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Not so fondly, BeauSoleil founder Michael Doucet reflects on what it was like to be a fiddle-wielding ambassador of Cajun music and culture two decades ago.
"I'll tell you something ... it was a bad scene," Doucet says. "I mean, it was just not being accepted. We had a grant, and we'd talk to principals of grammar or high schools, and they did not want us to perform in their schools -- right here in southwest Louisiana. That was the wall that we were thrown up against."
At the time, says Doucet, not only was Cajun music going largely unheard outside Louisiana, where it was born, but many folks within the state wanted nothing to do with it. The '70s were a decade in which Louisiana was desperately trying to Americanize (read homogenize) its populace. This meant burying anything Cajun-related, from the music -- a fiery, danceable, folk-oriented concoction painted through the years with sundry Mississippi River-borne influences -- to the French dialect to the everyday rituals and traditions that had become entrenched in bayou culture since the 1750s, when settlers from Nova Scotia were driven out of their Acadian homeland for refusing to declare allegiance to the British crown, and migrated south.
About the same time that it seemed most everyone else was trying to bury Louisiana's Cajun heritage, Doucet was becoming immersed in tracing its sonic roots. He began seeking out the living musicians who'd written and performed the music he loved, a project that led him to many of the seminal Cajun musicians of the early 20th century, among them accordionist Amedee Ardoin and fiddle players Dennis McGee and Canray Fontenot. The formation of his Lafayette, Louisiana-based band BeauSoleil in 1975 was, in a sense, an outgrowth of Doucet's all-consuming research -- and his urge to share his discoveries with others.
"We always tell stories [during BeauSoleil shows] about the songs -- where they came from, how they fit in, how long they might have been forgotten or not played -- I think that's just part of it," Doucet says. "It all goes together. I can't play a song without thinking about somebody."
Rather than rambling on about it, Doucet lets BeauSoleil's music do the talking. "I mean, I could spend a couple of days telling people about Dennis McGee," he says. "But I play his music, and they might get a sense of what this person was about. I think that's very important, because we're from a culture that's been put down and unrecognized and just trodden upon for so many years."
It's now been 20 years since BeauSoleil's first release, and Doucet is amazed at how things have changed. Many of the things that were once viewed as quaint nuisances are now being treasured with pride in Louisiana and marketed with gusto throughout the country. With colorful personalities such as New Orleans chefs Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse leading the way, Cajun cuisine has become a wildly popular export. And BeauSoleil have played their part by introducing Cajun sounds to countless listeners worldwide, touching on Cajun's past and (by incorporating modern jazz, pop and Afro-Caribbean strains into its eclectic mix) offering a glimpse into its future.
The 20th anniversary of BeauSoleil is not going unnoticed. In fact, the group considers the making of their latest CD, L'Amour ou la Folie! (Love or Folly), something of a celebratory process. For the CD, the band -- which includes Doucet on fiddle and vocals, his brother David on guitar, Jimmy Breaux on accordion, Al Tharp on bass and banjo, Billy Ware on percussion and Tommy Alesi on drums -- called on several musicians they've admired through the years. Guitarist Richard Thompson lends a distinctive solo to the title song and also appears on "Charivari." Texas Tornado Augie Meyers adds rousing piano to "Can't You See," a rare excursion for BeauSoleil into the swamp-romp mode. Dr. Michael White's clarinet enlivens the lovely waltz "It's a Sin to Tell a Lie" and the tropically flavored "Danse Caribe."
"[We thought that] maybe now is the time to get together with some of these people," says Doucet. "So that's what this record is about, kind of sharing the 20 years of BeauSoleil with a lot of our friends who we really admire and people who have influenced us along the way."
"It's quite a marriage of styles," he adds, noting how certain collaborations pushed BeauSoleil in fresh directions.
Even so, L'Amour ou la Folie! is very much BeauSoleil, with trademarks such as Michael Doucet's lilting fiddle work and vocals, David Doucet's rapid-fire finger-picking displays on acoustic guitar and the supple, toe-tapping rhythms of Alesi and Ware supplied in ample quantities. Having an instantly identifiable sound is very much part of the fabric of Cajun music, Doucet says.
"I mean, you can play a traditional song from the '60s, '50s, '40s, '30s, '20s or whatever, and they'll all be different," Doucet points out. "They could even be the same song, but the way they're treated is so different. It just shows the elasticity of our culture, to continue to absorb different influences and make it our own, a lot like we do. And I think that's why [Cajun music] is still so alive today. It's not like a fly in amber, it's not like forgotten or made a parody of, because it's still viable within our society and our culture, and there's still plenty of dances to find today."
BeauSoleil performs at 9 p.m. Friday, October 24, at Rockefeller's, 3620 Washington Avenue. Tickets are $12 to $27.50. For info, call 869-
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