The Bite is Back!

No more ‘alligator' tears,
and the rise of Southwest Louisiana

By Joel Okida

 

Alligator_l.jpg

At a celebration in Los Angeles a few months ago, the day before the Grammys, an invited audience bore witness to both a celebration and proclamation about the state of a state. A state called Louisiana. After a score of years where the words hurricanes, devastation, and disaster area were synonymous with the bayou state, a group of musicians, business people, and travel representatives, showcasing all things Louisiana, were in town to assure the rest of us that they are back.

 

In the music world, we are all in debt to this region that has been the birthplace or the nurturing nest for many genres of music that are considered true slices of Americana. If America, as a whole, is one of the great melting pots of diverse peoples, then Louisiana is the cauldron whereby the disparate natives discovered or mixed the ingredients for jazz, blues, soul, Cajun, zydeco, a little country and all things in between. With the recent nod from the Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (bestowers of The Grammys) which implemented a category for Cajun and zydeco music two years ago, the field of musical play in Louisiana, specifically the southwest region, received the formal acknowledgment from the national scene that finally paid the respect that was long overdue.

 

The jazz and blues categories had been in existence for many years, but the unique and influential sounds peculiar to the peoples of southwest Louisiana and the nearby Texas border, principally, Cajun and its close but unique cousin, zydeco, had been overlooked until two years ago. The sounds of jazz, dixieland, be-bop, ragtime and the famous second line march of Mardi Gras were always the recognizable banner sounds of New Orleans and seemingly the entire state. Like the oppressed ancestors of today's southwest Louisiana demographic: Acadians, Africans and mixed-race Creoles, the music, if not the whole culture of the displaced immigrants, was almost forgotten or intentionally buried in the past era of American ‘forced' assimilation. Yes, far and away from the sounds of Bourbon Street, the rural music of the bayous and farming communities evolved separately, often ridiculed, but with no less integrity or intensity. However, away from the bright lights of New Orleans, the publicity was nowhere to be found and for many years, the music was underappreciated in its own state until it found life and acceptance beyond the border. After many decades of performances, mostly unrecognized at the time, from artists such as the Balfa Brothers, Dennis McGee, Clifton Chenier, and later ground breakers, Beausoleil, the art of what is now considered an American music genre, is accepted by the music community at large.

 

At the pre-Grammy event, members of the nominated artists stopped to play a couple of songs and to join in on the party to celebrate the second year of the category. Cajun fiddle player extraordinaire, Michael Doucet, who was nominated for his solo effort, From Now On and also with his pioneering band, Beausoleil, bowed in with two unaccompanied numbers. His bands live recorded performance at last year's Jazz and Heritage Festival would win the coveted award the next day. Steve Riley, another long time performer with his band the Mamou Playboys, who were nominated for their performance, also at last year's Jazz Fest, sat in with Playboy fiddler, David Greeley for two Cajun tunes. The Pine Leaf Boys, young guns on the scene, opened the event with their combination of traditional Cajun and rollicking road house energy exemplified in their honored recording, Homage Au Passé. Although the emphasis was on this genre of music linked by history and ethnicity to the southwest part of Louisiana, surprise guests, from New Orleans, Irma Thomas, Allen Toussaint, Terence Blanchard, and even the Blind Boys of Alabama (whose latest recording, Live in New Orleans was an obvious supportive effort for the city)  joined the celebration to underscore the solidarity that not only was the state on its way back, but the music industry was already paving the way for the next phase of rebuilding its reputation. In fact, the theme that emerged from the celebration was that the state, including New Orleans, was already back. Although the rebuilding process is ongoing, the soul of the city and all the affected coastal areas, southwest LA included, is back, the musical heart is beating and the state wants us to feel it.

 

In Southern California, we've been lucky to have had recent post-Grammy visits from the nominated musicians such as long time Louisiana musical ambassadors, Beausoleil, and several shows from the twice-nominated Pine Leaf Boys, natives of Eunice and Lafayette-adjacent environs. And coming up at the Simi Valley Cajun Festival, this Memorial Day weekend, new kid on the block, Cedric Watson, also a 2008 Grammy nominee for his self-titled recording, hits the stage along with the youthful Cajun band, Feufollet, both products of Lafayette's vibrant music scene. On the Pacific horizon, near the end of June, the Long Beach Bayou Festival merges the representatives of the old guard with the new. Lafayette's own long time favorite, Nathan Williams and the Zydeco Cha-Chas will take the stage along with the Grammy-nominee and veteran Cajun accordionist, Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys. Bringing the heat of the zydeco beat are relative youngsters, Lil' Wayne and Same Ol' Two Step, a band out of Opelousas, and neighboring Texas group, Corey "Lil' Pop" Ledet and His Zydeco Band, who dish up the sauce piquant for dancers and listeners alike. Young Cajun hotshots, Acadien Cajun Band, round out the Louisiana visiting bands whose energetic players hail from around the Southwest area: Basile, Judice, Ossun and Iota.

 

The musicians themselves, tell the story of a culture, a region, and a people that have fought back against the ravages of nature's destruction and the often debacle-ridden government aid that followed. However, the good times continue to roll, no matter the hurdles yet to face. The Louisiana spirit, embodied in their songs, moves us emotionally and very much, physically! Eh toi!

 

Recordings:

Live At The 2008 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (Grammy winner)

Beausoleil & Michael Doucet [MunckMix]

From Now On

Michael Doucet [Smithsonian Folkways Recordings]

Homage Au Passé

Pine Leaf Boys [Lionsgate]

Live At The 2008 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival

Steve Riley & The Mamou Playboys [MunckMix]

 

Cedric Watson

Cedric Watson [Valcour Records]

 

Festivals:

Simi Cajun, Creole Music Festival, May 23 &24

simicajun.org

 

Long Beach Bayou Festival, June 27 & 28

longbeachfestival.homestead.com

 

Joel Okida is a struggling artist, struggling writer, and struggling musician. It occurs to him that life is all about the struggle. Fortunately, he did not take up acting. However, he's not half-bad as a zydeco dancer and the ability to make a mean gumbo and lovely walnut tortes has gotten him by.