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Capturing Cajun culture

Stewart OksenhornAspen Times Staff Writer

When Michael Doucet first tried to play the traditional French-language music of his native Southwest Louisiana for his fellow Cajuns, nobody was much interested. Doucet, an amateur musicologist at the time with a deep interest in the Cajun culture of his Lafayette, La., region, even tried to bring a music program into the area schools. Despite the offer to do so for free, the educators said merci, non.”Nobody wanted to hear it. They didn’t even want it in the schools,” said Doucet, a fiddle player from the age of 12. “They considered it low-class culture.”Still Doucet, with his cousin David, played those fiddle tunes that worked their way from France to Nova Scotia, Canada (where the people were called Acadians), and south to Louisiana’s Lafayette Parish (where Acadian became Cajun). One night in 1974, the Doucet cousins were playing at Ferdinand Stutes, a tiny, rural bar outside Lafayette, when the tide started to turn. A French promoter invited Doucet to play a series of concerts on the festival circuit in France. Doucet accepted, expecting the music to get the same cold shoulder, but figuring two weeks in France was two weeks in France. Instead Doucet, who sings primarily in French, was warmly embraced in France and his two-week trip became a six-month residency.”It blew my mind that people knew this music,” said Doucet. “They were going through their folk revival and were looking to their traditional music.”They considered this, the music of Southwest Louisiana, the newest form of creative French folk songs. They knew more about us than we knew about us. They sang the words to songs that I heard as a kid, that I thought nobody knew. They knew the ballads word for word. It was that old French stream of music.”Back in the States, Doucet found himself more serious about the music than ever. A graduate of Louisiana State with a degree in romantic literature, Doucet blew off graduate school – where he planned to study poet William Blake – to study Cajun music less formally. He became a “semi-folklorist,” transcribing the music for a Library of Congress project. Eventually, he even got Cajun music into the local Cajun schools. And he played. Doucet gathered his childhood friends Bessyl Duhan and Kenneth Richard and formed BeauSoleil, taking the name from the Acadian resistance leader who headed an unsuccessful effort to prevent the exile of his people from Nova Scotia. They focused on France, assuming the American audience was unlikely to take to the predominantly French-language songs as easily as the French.”People in the States were still putting us down for our accents, our food,” said the 48-year-old Doucet. “I didn’t even consider playing this music in the States.”In 1976, in France, BeauSoleil recorded its debut album, “The Spirit of Cajun Music.” Pockets of enthusiasm were spurred in America: Later that year the band played for Jimmy Carter’s inauguration and at the Nashville Folk Festival. But still not completely trusting the viability of the music, Doucet also formed Coteau, an electrified version of the band that would share the bill with BeauSoleil. Through the ’70s, Doucet still thought BeauSoleil was untenable as a full-time job. He and his bandmates took day jobs, and focused on music on the weekends, traveling occasionally to perform in Canada. The band took another uphill turn in the early ’80s, when they signed with Arhoolie, a label that specializes in deep-roots styles. Doucet was again surprised, finding there was sufficient demand for BeauSoleil to be a full-time gig without even having to promote themselves much.Doucet chalks up the popularity to the band’s insistence to make use of their tradition, but not be enslaved to it. The band’s sound, documented on some 25 albums, branches into Western swing, country, Tex-Mex and rock. They have collaborated with Richard Thompson and dobroist Jerry Douglas. Around the mid-’80s, Cajun culture suddenly became ubiquitous. Chefs Paul Prudhomme and Justin Wilson were on TV introducing America to blackened redfish and crawfish pie; the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival was exploding to become the country’s biggest music happening; the movie “The Big Easy” made Louisiana culture seem mysterious and steamy. As Doucet notes sardonically, “It became commercially viable, or sellable.” The end result was that the residents of Cajun country finally took an interest in their own heritage.”People said, `Oh, I should see this,'” said Doucet. “Even the people around here felt that way. Before, nobody wanted to hear it.”BeauSoleil is now accepted everywhere, from Carnegie Hall to bluegrass festivals to the Super Bowl, where they performed with Mary Chapin Carpenter. Doucet notes proudly that the band has played every state at least twice. On Saturday, Oct. 18, BeauSoleil plays Aspen, making its first appearance at the Wheeler Opera House.Keeping it CajunDoucet, a native of tiny Scott, La., was always a fan of the traditional Acadian style. Clifton Chenier, the grandfather of Cajun music’s close cousin zydeco, “was like our Elvis,” said Doucet. At 12, he started to borrow a fiddle from his uncle. But because it was the only fiddle in the family, and there were 15 cousins, Doucet had to share the instrument. But while he admired the music, the young Doucet didn’t dream of doing anything with it outside his home. So, while learning the Acadian-style fiddle, Doucet strayed to other sounds as well: Elvis Presley; then, influenced by his Louis Armstrong-loving father, bebop; then folk and Dylan-style folk-rock. As a teenager in the late ’60s, Doucet began to sense that the traditional Cajun culture was fading away. To stem the tide, he embraced the music.”When I graduated from high school, I saw it changing,” said the 52-year-old Doucet, who traces his family’s roots in Louisiana to the 1760s. “The old traditions were changing and I started hanging out with the older generation. They stressed the importance of our heritage and I wanted to save some of that.” When Doucet started focusing on the Cajun style, he took all his other musical interests and folded them into the Cajun framework. “I got the idea to adapt all that to the Acadian folk music,” he said.The general lack of interest in Cajun music until recently is, paradoxically, what has helped preserve it, or at least keep it intact. With the advent of satellite radio and downloadable music, and distribution systems that make it as easy to buy a Zimbabwean CD as one made down the road, there is little regionalism left in American music. But the Cajun sound is one of the few that remains identifiable, tied to a specific place. No one, it seems, wanted much to do with that culture.”Isolation had a lot to do with it,” he said. “My ancestors came here in the 1760s and it didn’t feel like anybody wanted this. Because of the number of Acadians, and because Louisiana was French-controlled and French-speaking, it was different. That has helped – we speak a different language and have held onto that language.”Doucet says there is also a strong thread of stubbornness and self-sufficiency to the Cajuns that defies changes to the culture. Doucet himself has shown such qualities: When BeauSoleil took off, he refused to move to the music capital of Nashville. He still lives in Lafayette Parish, in the house he estimates was built around 1824, and that he has been renovating for 20 years.”People live off the land here. That makes them self-sufficient,” he said. “They kept cattle and gardened. It was subsistence living. I remember news about the atomic bomb, it didn’t matter to them. They had everything they needed. Suburban America – that’s not how we lived at all. In the ’60s, people talked about going back to the land – well, we never left the land.”The music has had a similar resistance to the outside world. Cajun music, said Doucet, started without instrumentals, just people singing songs. When the fiddle was introduced, then the German accordion, then the guitar from Spain, and then blues and country, it never overwhelmed the Cajun sound. “It adopted other styles to keep it new. It didn’t adapt to other styles,” said Doucet.One way Doucet has kept the culture pure is by consistently singing in French. Some BeauSoleil tunes move between English and French; a few are in English. But French is BeauSoleil’s authentic tongue.”It feels more natural,” said Doucet. “When you have accordion and fiddle, it just seems like it should be in French.”There doesn’t seem to be much language barrier between BeauSoleil and the audience. The group is a regular on radio’s “A Prairie Home Companion,” and earned a Grammy Award for the 1997 album “L’amour ou la Folie.” And French-derived fiddle tunes no longer sound quite so foreign.”Which is what I really wanted to do,” said Doucet. “Show people this is an American music form that anybody could listen to and like it.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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