You Can't Have Music Without Folk
A South Louisiana native attends Festivals Acadiens et Creoles for the first time and gains a new respect for her culture — and Cajun music.
I had never attended Festivals Acadiens before this year. Even though I was born and raised in South Louisiana, there is one thing I lack: I don’t speak French. How would I enjoy listening to music that I don’t understand? Well, I discovered this past weekend that music is beautiful regardless of what language it’s sung in and whether you speak that language or not.
This year being the festival’s 40th anniversary celebration, festival goers were supplied with a little lagniappe. The Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum held an exhibit titled “Visions of Tradition,” which featured photography showcasing festivals past. It was great for people like me, who weren’t around for the majority of the festival’s history.
Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the symposium, but I made sure to be present at the “From Field to Stage: Songs from the Lomax Collection” concert. What I heard that night was more than beautiful — and gave me renewed faith for the festival I would be attending in the coming days. Multiple versions of songs from the Lomax recordings were performed by Beausoleil avec Michael Doucet, Jeffrey Broussard & Family, Feufollet with special guests Kristi Guillory, Blake Miller, Megan Brown, Joel Savoy, Josh Caffery and Ashley Hayes.
Even though I didn’t understand one word of what Michael Doucet was singing, it sounded so beautiful I could have listened to it for days. (I was deeply saddened I wasn’t able to remain at festival long enough on Saturday to see Beausoleil and Feufollet perform once again.) I did have the chance to see Jeffery Broussard and his sisters perform jure, a form of accompanied group singing that uses hands and pounding feet. The women sang with their hearts and souls and even danced on stage for the crowd. The wide assortment of special guests at the concert each took their turns performing together and alone, with Steve Riley making an appearance to play some Wayne Perry tunes with Chris Segura and Chris Stafford of Feufollet.
Barry Ancelet, a Cajun folklorist and expert in Cajun music and Cajun French as well as co-founder of the festival, provided with insight into the very first festival, which happened on a rainy day. “We didn’t know if anybody was going to show up,” he said. “We didn’t even know if the musicians were going to show up!”
Ancelet also beguiled festival goers with stories of how the Lomax recordings came to be. Some of the performers were still alive when Ancelet and Doucet first heard the recordings. In talking about that experience, Ancelet recalls saying, “We’re going to have to rethink everything we thought we knew about Cajun and Zydeco music.”
After the entertaining performances and narrative of the concert, the festival itself certainly delivered. It was opened Friday night with the traditional cutting of the boudin and the addition of a specialty-made brew from Bayou Teche Biere to wash it down. Over the weekend, each of the music stages had a new band performing every hour for folks of all ages. Educational panels concerning topics from fiddlers with amps to house dance were also available, and multiple panels showcased families that play together, where musical families (Balfas, Rileys, Dupuises, Mattes and Huvals) displayed how they carry on their heritage. Steve Riley’s 2-year-old son, Dolsy, plays a mean triangle.
During the Lomax Recordings panel, Nick Spitzer, producer and host of American Routes and a folklorist and professor of anthropology and American studies at Tulane University, commented that “Lomax was an influence for all of us, sometimes without us even knowing it.”
As expected at a Louisiana festival, there was food galore offered by a wide assortment of local establishments. And though there are may things that scream South Louisiana, few of them do it quite like fresh beignets.
What began as a one-day “Tribute to Cajun Music” 40 years ago has turned into a weekend-long festival honoring all things Cajun and Creole music. This year, Acadiana celebrated not only 40 years of Festivals Acadiens et Creoles, but also 50 years since the Newport Folk Festival performance of Cajun music and 80 years since the Lomaxes recorded our native music. This festival has grown tremendously and with it the love and respect for our heritage. As Ancelet said over the weekend, “Alan Lomax never dreamed of this.”
All photos by Ali Cortez.