Cookin' Cajun

Beausoleil Boils Down The Louisiana Swamp To The Basics: Good Food, Good Dance, Good Times.

By Dave Irwin

MICHAEL DOUCET PROMISES of Beausoleil's upcoming Tucson performance, "We're gonna change the place and you're gonna walk into Louisiana. Just enjoy that time because it's a very unique place. It's gonna be fun. It's gonna be a great time."

Music The Cajun music of Beausoleil had become synonymous with a good time even before Mary Chapin Carpenter certified it with her hit, "Down at the Twist and Shout," recorded with the band. Beausoleil's music was also featured in the opening credits of the movie The Big Easy. Fiddler and vocalist Doucet has played with Thomas Dolby, Rolling Stone Keith Richards, and Dire Strait's Mark Knopfler. But the real break, according to Doucet, came when Garrison Keillor featured the band on his Prairie Home Companion radio show, bringing their fiddle/accordion party sound to the heartland. "(It was the) right place, right time," Doucet says.

Other members of the band include brother David Doucet on guitar and vocals, Jimmy Breaux on Acadian accordion, Al Tharp on bass and banjo, Billy Ware on percussion, and Tommy Alesi on drums.

"We worked a lot in the '70s to get this music back on track," Doucet says from Dockside Recording Studios in Maurice, Louisiana, on Bayou Vermillion, where he's mixing down the band's next album. "It was a forgotten music and a lot of great masters weren't known, and we brought them out. We did a lot of work in the schools. We laid the basis of what we wanted to do and we've influenced a whole lot of people since then. It's taken on its own kind of wave. For ourselves, we try to bring back those masters--who were themselves influenced by the '20s and '30s--and we just try to continue that role."

Cajun culture, including its musical traditions, has a unique place in Americana. The Cajuns were French-speaking descendants of the Acadians, exiled from Nova Scotia in the 1760s after the British took over Canada. They settled in North America's other French outpost, the bayous of Louisiana near New Orleans. To this day, Louisiana is the only state whose legal system is based on the Napoleonic Code, and where counties are called parishes.

The Cajun lifestyle was cemented by social events, first the bals de maison, gala parties held at southern mansions; and after the Civil War, by the less formal and more public fais do-do, which gathered in rural dancehalls. Cajun music, handed down over generations, survived in isolated, swampy enclaves.

"There's a certain element you have in Louisiana that's just innate," Doucet explains. "When I grew up, I don't think I knew a French family that didn't play music. I mean, everybody just played music and if they didn't play, they sang. All the other elements we've incorporated: Elvis, the blues, ballad singers, we grew up around them. Bobby Charles, who wrote 'See You Later Alligator,' lived right down the road."

Describing the broad appeal of their music, Doucet notes, "We have youngsters because we've done children's records, college kids who really dig the sound and the dances, and we have the elder generation who like it because it sounds like something they've heard before. There's no stigma to this music; it's very open and acceptable to all. It's true, it's real, it's proud and basic, but it gets to the point and there's no frills. It's just what it is, and I think people like to get back to that."

"We played Yemen," he remembers. "They said when we played there, 'Don't worry, these people don't react too well,' and (instead) they went crazy!"

The band is currently finishing a follow up to L'Amour Ou La Folie, which marked their 20th anniversary. Set for release in March, it's tentatively titled Cajunization. "They have 48 tracks here," he says of the recording studio 15 minutes from his home. "Of course, we're not using all 48--you don't need that for a Cajun band!" he laughs. "But we use 24 tracks."

"There's always something new," Doucet says of the upcoming album. "We go from (Cajun singer) Dennis McGee in 1939 to Hawaii, surfing, the blues and back to Louisiana."

Guests on the album will include dobro wizard Jerry Douglas, and Jerry McGee, lead guitarist for the Ventures and son of Dennis McGee.

The Tucson performance by Beausoleil will include food, drink and dance lessons before the show. "It's been a few years since we were in Tucson," Doucet admits. "But we really like the Southwest...a lot of good dancers. If you want a good time, come on down. We'll supply the hot sauce!"

Beausoleil avec Michael Doucet, with opening act Black Leather Zydeco, performs Saturday, December 12, at the Rialto Theatre, 318 E. Congress St. Food and dance instruction begin at 8 p.m., with music starting at 9 p.m. Tickets are $16 in advance at Hear's Music, The Book Mark, Borders Books and Music, and Yikes! Toys; $18 at the door. For information, or to charge tickets by phone, call 529-0356. TW

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