B y M i c h a e l M e t z g e r
I SUCK THE head!" That phrase screams out from T-shirts sold by the thousands to happy, sweaty tourists visiting the humid treasures of Louisiana. It isn't as bawdy a proclamation as you might think, but the true meaning might make you a bit nauseous anyway. It just implicates the person inside the shirt as one who ate a crawfish and sucked out the spices, tiny brain and whatever else is left in that little space after boiling the tasty crustacean.
Somewhere in the mid-1980s Cajun Food became trendy and restaurants across the country began adding gumbo, crawfish etoufée and blackened fish to their menus. It's trendy and tasty, but it isn't what's most important to the people of southwestern Louisiana, according to legendary Cajun musician Michael Doucet.
He and the band he founded and leads, Beausoleil, have helped propel Cajun Music further into American culture than ever before. Beausoleil has a slew of Grammy nominations for albums such as La Danse de la Vie (1993), Cajun Conja ('91), Bayou Cadillac ('89), Belizaire The Cajun (a soundtrack released in '87), Zydeco Gris-Gris (the title track of this '85 album was played under the opening credits of The Big Easy) and last year's tribute to traditional Cajun musicians, called L' Écho .
"To me, Cajun Music really is the heart of our culture," Doucet has said. "It's not the stomach--we know that's the food. It's music that's the heart. Everybody sings in their own way down here, and that's what keeps us going."
When I read that quote in Doucet and Beausoleil's publicity packet, it made me pause. I wondered what the heart of American culture at large could be. All I had to do to find the answer was look up from the pages I was reading--right into the screen of my television.
When I call Doucet at his home outside Lafayette and share the thought with him, he laughs his big melodic laugh.
"That's about right," he says. "That's a good one. Either that or the Golden Arches."
It's funny, but it's also a tad disturbing. I'd rather be part of a culture that's based on something more than Gilligan's Island, Happy Days and Melrose Place. Doucet is proud of his heritage: Cajuns are descendants of 17th-century French settlers of Nova Scotia, driven from the land they called Acadie in 1755, when they refused to declare allegiance either to the French or the English (who were, as usual, at war).
"Even though the Acadians came to Louisiana back in the 1760s, it (the culture) is still intact in certain kinds of ways," he says. "The old family names, the language and the music that has evolved. We didn't really share this music with outsiders for a long time. It wasn't really even accepted, is more what I mean."
Beausoleil has spread their own version of the music and recreated other people's versions of Cajun tunes since the mid-'70s. Music critics have argued long and pointlessly over whether the band is a traditional or contemporary Cajun group.
"People get stuck on these things," he says with a little annoyance creeping into his voice. "They want to say it's one thing. It's not one thing and it's never going to be one thing and never was one thing. It's always changing. I guess the concept of that last record (L' Écho was to highlight the individuals--the artists. You could say a song was traditional or whatever, but somebody had to make that song, no matter how old it was."
Pure traditionalists sometimes forget or ignore the fact that people, even in the good old days, weren't making music for the ages, they were just trying to please themselves and the people in their lives.
"It was just their way of expressing something, and I guess it's just our way of expressing what we want to express," Doucet says. "It's for no other reason."
L' Écho resonates with "Chez Denouse McGee," a playful reworking of an old two-stepper by Dennis and Ernest Fruge; the elegant stomp of "O Bebe Waltz," first recorded by Amédé Breaux (grandfather of Beausoleil accordionist Jimmy Breaux) and "Freeman's Zydeco," a sensuous zydeco number written by Freeman Fontenot, a man who built a school, raised his family in its backrooms and converted the schoolhouse into a dancehall for weekends, featuring the likes of Clifton and Cleveland Chenier.
Those are just the first three tunes on the sumptuous album. Each and every track is a loving recreation and revision of music written by mostly forgotten artists of the '20s and '30s. That is, they would have been forgotten if Doucet hadn't sought them out.
"I knew all of them," Doucet says. "That's why it was so personal. When they were alive--many of them have passed away--and I was doing most of my research 20 or 25 years ago, it was very unusual for someone to be interested in their music. They'd say 'Oh, I haven't played that in years' and have all these excuses and finally you'd get 'em going and they'd play all night long. That was the magic of the music."
His own affectionate words about his musical heroes describe Doucet and Beausoleil best: The magic of the music. Few bands are so willing and artistically able to move backwards and forwards in time. As Beausoleil explores yesterday, it continues to create new music for today that will, no doubt, be considered traditional music in the future.
You can hear the warmth and down-home good-time whooping of Beausoleil on Saturday, September 23, at the street dance being held on Fifth Avenue between Congress Street and Broadway. The street will be closed off so no one gets tire tracks on his feet while dancing. The rockabilly and Tex-Mex of Trio Grande kicks off the dancing at 7 p.m. Admission is $10. Proceeds will help with the renovation of downtown's historic Rialto Theater.
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