LAFAYETTE, LA. — The music of Cajun country, like its food, is immediately engaging in its piquant spiciness, and ultimately satisfying.
Festivals during spring and summer months serve up regional sounds alongside the gumbo and étouffee. And travelers are invited to come join the natives, descendants of French-speaking immigrants and of the African ex-slaves and freemen whom they found on their arrival in Louisiana 250 years ago.
"Our culture is very healthy, probably healthier than it's ever been in the history of us as a people," declares Cajun bandleader Steve Riley during a break from the annual Festival International de Louisiane, one of the largest annual events in Lafayette, La., the undeclared Cajun capital. "It's probably one of the richest cultural pockets in this whole country, or maybe the whole world."
Each April, musical ambassadors from the French-speaking part of that world, along with a few other parts, are invited to join Louisiana-based white Cajun and black Zydeco performers over five days. Since 1987, the event has wrought an annual transformation of this small city that lies 120 miles west of the far more crowded and expensive Jazz & Heritage Festival in New Orleans. (The one in Lafayette is free.)
Maureen Brennan, a local psychologist, has served the festival as past president and as unofficial host on her lakeside property. "This year," she says, "one of my neighbors said, 'Can you put flags on the tops of their tents so we can know where they're from?' " The attraction is particularly strong for artists from French-speaking eastern Canada. The name "Cajun" is derived from "Acadien," the term for settlers who came to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick from western France in the 17th century, only to be expelled at musketpoint by expansionist British in the next century.
Singer/songwriter Lennie Gallant, from Canada's Prince Edward Island, came to believe that he has relatives among the descendants of those Acadiens who found refuge 250 years ago in the bayous and prairies of Louisiana. "After my show here, a Gallant came up and said, 'Hello Cousin, I'm down here!' And he gave me his card, and told me his history," he says. "We seem to look at life in the same way. Somewhere along the line, despite the wanderings and the scorn and ostracization, the Acadien people have learned to find joy in life."
The resurgence of Acadien culture over the last 25 years has been important in both eastern Canada and Louisiana, he says.
Musicians in their 30s and 40s, like Gallant and Steve Riley, have advocated successfully for the establishment of French-immersion schools, which were denied them during their own childhoods. Their efforts have had the pleasant secondary effect of attracting the youngest generation to traditional music - which is sung in French and echoes the ancestral European homeland and the Canadian outpost, as well as other influences (Celtic from the north and African from the south).
Mr. Riley began teaching Cajun accordion to Chris Stafford, son of festival programming director Lisa Stafford, when the boy was 8 and in his second year of the immersion program at the Prairie Elementary public school in Lafayette.
"I started to identify with it because I could understand the lyrics," says Mr. Stafford, now in his late teens. "And then I realized what makes me like [Cajun music] is the feeling and emotion in it."
Under Riley's watchful eye, Stafford went on to learn fiddle and guitar, and then cofounded the group Feufollet, named for the eerie gas that bubbles up from the region's swamps. Feufollet has recorded and performed for audiences of all ages.
"A lot of people appreciated that even though we were younger, we were still interested in traditional music, and that we didn't try to change the music," Stafford says. He appeared at this year's festival with Feufollet, as well as alongside his teacher, Riley, in the band Racines.
In an even broader intergenerational span, 15-year-old vocalist and fiddler Sarah Jayde Castille Williams performed with her fiddle teacher and grandfather, the legendary Hadley Castille, and her uncle, guitarist Blake Castille.
For decades, "Nobody wanted to play Cajun music, or to go see it, because they thought of it as all these old people playing off-key," Sarah Williams points out. But now, "A lot of my friends like to come and watch me. They know this is where they come from, and it's got a good beat, so of course they're gonna dance."
Dancing, authentic or not, accompanied performances of several French-speaking bands from western and northern Africa. Traditional two-steps and waltzes were in evidence for a concert by Geno Delafose. As a child, Mr. Delafose had followed his father, John, into Zydeco, a syncopated musical form that arose among Louisiana blacks in the 1950s. It was a gumbo of melodies and rhythms adapted from white Cajuns and from Creole and blues sources traceable to people of African descent who'd preceded the Acadiens to Louisiana. Adorned in Stetson, starched shirt, tight jeans, and boots (his day job is ranching near Opelousas), Delafose proved a crowd pleaser.
With a tiny paid staff and a thousand volunteers shepherding four dozen acts and an array of workshops, the Festival International is both a tantalizing musical offering and a model of municipal and cultural pride.
"As people who have lived here their entire lives, we don't realize what we have until we don't have it any more," says Jodi Hebert of Louisiana Folk Roots, one of the presenters. "Then people come here from the outside and they want it for themselves."
• Next year's Festival International de Louisiane will be held April 26 to 30. For information on other music festivals, visit: www.jambalayafestival.org, www.swamppopmusicfest.com, and www.cajunfrenchmusic.org.