Cajun Festival Boosts Visibility Of Unique Kind of Folk Music

But some hope growing popularity won't dilute its flavor

Robert Jardell and Pure Cajun are churning out a song called "Sugar Bee" driven by the cadence of a Cajun accordion and violins, while couples dance a two-step. Just a short walk away, you can buy a handmade melodeon - don't call it an accordion.

New Orleans? Well, not quite, but the organizers of the 17th annual Cajun and Bluegrass Music Festival, held Labor Day weekend in Escoheag, R.I., say it's close. "This is the largest annual Cajun festival outside the state of Louisiana," says Bernie Zawacki, brother of Franklin Zawacki, who founded the event.

It may be Cajun, but the event seems to have a slightly Yankee flavor to it. At a catering tent underneath a hand-painted sign that says "Bourbon Street Blackeners," this reporter asks "Cajuns" who look suspiciously like East Coast college students where they learned the secrets of Cajun cooking. "Actually, we're all culinary majors at Johnson and Wales, in Providence," admits David Ickowitz.

Over the last 17 years the festival has become a significant landmark on the Cajun music scene, even if most of the couples doing the Cajun waltzes seem to be from Cambridge, Mass.

Franklin Zawacki, the festival's founder, says that the music has come a long way from near obscurity in Rhode Island.

"People here didn't know what Cajun was at the beginning - they called it 'Cay-JOON.' " But the music caught on - thanks in part to the annual festival - and now thousands of people who know how to pronounce "Cajun" correctly show up every year for the three-day event, which includes cuisine like jambalaya and alligator.

Incorporating percussion instruments such as triangles, spoons, and washboards, the music has lyrics sung in Cajun French dialect, which makes it hard for musicians to cross over into the American mainstream. Festivals like the one here are still the main way for Cajun musicians to take their music - which originated in south Louisiana dance halls in the 1880s - to a wider audience.

Most of the current Cajun performers trace their musical beginnings back to Dewey Balfa, a Cajun fiddler who became prominent on the circuit during the 1960s folk-music revival. DL Menard is the current elder statesman of Cajun music, with up-and-coming bands including Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys and Geno Delafose.

"Our music is just a niche in the folk realm - it's not even as popular as bluegrass," explains Larry Miller, a former Louisiana math and science teacher with Cajun roots who decided to become a melodeon-maker nearly 10 years ago. "We're not looking for a popularity blowout or anything, because when that happens, the music will take on all the commercial trappings that will destroy its real flavor."

But there is little reason for Miller to worry - selling 5,000 to 10,000 copies of an album is considered a good run. Cajun music is a small enterprise, with many bands selling their music retail-direct while performing live on the Cajun circuit, which stretches as far as Japan and Europe.

But turning real Cajun into bona fide pop art is a hard trick. Putting the music to a rock-and-roll beat or singing the lyrics in English rarely works, says Steve Riley of the Mamou Playboys. "The French language gives a certain rhythm to the music. It wouldn't sound right in English."

The music itself has now become a way of preserving the Cajun language and culture, which is slowly assimilating into mainstream America. Most Cajun bands cross over to country music when going in search of hits, says Riley. But, he says, "I don't want to go the country route."

The challenge for musicians like Riley is to let their music grow without changing its essential character.

"You need to keep a balance between doing new things with the music and keeping it close to its roots," he says.

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