other local delights. He also gives credit to California-based documentary filmmaker Les Blank -- whose various films about Louisiana musicians, including his "Marc and Ann" portrait of the family, inspired Wilson to take up film as well, resulting in among other things a series of music instruction projects.
"A lot of out-of-towners helped me realize how great it was," he says. "And Les Blank and others, some of the best movies made on Cajuns were made by out-of-towners. The way he makes them makes you want to be part of it. And I realized I am part of it!"
And now he and Guillory are not just part of it but also leaders. Wilson is not only playing with the Pine Leaf Boys (which plan to follow up their two studio albums with some live releases capturing the band in its most exciting setting) but also in the Savoy Family Band with his parents and older brother Joel, a fiddler who co-founded the Red Stick Ramblers but now focuses on producing and promoting local acts via his Valcour Records label. (Older sister Sarah, meanwhile, is currently living in Paris, where she fronts the Cajun-and-beyond band Sarah Savoy & the Francadians. )
Guillory is continuing her two-pronged approach as a performer and historian. On the latter front, she was key in a recent project that led to the release of 'Louisiana Folk Masters: Women's Home Music,' a two-CD collection of Cajun women recorded in their homes from the '30s well into the '90s singing traditional songs of daily life.
"A lot of the folks who were singing these songs at home are passing away," she says. "But it's reviving again, younger people trying to learn these songs. And you have to have a pretty good command of the language to do that."
Now she's putting together a fund-raiser for the archives combining music with work of local visual artists and has started planning an album compiling field recordings from the Festivals Acadiens, an annual showcase of musicians from the area.
"I feel an incredible amount of freedom, musically and creatively," she says, "but at the same time have a desire to keep it true to the traditions."