Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Conversation: Cajun Music’s ‘Roots Of Fire’ In A New Film

Wilson Savoy on accordion in his band the Pine Leaf Boys is featured in the new documentary Roots of Fire.

When filmmakers Jeremey and Abby Lavoi started shooting video of young Cajun and Zydeco musicians around 2013, they didn’t know what story they wanted to tell, only that they were captivated by the music and the people making it. Jeremey, then based with his production partner wife in San Francisco, was guided, he says now, by a certain homesickness. He grew up in southwest Louisiana, and the sound of fiddles, accordions, washboards, and clanging triangles spoke to him, despite having come of age on punk rock in the suburbs. More than a decade later, after a long and winding road, they’ve made their movie, and it’s what the Cajuns might call a cri de coeur, a cry from the heart.

The Lavois’ award-winning documentary Roots Of Fire opens with Jourdan Thibodeaux and his band Les Rôdailleurs on stage outdoors in Lafayette, LA. Thibodeaux, a 30-something man with a flinty look, delivers a secular sermon about the crisis he sees in Cajun music and life - an aging population, a fading French language, and the dwindling base of clubs and honky tonks where, for generations, working people went to dance away their blues.

“If you’re not living your culture, you’re killing your culture. And there is no in between!,” Thibodeaux shouts. It’s intense, and if that’s a warning, then the rest of the movie is a celebration of Cajun life in modern times that suggests that the fire still burns, even if some of it is smoldering underground.

In the interview presented here, Jeremey and Abby are joined by lifelong Cajun musician Wilson Savoy for a fascinating conversation about the passion of young people to renew their distinct regional heritage in the face of relentless homogenization of the American landscape by mass market brands and foodways and music programming. I’m a champion of Louisiana music, influenced by several trips to the prairies and bayous that stretch west from New Orleans to Beaumont, TX. I like to say it’s the most regional region I’ve ever visited in the United States, mostly because the French language, brought there 250 years ago by the Acadian people evicted from Nova Scotia, is so surprising and integral to the area’s flavor of life. Nowhere have I ever seen a place where music, food, dancing and community are so integrated, but there’s no doubt that like the vast Louisiana wetlands along the Gulf Coast, the culture is being diluted and inundated by a rising tide of, well, everything else.

“I think it’s huge,” says Wilson Savoy about the potential impact of Roots Of Fire, which is now out streaming on Apple TV and Amazon Prime. “It’s exactly what Cajun culture needed. I think this is one of the stepping stones of promoting the music and giving it a huge shot in the arm that I think is much needed. A lot of people in the country don't even don't even know that this exists. We travel all over the world, and we're still meeting people who don't even know what the accordion is.”

Wilson couldn’t be more connected to Cajun heritage. He’s a son of Marc and Ann Savoy (pronounced sav-WAH), lifelong musicians and culture-keepers. Their Savoy Music Center in Eunice, LA is a beacon for traditional regional music and a site for decades of community jam sessions. Wilson himself plays accordion in The Pine Leaf Boys, a band he formed in 2005 that tours the nation more than a lot of Cajun outfits. He and his brother Joel, a fiddler, songwriter and record producer, both have prominent roles in the film’s performances and commentary, and the filmmakers credit Wilson with opening a lot of doors and building trust over years of visits to the area. (The Lavois have moved to New Orleans in the meantime.)

A pivotal scene in Roots of Fire takes the audience deep into the mysterious traditions of rural Mardis Gras.

Wilson also plays a huge role in perhaps the most remarkable and unprecedented aspect of Roots of Fire, which is the intimate and astonishing portrait of a Mardis Gras courir or run. This rural celebration consists of a long day of costuming, drinking, carousing and traveling, on foot and horseback, around the community. It’s rooted in French history and has layers of symbolism and group dynamics that can seem jarring to outsiders. And it’s rarely depicted on video, but the Lavois earned enough trust to film, with an important condition, as told by Abby: “When Joel (Savoy) said that we can come and shoot it, he said, you have to be in costume. You have to be fully decked out. We have turned away Discovery Channel and CNN” because the crews wouldn’t immerse themselves in the rituals and rigors of the day. This is a particularly interesting aspect of this interview.

Another focus of the film is the more progressive band Feufollet, which for years has blended creative songwriting and traditional concepts through the vocal and instrumental front line of Kelli Jones and Chris Stafford. Tragically, just as the film was rolling out to streaming audiences, on May 2, Stafford was killed in an auto accident in Lafayette. He was just 36 years old and a star of the scene who’d been playing with the Feufollet project since before his teens. "Chris was always a kind soul and just a wonderful human if I’ve ever known one (not to mention the most amazing musician I’ve ever met)," Wilson Savoy wrote in tribute to his friend. “We are all in disbelief and shock, feeling like I awoke to the wrong altered universe this morning."

“Without (Chris), there would be no Roots of Fire,” wrote Jeremey Lavoi on the film’s Facebook page. “His version of “Parlez-nous a boire” included with an issue of the Oxford American in 2013 is the inflection point for us. It sparked all of this. Feufollet was the first band we met, the first band we recorded in San Francisco…Our hearts go out to all of Chris’s loved ones in Lafayette, and around the world.”

So bear in mind that our recorded conversation took place well before this awful news. The film will serve as a eulogy for Stafford, but not at all for Cajun music, which clearly has many champions, many fans, and a sound that gets in your bones and will not leave you alone.

Chris Stafford, a key figure in Roots of Fire, was killed on May 2 in an accident, leaving a void in the Cajun music community.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org