Cajun Crusaders

Tucson Folk Fest headliner BeauSoleil posits that you can be American, and be different, too

For more than 40 years, BeauSoleil bandleader Michael Doucet has been carrying on a musical tradition that once was in danger of extinction. When he started studying and playing Cajun music in the early 1970s, it had all but faded away, relegated to artifact status and played by a few old-timers in southwestern Louisiana.

Doucet grew up playing rock 'n' roll and New Orleans-style music, but as he looked more deeply at the roots of his culture, he discovered the beauty of traditional Cajun music. Music was always played around the Doucet home when he was a kid, especially when uncles, aunts and cousins would stop by.

"Music of all kinds was just part of getting together," he said recently via phone from his home in Lafayette, La. "There'd be accordion songs, jazz, fiddle tunes, swing and lots of singing."

But Doucet also became aware that not many young people were listening to Cajun music.

"When I graduated from high school in 1969, I noticed that when people died, the culture did, too. ... Without documentation, history dies, and no one was writing this stuff down or playing it."

Doucet said he wanted to keep Cajun music and culture alive for future generations. "We knew people all around who played one style of music, and then 20 miles away, they played a different style. I realized I wanted to put this all together and present it somehow; I was so captivated with it."

After college, Doucet took his early band, the Bayou Drifters, to France, intending to stay for two weeks. He stayed for six months. When he returned home, it was clear his duty was to bring the music back to a younger generation.

He was eventually awarded grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Library of Congress to compile and document Cajun music. He studied and played with—and learned from—some of the masters then still alive, including Dennis McGee, Canray Fontenot, Varise Connor, Wade Frugé and Dewey Balfa, among others.

"For instance, I try to include a Dennis McGee song on every album we do," he said. "You have to know where you come from in order to know where you're going."

And although he had played guitar, drums and piano in his youth, Doucet ultimately was drawn to the fiddle, especially because of its connections to the traditional folk music of France that eventually found its way to the Louisiana bayou over hundreds of years.

In 1975, Doucet formed BeauSoleil, which has become known as a premier Cajun band, and which will headline this year's Tucson Folk Festival.

Presented for the 27th year in row by the Tucson Kitchen Musicians Association (with the help of a small army of volunteers), the free two-day festival includes more than 130 acts and five separate stages, all within a short walk of each other downtown in and around El Presidio Park.

The festival also will include a children's show, a young artists' showcase, a songwriting contest, a ballad tree and a variety of workshops for singing, songwriting, arranging, recording and production techniques, music law, journalism and numerous instruments. As usual, food and beverage vendors will be well represented throughout the festival. See for a full schedule.

By the TKMA's definition, folk music can mean a lot of things, from rock, blues, bluegrass and country to jazz, doo-wop, Latin, gospel and medieval styles, as well as music from Brazilian, Caribbean, African, Russian, Polynesian, Celtic and Native American cultures.

BeauSoleil's highly danceable brand of Cajun music—sung in both English and French—includes traditional tunes and originals crafted in the old style, as well as some cross-pollination from Creole and zydeco. It also shows the influence of rock, jazz, country, blues and Caribbean music.

"Cajun music is always changing and responding to the world around it, and that is part of what is going to keep it alive in the future," Doucet said.

Doucet is reluctant to toot his own horn, but he noted that there was no other organized Cajun group playing concert tours when BeauSoleil began. "We were the first group to play all around the country, and then when we decided we wanted to get the music out there further in 1986, we started releasing records."

At first, touring was difficult. Non-Cajun audiences in other parts of the country didn't quite get it. But over the years, listeners came around.

The group has gone on to release more than 20 albums, is a regular on A Prairie Home Companion, has received 11 Grammy Award nominations, and in 1998 became the first Cajun band to win the Grammy for Traditional Folk Album.

"I think we have proven that you can be American and be different, too. And music is one of the best ways to communicate that," Doucet said.

He's confident that Cajun music and culture is no longer in danger of fading away. During the last few decades, Doucet has seen Cajun people becoming proud of their Cajun heritage, and others becoming interested in the culture.

"We thought it was gone back then. People were embarrassed to be Cajun, as if we were second-class citizens," he said "... I mean, Paul Prudhomme started a movement of Cajun cooking, and now you have blackened chicken in McDonald's. Of course, in the process, something is gained, and something is lost. But that happens because people are exposed to the culture through the experience of living. Now it becomes something else, but we try to give attention to where it came from, too."