Extending Tradition: Voices From Cajun Country For Mardis Gras
Around the country, folks celebrate Mardis Gras with beads and booze on the last Tuesday before Lent, which this year falls next week on March 1. But in the Acadian and Creole regions of Louisiana west of New Orleans, Mardis Gras is a multi-week affair that’s already well underway. And besides the prades and the inebriation, rural Mardis Gras involves ancient rituals with origins in Europe that are a little like adult trick-or-treating.
“The people in the community get together, mask up all in costume, and they make a ‘run’ - a courir - around the community and they stop at each house,” says musician Louis Michot from his home in Arnaudville, LA. “And you beg for whatever you want - rice or a chicken or some eggs or some beer. And if they don't give you something, you mess with them.”
Michot says it’s light-hearted but also a marathon for those in their harlequin outfits and masks and dunce caps, walking or riding on horseback. Because a courir can last all day, before the parties start. “And then the idea being that you take everything you've gotten and you put it all together so everyone has gumbo at the end.”
In 1999, Michot, a fiddler and singer, founded The Lost Bayou Ramblers with his accordion playing brother Andre. Cajun at their core, the Ramblers have pushed the bleeding edges of their traditional music with effects and distortion and punky bravado. And they’ve been well rewarded for their vision with a Grammy Award, tours supporting indie stars like Arcade Fire and the Violent Femmes, and high profile film and TV work.
“We were pretty traditional for a while, and then after 10 years or so, we started bringing amps,” Michot says. “And then we started having a full drum set. And then we started having effects. And now, 23 years later, we're pretty far out there. But the great thing is,if you unplug the whole sound system, you still get a Cajun band.”
With their intense twists on a regional sound, some people compared the Lost Bayou Ramblers to The Pogues, Ireland’s hard rocking folkies led in the 1980s and 90s by wildman Shane MacGowan. Then about five years ago, two former Pogues - tin whistle player Peter “Spider” Stacy and bassist Cait O’Riordan - connected with the Ramblers as fans and friends, and before long they’d assembled a collaborative tour. It was cooking along to sold out houses, says Michot, until Covid hit. Now they’re firing it back up and the hybrid band known as Poguetry arrives in Nashville to play the Brooklyn Bowl on March 19.
In the fascinating Q&A presented here, Louis Michot talks about his family’s musical roots, about the true meaning of Mardis Gras, and about his work with the Footprint Project, a non-profit dedicated to sustainable relief efforts, including solar-powered generator and battery rigs that were deployed in rural areas after Hurricane Ida. His is a voice from a part of the low-lying South protecting its own in the face of climate change and cultural homogenization.
My talk this week with Michot reminded me of an interview I conducted last fall with another culture-keeper from Louisiana. Part of that conversation was included in the year-end episode of The String for 2021, but here I offer my talk with Joel Savoy in its entirety. Savoy is a scion of Cajun culture, son of Marc and Ann Savoy, leaders in the revival of Acadiana’s diverse and deep French-speaking ways of life.
Last fall, the University of Louisiana Press published Marc’s book Made In Louisiana, The Story of the Acadian Accordion. It’s a browsable photo narrative about the accordion and its evolution, but it’s also an entertaining memoir of Savoy himself, including why he became captivated by the music of his region and how he determined to preserve and protect Cajun culture and its distinctive traditions and music. Joel, a fiddler and guitarist, songwriter, producer, band leader and record label owner, played a key role in assembling the text and images and ideas for the Savoy book. At its heart is the story of the Savoy Music Center, established by Marc in Eunice, LA in 1966, which has been a music store, the home of Savoy’s accordion-building business and home to a renowned Saturday Cajun jam session.
“All my siblings grew up in this environment,” Joel says. “It was such a natural progression for all of us to become a part of this culture, you know, to become a part of Cajun music and become musicians and to speak French and to be cultural ambassadors…My parents never said you’ve got to do this, to any of us. They knew that if they just surrounded us with it, that it would happen.”
Besides the musical history and technical story of the accordion, Marc Savoy, who is now 81, uses his volume as something of a manifesto for the preservation of Cajun music, from a purist’s perspective. In a final chapter, he writes, “Will Cajun musicians, as they continue to develop their musicianship, recognize the fact that we don’t need old songs performed in a new style, but rather new songs performed in the old style - the style that defines what our music was, is, and should remain?”
The Lost Bayou Ramblers wouldn’t earn Savoy’s approval based on those criteria. But Joel Savoy, from the same generation as Louis Michot, says he’s not exactly in tune with his father’s point of view either. “I separate the words traditional and historical,” he says, noting eras of Cajun music influenced by popular songs and sounds from outside Louisiana going back a century. “The earliest possible version of this is an African American guy (Amede Ardoin) playing a German instrument in a land settled by French-speaking, maritime Acadian people. It's always been this mutt. And I think that it's always going to continue to be that and it will evolve.”
Laisser les bon temps, and I can’t emphasize this enough, rouler.