Saturday, July 23, 2011

As Southern as Cajun Music

The American South is known for its musical expression. In fact, Mississippi even proclaims itself as the “Birthplace of American Music,” and giving that state due credit for some genres seems deserved. However, a special form of American music with a rich past is Cajun music in Louisiana.

The home of Cajun music is Acadiana, a 22-parish region of Louisiana officially recognized in 1971 by the state legislature where a large French-speaking population lives. (Acadiana is also home to Native American tribes and mixed-ethnicity Creole people, who historically spoke French and Créole French.) In addition, German settlers immigrated to Acadiana as early as 1721.

Cajuns are primarily the descendants of refugees forced by the British and New Englanders to leave Canada’s maritime provinces during the French and Indian War (1754-63) (the American term for the war known elsewhere as the Seven Years War). When the Acadians arrived in Louisiana in 1764, they brought ballads (many from France) that told stories of the “old days.”

Instruments of Cajun music start with the fiddle and include traditions of twin fiddling brought to Louisiana by immigrants. One fiddle plays the melody, while the second provides backup. When accordions arrived in Acadiana in the 1890s, they quickly became popular and a main component of Cajun music. Later in the 1930s when Texas groups began to influence Cajun music, instruments such as mandolins, pianos, and banjos were added to create a jazzy swing before country music became a major influence in the 1940s. During this time, bass and steel guitars became common components of Cajun music. However, the accordion regained its popularity as the lead instrument after World War II. Finally, modern influences added the acoustic guitar (mostly as a rhythm instrument) and the triangle for percussion. In addition, some groups often include drums, electric bass, and electric guitars.

Song lyrics are usually entirely in Cajun French, and the songs also derive from folk influences of black, white and Native American traditions. Born from ballads, Cajun music has transformed to dance music, which has been is promoted and sustained by a network of radio stations in Arcadiana. For example, KBON (101.1 FM) in Eunice, the most listened to state radio station on the Internet, devotes more than 85 percent of its airtime to Louisiana artists.

Cajun music is also promoted and preserved by the Cajun French Music Association, which was founded in 1984 in Basile, Louisiana, and has expanded to a membership of more than 2,000 families in Louisiana and southeast Texas (and one in Chicago). The association is the host of the annual LeCajun Awards (the equivalent of the Grammy Awards for Cajun music). The Grammies also has recognized the importance of this musical genre with a category of Cajun Music Album in the folk music category until 2012, when Cajun albums will be considered in the Best Regional Roots Music Album category.

In addition, the Cajun Music Festival in Mamou, held annually, includes a variety of Cajun musicians and groups. Visitors can enjoy the music or join the crowds on the dance floor. The festival includes classes in dancing, accordion making, and Cajun music and also offers contests such as egg throwing, boudin eating, a washer board tournament, the Cajun "dizzy dash," and watermelon eating.

However, the best effort to preserve Cajun music probably occurs at Fred’s Lounge in Mamou, a quiet town of 3,500 citizens in Evangeline Parish, which bills itself as “The Cajun Music Capital of the World.” Its musicians, particularly musicians who have performed at Fred’s (literally a shrine for Cajun music), have helped to expand the audience for Cajun music far beyond Southwest Louisiana.

Although Fred’s Lounge is open on only Saturdays (8 2 p.m), it features a weekly live Cajun music show broadcast for two hours on a local AM radio station, although the music starts about 9 a.m. and continues usually until 1:30 p.m. The two-hour radio broadcast has been continuous since 1962 (now heard over KVPI in Ville Platte). The music is clean family fun, dancing to the music is pretty much nonstop, but Fred’s is a bar, and most customers are enjoying a liquid breakfast before walking to a diner for a late lunch and good Cajun food. Fred’s celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1996 when Louisiana Governor Mike Foster participated in a ceremony and unveiled a plaque in memory of Alfred “Fred” Tate (who died in 1992). When I was in Mamou as part of a field trip conducted by Southern Foodways Alliance, Fred’s impressed me as truly authentic (as a YouTube video illustrates) and unadulterated by other cultural influences.

The field trip also included a visit to Les Rendezvous des Cajuns Radio Show held at Liberty Theater in Eunice. When I visited, the Jambalaya Cajun Band was onstage featuring fiddler Jamey Bearb and being broadcast on radio throughout Acadiana. Because Cajun music is dance music, the floor in front of the band was never empty.

Cajun music is as Southern as jazz, blues, gospel, and country. As part of the rich musical expression in the American South, Cajun music will continue to be an important part of the musical traditions of this region and beyond.