Boppin' on the bayou
Cajun and Creole traditions come alive in Louisiana's music, which ranges from jazz to zydeco
NEW ORLEANS — New Orleans oozes music. The rhythms of brass bands and jazz jams flow from its very pores, emerging as a joyful cacophony that fills the famed French Quarter every night.
But if one ventures outside that section's narrow, historic streets, there are other intriguing sounds to be heard - although they take some searching to find.
During a six-day trip organized by the education department of Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame & Museum, a group of 35 travelers did just that. We explored the French Quarter, but also headed to the heart of Cajun country in and around Lafayette.
No matter where one goes in Louisiana, music and dancing are inseparable - and as deeply rooted as the gumbo and touffe recipes that local cooks can recite in their sleep.
Bruce Boyd Raeburn, curator of the William Ransom Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University, notes that New Orleans jazz is dance music instead of concert music - not a sit-down experience.
"[It's] about participating with your body, but also with your soul," he says while playing videos of New Orleans jazz-funeral marches and discussing the archive's lovingly preserved contents.
Barry Ancelet echoes that sentiment. Mr. Ancelet, a professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, hosts "Rendezvous des Cajuns," a live radio show broadcast in French and English each Saturday from the Liberty Theater. It's known as the Grand Ole Opry of Cajun music.
"People often wonder how Cajun culture has survived so long," Ancelet says. Pointing to the dance floor, where couples shuffle in a Cajun waltz or two-step, he adds with a laugh, "It's because we do that!"
There's a difference between Cajun and zydeco music. Incorporating Afro-Caribbean blues and soul influences, zydeco has more syncopation and adds such elements as scraped metal rub boards and piano accordion, as well as the smaller button-style squeezebox known as the Acadian accordion.
Simpler Cajun sounds expanded from fiddles and triangles to include the accordion. Both now incorporate guitars, drums, and some harmonica.
Cajun dancing, like Cajun culture, is considered the province of whites; zydeco is the domain of blacks.
On the dance floors of places such as El Sid O's or Frank's Ranch in Lafayette, however, the issue is not so much the color of your partner, but whether you can handle the syncopated complexity of zydeco moves. It's a lot harder than it looks, but locals are not shy about enticing visitors to give it a whirl.
One aspect of musical culture in both rural Cajun and New Orleans jazz circles is a reverence for age.
At Savoy's Music Center in Eunice, where accordion player Mark Savoy makes the instruments by hand, children play fiddle and guitar alongside their elders during Saturday-morning jam sessions. Children are taught to respect the wisdom of experience, and to absorb music handed down to them in mostly unwritten form.
At the tiny, decrepit French Quarter spot known worldwide as Preservation Hall - home of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band - drummer Gerald French observes, "Living in New Orleans, you can't escape the music. [Rhythm is found] in the way that we walk in New Orleans, in the way that we talk. It's in the slangs ... it's in everything."
Despite the old building's stained, peeling walls, slanted floor, and well-worn musicians' chairs, trumpeter John Brunious says he treasures the space that became Preservation Hall in 1961.
"It's a place where I know we're going to play New Orleans jazz, not something that resembles New Orleans jazz," he says.
Preservation Hall's music starts nightly at 8:30; performances are 35 minutes long, allowing for plenty of turnover in the dim, rather uncomfortable room, which isn't much of a "hall" at all. A crooked sign reads: "Traditional requests: $2; others: $5; The Saints: $10." To hear the band's signature song, "When the Saints Go Marching In," you have to pony up.
Aside from albums, that's the only thing you'll be able to buy; no food or drinks are available, nor is air-conditioning. But Ben Jaffe, whose father, Alan, founded Preservation Hall and the band, says they intentionally avoid changing the ambience. It's just a place for music - and nothing else.
Though music was the focus of this trip, we explored other attractions as well. Acadian Village in Lafayette is a charming folk-life museum of restored 19th-century structures and artifacts.
Not far away is the Acadian Cultural Center. It's one of three centers in the Acadian unit of the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve system, operated by the National Park Service. Cajuns and Creoles were once in danger of losing their cultures; now cultural preservation in southern Louisiana has become as important as architectural preservation is in New Orleans.
To share that culture, each Acadian center has a gift shop that sells locally made instruments such as triangles, slapping spoons, and rub boards, along with sheet music.
In Louisiana, if you're not inspired to make a joyful noise, it's time for your funeral.
And in New Orleans, even funerals are musical events.
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