Beat Diaspora: Beats, Buses, Bricks

an omnivorous take on music of the beat-based variety and the urban spaces that nurture it

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Bayou Country


"The Acadians are perhaps America's most enigmatic people, equally misunderstood by outsiders and members of the group itself. The shroud of misunderstanding is the legacy of the group's unique North American experience, the co-optation of its leadership element by the regional socioeconomic elites, and the creatin and persistence of conflicting (uncomplimentary and complimentary) stereotypes by generations of popular American writers, journalists, and filmmakers. These arbiters of America's popular perceptions have generally visited the bayou country too briefly to acquire accurate impressions of the area and its inhabitants, and their depictions of Cajuns constantly reinforce the existing popular misconceptions about Acadiana."

--Carl A. Brrasseaux, French, Cajun, Creole, Houma: A Primer on Francophone Louisiana

With only a night and a day spent in bayou country, I can point the same finger squarely at myself. I'll resist too many interpretive moves, then, to simply express my amazement at discovering firsthand an oft-forgotten (and -neglected) corner of francophone America: There are 250,000 French speakers still inhabitating Louisana, especially in the southeastern and southwestern parishes.


The vast majority, of course, are Acadians / Cajuns, who ended up in Louisiana centuries ago after getting expelled from Nova Scotia. The first group of Europeans to establish a North American identity, they fiercely resisted assimilation up until the 20th century -- French was banned in Louisiana schools and the invasion of English TV really led to a decline in French proficiency. Cajuns were maligned as rednecks and the backwater of Louisiana.

I stayed in a B&B run by a couple who were the first in each of their families to speak English. We chatted in French over pain perdu in the morning, and surprisingly I found the accent easier to understand than Québécois French. The new generation of Cajuns is speaking a whole mix of accents thanks to CODOFIL, which promotes the French language in all its forms (even Creole!) in the state, and has brought in French teachers from Quebec, France, the Caribbean, and French Africa. Bilingualism can work in the Union, it seems, as long as it's not Spanish.


But the Cajun French persists. A Catholic priest compiled a dictionary of the predominately oral language in the '80s and there is a burgeoning Cajun literary scene. At a bookstore specializing in Louisiana French literature I picked up an autobiography by Jeanne Castille, a militant supporter of French in the mid-20th century, and an anthology of new Cajun fiction.


While I had to indulge my literary side, the oral tradition means music is never far behind. The Jean Lafitte Wetlands Acadian Cultural Center had an extremely well-articulated & well-curated section on music, arguing for cross-pollination between Cajuns and the various Africans and Europeans they came into contact with -- ultimately producing Cajun music on the one hand, and Zydeco on the other.



Get your accordion fix and take a listen for yourself --

Jambalaya - Bon Whisky
(from Cajun Saturday Night!)

Zydeco All-Stars - Hot Steppin' Zydeco
(from Ultimate Zydeco)

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