Ragin’ Cajuns

BeauSoleil avec Michael Doucet keeps Cajun music alive and kickin'.

When Michael Doucet performs on stage with BeauSoleil, fiddling wildly while the guitar, accordion, bass and drums burn behind him and thousands of audience members dance ecstatically in front, he must be struck sometimes by the irony of it all.

Doucet’s ancestors were among the French Canadians of Nova Scotia (then called Acadia) who were forcibly evicted from their homes and deported about 200 years ago. Some went to France, others to the French West Indies, but a large number of them ended up in the flatlands of southwest Louisiana, where the term “Acadian” was quickly shortened to “Cajun,” and the refugees found themselves in a position familiar to immigrant ethnic groups everywhere—that of unwanted outsiders.

A hundred miles away to the east, New Orleans was already a growing city where people of wildly diverse cultures and races were quickly finding ways to live and work together in relative harmony. But out in the country, where the Cajuns settled, the host culture wasn’t quite so hospitable.

That situation did not change much over time.

Talking on the phone from his Louisiana home, Doucet recalls that during his childhood in the 1950s, there wasn’t really any such thing as “Cajun pride.” In fact, as recently as 100 years ago, it wasn’t uncommon for Cajun children to be physically punished when caught speaking French in school. Even in the late 20th century, some Louisianans still looked down on Cajun culture.

As a young man in the 1970s, Doucet was given a grant by the National Endowment for the Arts to play traditional Cajun music for children in Louisiana’s elementary schools; but he ran into resistance, he says, “from some of the school principals, who refused to let us play because of what the music represented—the Cajun archetype. They wanted the kids to become Americanized, and I don’t blame them. They were hoping to get these kids assimilated into American culture, finally, after 200 years.”

Not all Cajuns felt the same way, though.

“Some didn’t buy into it,” Doucet says. “They kept their old culture. That’s the way they did things, and it worked.”

Their stubbornness finally paid off, in a sense, in the 1980s.

“Before 1980, there was no such thing as a ‘Cajun’ restaurant,” he says. “We had restaurants, of course, but to us, they were just seafood places or steakhouses.”

Doucet credits the pioneering TV chef Paul Prudhomme with bringing Cajun culture into the national spotlight with his cooking programs. He says the Cajun craze took off and became a commodity.

“We had a lot of born-again Cajuns,” he says, chuckling.

By this point, Doucet was already deeply involved in both the preservation and the expansion of traditional Cajun music. He had grown up in a very musical family, playing guitar, drums and trumpet. But at 18 he came to a realization: If something wasn’t done soon, the music he had heard growing up—the traditional reels and waltzes and the songs of French Louisiana—was going to disappear as its most venerable and knowledgeable practitioners died.

He studied the fiddle styles of such artists as Dennis McGee and Canray Fontenot and delved deep into the music’s history. He picked apart the influences and the individual elements of Cajun music, and then studied those individually, learning everything he could about them separately as a way of understanding the varied gumbo that, over the centuries, Cajun music had become. And it was around this point that he founded BeauSoleil, a band he named after a famous Acadian resistance leader who helped to establish some of the early settlements in southwestern Louisiana.

Doucet has come a long way since the days of trying to convince elementary school principals to let him play for their students. Today, he and BeauSoleil are often the headlining attraction at major folk festivals, and they’ve played all over Europe and at Carnegie Hall. In 1998, the group won a Grammy award for Best Traditional Folk Album.

Doucet is still s omething of an educator at heart, though. And there’s an interesting contradiction at the center of Doucet’s agenda: He’s fiercely proud of his Cajun roots, but at the same time, he is not a “traditionalist” in any standard sense of the term.

“I can’t look at this like I’m a farmer and I was born in 1890, because I’m not,” he says. “I was born in 1951, and we were the last generation of people who could look before them and see the culture before it got totally enraptured by television, by the oil boom.

“The culture is always shedding its skin. I look at it like a serpent—the culture is continuing to evolve. For me, I try to encompass it all—what came way before I was born, and what is current.”

BeauSoleil is, in fact, known for its promiscuous blending of musical styles and influences. Listen closely to the band’s keening French love songs and raucous dance tunes, and you’ll hear hints of everything from blues and old-timey fiddle music to rock ‘n’ roll and Caribbean inflections.

This is all exactly as it should be, declares Doucet.

“Look at the roots of Cajun music,” he says. “Louisiana is where jazz was born. You’ve got the blues, swing, rock ‘n’ roll, the Afro-Caribbean influence. Traditional music doesn’t just come out of the air. It’s influenced by what’s accepted at the time.”

Asked why he thinks Cajun music has become so popular in recent years, Doucet recalls a conversation he had once with a man who had just attended a BeauSoleil concert for the first time. “I didn’t understand a word you said tonight,” the man told Doucet, “but then again, I don’t understand Italian, and I still love opera.”

Doucet says that this reaction is typical.

“From my personal experience, Cajun music is something that people feel like they’ve heard all their lives,” he says.

As a matter of fact, he adds, they have.

“This is American music,” he says. “It’s not made in France or Acadia. Its roots are here. People everywhere feel akin to it. It’s unruly pioneer music. It says, ‘Let’s have a good time here in the New World.’ “

One defining feature of Cajun music is the fact that it is explicitly designed for dancing. The fast tunes are mostly two-steps; the slow tunes are almost invariably waltzes. Is it strange playing dance music in a concert hall?

Doucet laughs. "Only when people don’t dance."