By Chris Gray
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For a downright miserable cold and rainy Thursday night, there's a decent crowd at the Continental Club. They are here to see the Lost Bayou Ramblers, a young Cajun band from Lafayette, Louisiana. LBR's music is über-traditional. They sing almost exclusively in French, and their lineup is composed of acoustic guitar, fiddle, accordion, stand-up bass and the most minimal drum kit you ever saw -- just a snare with a cymbal on it.
Occasionally, accordionist André Michot sets his squeezebox aside in favor of a lap steel, an instrument that's believed to have been adopted into the Cajun music arsenal in Port Arthur and here in Houston, where transplanted Louisianans sought to emulate Bob Wills and other kings of western swing. The resulting fusion, called Cajun swing, is one of the Lost Bayou Ramblers' fortes. On Une Tasse Café, the band's newest record, the Ramblers assume the role of an alter ego group called The Mello Joy Boys. That band's music harks back to the Depression era -- there's a rendition of the classic Wills instrumental "Steel Guitar Rag" and French-language versions of "Trouble in Mind" ("Fais Pas Ça") and "You Are My Sunshine" ("Mon Soleil"), the biggest hit ever to be penned by the governor of a state. (Louisiana's Jimmie Davis had that peculiar honor.)
And all these years later, this music still has appeal. The median age at this show is about 33, and the crowd spends a lot of time out on the dance floor, whirling and boot-scooting to Louis Michot's wailing fiddle and keening voice and his brother's percolating accordion. It fairly well begs the question -- why are there so few Cajun bands in Houston? After all, this city is home to close to 100 Cajun restaurants and probably about 30 locally based zydeco bands. In the last census, roughly 26,000 Houstonians identified themselves as Cajun, which is close to one percent of the population of the city proper, and a larger number than all but a couple of parishes in Louisiana.
Long ago, Houston was something of a Cajun music hub. Cajun music patriarch Iry LeJeune made his first recordings here, and the legendary Harry Choates even first cut "Jolie Blonde," the unofficial national anthem of south Louisiana, here at Gold Star studios. And while the Cajun music on Huey Meaux's Crazy Cajun label wasn't that traditional, there was a definite swamp pop influence on just about everything he produced. What has happened since then?
First, let's define our terms. Zydeco and Cajun music are not the same thing, despite the fact that zydeco is almost always called "Cajun music." "People think one is the other," says Steve Bing, the leader of Grand Texas, Houston's most active Cajun band and a diligent champion of the style. "You tell people you play Cajun music and they retort, 'Oh, I love zydeco!'" (Perhaps it's no surprise that Bing is moving to Louisiana next week.)
So what's the difference? "It's kinda hard to explain the differences without using the words black and white," says Louis Michot over the phone the morning after his gig. "While they are both accordion-based music, Cajun music comes more out of a fiddle/European folk music and ballads/country and western background, whereas zydeco comes more out of an African rhythmic point of view. But both of them are mixes with the German accordion and European melodies. And in zydeco the accordion player is always the leader of the band, whereas in Cajun the leader could be accordion and fiddle or fiddle and lap steel. There's always a fiddle in Cajun music, and there's almost never a fiddle in zydeco, unless you are talking about Creole music, which is kinda the middle-of-the-road melting point of Cajun and zydeco."
Herman Fuselier, a black journalist and DJ from south Louisiana, has no qualms about using the words "black" and "white." In his view, the PC brigade, in falling over themselves to avoid using racial descriptors, has only ended up insulting pretty much everybody in south Louisiana. A couple of years ago, he penned a justifiably annoyed piece on the matter:
"OK, repeat after me -- black. Now, say this word -- Creole," he wrote. "Let's put the words together -- black Creole. Good. That didn't hurt, did it?
If we can say the words 'black Creole' and the world doesn't explode, why are my brethren in the media afraid to do the same?
I bring this up because over the last week or so, I've come across media accounts, local and national, on Zydeco.
Nearly all describe Zydeco as 'Cajun music.'
To do so is to disrespect the black Creole people of southwest Louisiana who invented it, as well as Cajuns, who have worked hard to preserve French music.
Simply put, Cajun music is the waltzes and two-steps played by the white descendants of the Acadians, who were exiled from Nova Scotia in the 1700s.
Zydeco is the R&B-based accordion grooves of black Creoles."
Now that's out of the way, we can get to the question with the less obvious answer -- the one about the near-absence of Cajun bands in Houston. Steve Bing is one of Houston's biggest champions of Cajun music. His band Grand Texas is likely the most prominent of the small number of Cajun bands here. "The main thing you need is to get people to come to the dances," says Bing. "I really have to maintain my e-mail list to get people to come out. It's not like Louisiana, where Cajun is now bigger than it ever was. There are a lot of great places to dance to zydeco here, but I wish more places would want to have Cajun music."
Michot believes that the Cajun Renaissance that has taken hold of south Louisiana in the decades after World War II never crossed the Sabine River with much strength. "Before World War II there was a period of Americanization," he says. "It was prohibited to speak French. At that time everybody was looking down on being Cajun, being French, and lookin' forward to bein' American, wantin' to assimilate."
"My grandfather learned French as his first language," says local multi-instrumentalist Will Golden, who plays in both Sean Reefer and the Resin Valley Boys and the Lafayette-based Cajun/rock band the Bluerunners. "But he didn't want to teach his children French. He wanted them to kinda be American, you know? There was this whole big movement of 'We're American,' 'Stay American' and stuff. It's kinda sad."
Michot says that the war changed everything. In the European theater, Cajuns were in high demand for their language skills. "A lot of them got these great jobs because they could speak French," he says. "And they came home and said, 'Man -- I was the only guy who could talk to the French people. We actually speak a good language!' We had been told our language is uneducated, but that is bullshit. There was a renewed pride. And that was when they picked up the accordion again, right in 1945 when the war was over. But that was in south Louisiana, where people were still speakin' French in the family. Maybe in Texas it stayed more looked-down-upon to be Cajun. Back then you were automatically submitting to being lower-class when you said you were a Cajun."
And it was much easier for Cajuns to assimilate, if they wanted to, than their Creole brethren. The Creoles settled here en masse in neighborhoods like Fifth Ward's Frenchtown, and today there are a half-dozen or so Creole Catholic churches in greater Houston. On the other hand, Cajuns settled all over town and joined the churches that were already there -- to my knowledge, there has never been a Cajun parish in Houston.
Cajun musicians from the 1960s on played other genres. The institutions Cajuns established here have been restaurants like Pe-Te's, and today the music you hear at them most often is not Cajun music but zydeco.
Golden is puzzled about how zydeco has retained its popularity here with non-Louisiana audiences while Cajun music has not. "Clifton Chenier could take whatever was popular at the time and translate it into French," he says. "He could do it in English, too, if he wanted, and it was all really accessible and fun and people loved it, whereas the Cajun stuff just doesn't seem to work as well. We run into that all the time -- DJs will tell us, 'This song is great, but which songs are in English?' Apparently, no one wants to hear another language, really."
Which is a real shame. Houston was where zydeco was invented and where it continues to evolve in new directions, as with the zyde-rap fusions of J. Paul, Nooney and Lil' Brian and the neo-traditionalist movement of Corey Ledet, Cedric Watson and Ra-Ra Carter. Cajun music was stretching out similarly here in the mid-20th century, as the Lost Bayou Ramblers-revived Cajun swing attests. Imagine if it had continued after that, though: Houston could be the home of Cajun classic rock, Cajun punk, Cajun indie rock, Cajun freak-folk. Cajun punk, which Golden's Bluerunners have flirted with, seems an especially promising genre -- if bands like the Pogues, Flogging Molly and the Dropkick Murphys can stretch Irish folk as far as they have without breaking it, and if Los Skarnales can punk up traditional Mexican and Tejano music, so could a band like the Lost Bayou Ramblers with Cajun music. Or some as-yet-unformed local band. (Hint, hint.)