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Swamp Ghosts

Racial tensions still haunt Geno Delafose's Louisiana stomping ground

Although New Orleans is the main attraction in Louisiana for music fans, as too many House of Blues T-shirts attest, the state's real musical magic, and maybe the best food too, is actually found in the heart of Cajun country to the west of the Crescent City. In fact, the town to visit just may be Eunice, the hometown of accordionist Geno Delafose.

But the great shame of that area of Louisiana, where the music is soulful and real and the food as delectable as manna from heaven, is that it also remains one of our nation's most segregated pockets. Although Cajun music and Creole zydeco are true country cousins sharing similar roots, rhythms, French-language lyrics and a central focus on the accordion, a well-ingrained separatism forms a steely Great Divide.

It's there at Fred's Lounge, where every Saturday morning in nearby Mamou, what may be the most delightful daytime club gig in the world takes place. Donald Thibodeux & Cajun Fever perform a danceable musical brunch for a local radio broadcast, while an ol' gal known as "Tante Su de Mamou" -- her Tshirt tells you so -- serves up delightful (and free) samples of local boudin. Couples regularly take to the tiny dance floor to work off that Cajun sausage. But underneath the amazingly warm and welcoming atmosphere, there's still an implicit message: no blacks allowed. That attitude became obvious when a friend told a local regular she'd been dancing with that she was in town to attend the zydeco fest. His reaction: "What do you want to go listen to that nigger music for?"

Delafose knows how closely related the two styles are. "And they so separate," the talented young bandleader bemoans with a sigh. "I always played Cajun and zyedco. I played both of them. And I like them, and I grew up with both of them. I didn't want to get involved in the big scene that's going on. I didn't want to be like everybody else. So I decided I'd play that side. And that's what I played with my dad, and I enjoyed it, and people liked it."

Playing both flavors of the musical roux is just what Delafose does on his most recent album, La Chanson Perdue. Featuring guests Christine Balfa (the guitar-playing daughter of Cajun music pioneer Dewey Balfa), her fiddler husband, Dirk Powell, both of Balfa Tojours, and Eunice-based Cajun accordionist Steve Riley, a high school peer of Delafose's, Perdue is a truly Creole album that offers a cross-cultural jambalaya that's as tasty as it comes. That's because Delafose has never assigned a color to his mixture of musical ingredients, thanks in large part to his late father, John Delafose, the accordion-playing leader of the Eunice Playboys, who listened to everything.

Rather than dwell on the racial divide, Delafose prefers to accentuate the obvious ties between Cajun and Creole musical culture. He has Anglo allies in Balfa and Riley, who count on Delafose's support in return. "I used to see Christine come to the dances a lot at Richard's," Delafose recalls, referring to a popular local hangout. "That was like when I was like 15, 16, playin' with my dad's band. She would come to the dances. And things hadn't changed like they are today. It was pretty segregated and stuff. And when you'd see a white person in a club, you knew they were from out of town. They just didn't know no better. But they ain't never had no trouble or anything like that.

"Christine, she would come, and she'd watch us play and stuff and have a good time. And I admired that. And after I found out she was Mr. Dewey's daughter, I talked to her a few times. I don't really remember when I officially met her and got to know herŠ.It was probably at some festivals and stuff and I met her husband and all that, and then we got to playin'. [Balfa Tojours is] keeping the tradition going, and I'm doing the same thing," he says.

"Then after that, I always wanted someone to play acoustic guitar and fiddle with me, and since I was friends with them, I didn't hesitate at all to ask them to play with me," he says. "And they were thrilled to death. And I loved it, because I really like the sound of acoustic guitar. I like to let people know that, hey, just because I'm black don't mean I can't play Cajun music, or just because you're white, you can't play zydeco. It doesn't have a color to it. It has a color to it because you put a color to it, that's why. Anybody can play it."

If only everyone else in this Louisiana sub-culture thought the same way. The U.S. Justice Department has filed a handful of lawsuits against southern Louisiana clubs over the past few years for violating Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which makes it illegal for a club to deny a customer admission based on his or her skin color. La Poussiere in Breaux Bridge was just one of the places the Justice Department pursued. It, like the others, reached an agreement with the Justice Department out of court. But while the government may have opened up these clubs to all customers, the feds can't change the attitudes of the people who frequent them.

Besides, Delafose feels that music can bring people together better than governments and legal battles. "After I finished my CD, La Chanson Perdue Š I finished on a Friday, and the Saturday, Christine and them were playing a little clubŠ.So I was off. And they said, 'If you're off, why don't you come by and meet us,' you know? 'You can play with us,' or whatever. So I went by. And I had my mom and another friend with me. So I dropped them off in front of the club, and I went and parked my truck," he recalls.

"So when I walked in, I thought they had a cover charge or something, so I was looking for someone to pay to get in. And I was just standing by the door. So this guy, he came by me, and he said, 'How you doin'?' I said, 'I'm doin' fine.' And he said, 'I think ya better leave if you don't want no trouble, because we don't mix too much around here,' " Delafose continues. "That just blew me away, and I started laughing. I just said, 'Okay, that's fine with me.' I didn't really go anywhere; I just kinda moved off to the side and stuff because my mom and them was still in there. And then Christine and them called me up to play and stuff. And I went and I joined 'em, and I started playing. And them fucking people in that club went crazy, man. They didn't want me to stop after I started playin'."

"I don't know if the guy knew who I was," he says. "I guess he just thought I was just in there to make some trouble or something."

Delafose's all-embracing approach, in music and in life, may be best summed up by the name of his band, French Rockin' Boogie. "It's all the same thing, man," he says. "If it make ya dance and make ya feel good, then have at it. You ain't hurtin' nobody."

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