Photo by Robin May
As Zachary Richard prepares an epic, multi-media celebration of the Acadians’ arrival in Louisiana 250 years ago, a younger generation of Cajun masters, Feufollet, sets sail for a new musical shore.
Most people know Zachary Richard as a songbird. Romantic waltzes, revolutionary anthems, pop novelty songs and historic ballads in French and English fill his canon of more than 20 albums and books of poetry. Film aficionados know him as the producer of an award-winning documentary, Against the Tide: The History of the Acadian People. Richard has worked to implant the French language in the minds of school children through the Louisiana French
Immersion program. For 45 years he has thundered and crooned for the preservation of the culture and especially the language that is at the soul of what it means to be a Cajun.
This month, Richard will bring all his impresario powers to tell the story of the Acadians once again, in a performance that will be musical, theatrical and visual. “It’s going to be a cross between Cirque du Soleil and Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain,” says Richard.
Attakapas, the Cajun Story is the history of the Acadian people, presented as a two-act play. Richard will perform the role of balladeer, singing a song cycle of 17 original works. “I’m going to tell the story in the grand Acadian Louisiana tradition of storytellers,” he says. Which means humor infused history.
Located in the intimate Moncus Theater at the Acadiana Center for the Arts, the visual impact of the story will be a multimedia son et lumière. The images are from various sources: video re-enactment of the Grand Dérangement (the expulsion of the Acadians from Nova Scotia), as well as dance hall scenes and landscapes. There are also both archival still images and those supplied by photographer Philip Gould and artists Robert Dafford and Melissa Bonin. The soundscape is created by longtime Richard collaborator David Torkanowsky; Francis Covan will come in on fiddle.
The first act of the play, all in French with English subtitles, begins in 1632. French colonists, impoverished by years of religious wars between Protestants and Catholics, depart from northeast France for a better life in New France. “Three hundred people all lived together in the same place in France,” says Richard. “They were probably all first cousins,” he laughs. “Ardoin, Arceneaux, Boudreaux, Babineaux, Brasseaux, Comeau, Cormier ... Boat-loaded to America, they became a distinctive society.”
With very few women aboard, the colonists became reliant on their friendship with the native Americans both as teachers and wives — until the priests banned the unions — to build families to farm the salt marshes they reclaimed from the sea.
“The first Acadian social club was called L’Ordre du Bontemps,” Richard relates. “A founding member was Membertou, chief of the Mi’qmas. Everyone took turns cooking for the company.” Sound familiar?
Act 2 begins in 1765, with the arrival of Joseph Broussard (Beausoleil) with a contingent of 193 people, who reached New Orleans in February of that year. Robert Dafford’s mural “Arrival of the Acadians” is the visual opening of this part of the story. Every face in Dafford’s mural is a portrait of the founding Acadians. Zachary Richard’s father, Joseph Eddie Richard, posed for the portrait of Pierre Richard, Beausoleil’s first cousin. Two hundred and fifty years ago this month, Beausoleil signed a contract for the Acadian people to raise cattle at Fort Attakapas.
Photo by Robin May
Through 150 years of colonization that ended in the Grand Dérangement in 1755 — when the English expelled the Acadians from their homeland — 10 years of wandering until the first Acadians arrived and settled in Southwest Louisiana in 1765, and another 250 years combatting the suppression of culture and the French language, the Cajun people have maintained their identity. And their joi de vivre. “We do have in this community a joyful spirit,” says Richard.
And it is perhaps that intrinsic joy that is driving Richard as he finalizes his production. “In terms of creativity, he is possessed,” says AcA Executive Director Gerd Wuestemann. “Zachary Richard is at the zenith of his creative life. He has committed artistically, his life to this region, to our people.”
Richard is providing accurate historical information, says Wuestemann, “but showing it to us through an artistic prism.”
“The themes are so huge, so human,” says Richard. “In 1971, on my first trip to New Brunswick, I met Mrs. Leblanc. She looked exactly like my grandmother. Not only is the language the same, she asked me the same questions my grandmother asks me. Here are two separate countries, separate climates, rural, French speaking, Catholic. It’s a fundamental world view.” — Mary Tutwiler
Attakapas, The Cajun Story, March 26 and 27, at the Acadiana Center for the Arts.
(337) 233-7060, acadianacenterforthearts.org
Feufollet’s Two Universes marks a new direction sonically and linguistically for the once traditional Cajun band.
When Steve Riley & The Mamou Playboys released Bayou Ruler in 1998, it was more than just an album. It signaled a distinct change in their music. Though they made previous contemporary moves, this one, with its bilingual content and songs like “Tough Get Going,” brought contemporary music further into their style. Recorded in Los Angeles, it is often hailed as an experimental album. In the process, C.C. Adcock entered as a producer and Barry Ancelet’s liner notes vanished. On Bayou Ruler, The Playboys, once dedicated to traditional music, cut contemporary teeth that would impact an entire generation of musicians and fans. At the same moment, some fans turned away.
Today, Feufollet stands at that same moment. Its release, Two Universes, will undoubtedly gain new fans and, perhaps, alienate old ones. A follow-up to En Couleurs, itself a very progressive disc, Two Universes explores new trails for the Cajun band whose traditional records were all in French. With its release, it could be argued Feufollet is no longer a Cajun band. In discussion of the record, Feufollet members throw around a few terms to describe the music they now play. Americana is one label, Cajun often isn’t. After all, the band now features a keyboardist, Andrew Toups, adding what accordionist Chris Stafford calls an atmospheric touch. The album, recorded in Austin, also has more English than French songs.
Nearly two decades ago, it was a far different Feufollet. Original members were in elementary and middle school when they first started, but quickly gained footing in a scene dominated by adults. Originally staffed completely by French Immersion students, the early line on the band wasn’t hyperbole: This was a sneak peek at the next generation of the genre. Since then, the band cut five full albums, earned a Grammy nomination for En Couleurs and received glowing reviews in far flung media outlets. When they weren’t resurrecting old Cajun gems, they were creating like-minded new ones. They’ve erased musical barriers before: En Couleurs featured color-themed ethereal interludes consisting of deconstructed pieces of their songs. Then, on The Color Sessions EP, Feufollet swapped cover duties with Brass Bed, an indie rock band, and created a version of the Flaming Lips — had the Oklahoma band come out of Breaux Bridge. This stylistic hybridization pales in comparison to the overall direction change awaiting listeners on Two Universes.
Two Universes divides into solid alternative country as sung by newcomer Kelli Jones-Savoy (singer and songwriter) and a vintage-themed indie rock as sung by Stafford. Out of its 11 cuts, only one can be described as a Cajun song, one is modernized swamp pop, three are best categorized in broad strokes as mellow indie rock with an Elvis Costello bend, and six have a sound that is Americana via alt country. Only four are in French, once their language of choice. Aside from the interludes on En Couleurs and their adventurous live show, this is Feufollet in an entirely new place. Cow Island Hop may have incorporated Americana elements, but this is a complete reversal: an Americana or indie record with slight Cajun touches.
On tracks like “Tired of Your Tears,” the fiddles and accordions linger as mere reminders of Feufollet’s past. Instead, the focus is on new honky-tonk sounds. Jones-Savoy has a voice akin to Lucinda Williams — strong, earnest, without the twang of someone trying to sell her country-ness — but a bit prettier. On “Hole in my Heart,” she shows her prowess easily translates to French.
“Know What’s Next,” a Stafford song, couldn’t be a bigger contradiction as it is anything but predictable. With its ethereal keys, smears of retro rock, hints of Americana and completely elsewhere vibe, it’s a long distance phone call to Cow Island. Picking this cut or others like it (such as the title track and “Early Dawn”) out of a lineup would be a rigorous task for even a longtime Feufollet fan. The once all-French band obliges its lyrical lineage with “Cette Fois,” “Pris Dans la Vie Farouche” and “Des Questions sans Réponses,” where alt country meets Cajun French.
At some point after Feufollet’s debut, Marc Savoy sat down and interviewed himself for his Savoy Music Center’s website. For the very opinionated master accordionist, it was an attempt to forgo questions from journalists and make a few points. One of the most profound was the thought that Cajun music and culture was burdened by what he called an “acute cuteness … this ‘cutesy-cutesy’ infatuation with children and babies performing Cajun music.” Speaking idiomatically, he warned not to buy a typewriter before learning to spell.
Cajun culture had cast a spotlight on perceived wunderkinds: Hunter Hayes was peeking over an accordion at shopping malls, restaurants, festivals and the “Rendezvous des Cajuns” before he could even spell his own name. It’s likely Hayes, who knew the songs but didn’t know what they meant, is what fired up Savoy. It would have been almost automatic to lump Feufollet in with the cute offenders or dismiss the band as a marketing attempt. Today, Hayes rides high atop the country charts but isn’t a purveyor of Cajun music. Feufollet likewise has grown out of its cute stage and into a band that — borrowing Savoy’s idiom — can spell, type and put the letter in the mail.
Fiddler Chris Segura, who spent time listening to jam sessions from the floor of the Music Center, doesn’t feel Savoy’s lament was directed at them. “We weren’t imitating sounds while we were singing. We knew what we were singing about. Chris [Stafford] and Ashley [Hayes, a former member] were writing songs in French. I don’t feel like that card was ever really directed at us. Maybe at the time we didn’t realize how special that was. But now, that’s really cool that we had the opportunity to do that.”
Original member Stafford agrees with Segura, pegging the band’s appeal to respect for the music it played, not just their age. “We rediscovered really old music that people weren’t doing and [dug] back into the tradition. I felt like we transcended the fact that we were kids. Obviously, we were kids, but a lot of people didn’t care.”
As they’ve grown older, the cuteness has grown off and that’s fine with them. In a way, their age distracted from their music. Occasionally, fans tell them how they remember seeing them perform as kids.
“It’s nice to not hear that anymore,” says Stafford. “It always kinda felt like, ‘What you took away from our performance was we were young?’ Whereas now people are like y’all sounded great, y’all are really tight, I like your songs, I like your voice, whatever.”
When Two Universes hits nationwide, aided by the Sony networking connections of Feufollet label 30 Tigers, it will offer a new take on Cajun music. Or maybe not. Stafford and Segura both don’t consider themselves to be in a Cajun band anymore. Instead, they can’t agree on what it is but agree it’s a more cohesive sound than earlier releases. Cow Island Hop, for example, featured Cajun traditionals and Parisian blues. This one, Stafford says, is more unified, sonically and cohesively, and not splattered in styles and sounds, noting “… which was cool, that they [previous records] had a lot of variety. But I find that this one will be a little more … I guess, a singular statement.”
Arriving at this sound is something of a reversal of the normal process for young people discovering music. Most people discover roots music as they grow older, moving away from rock or mainstream sounds they originally enjoyed into secluded sounds as they are exposed to new things in college. Feufollet started there then ventured outward.
“The main thing for us is we’d like to make music that we find exciting. It’s exciting to us; hopefully it will be exciting to other people,” says Stafford. At the same time, Feufollet provides a soundtrack for dancers that’s also appreciated by those who don’t, can’t or won’t dance. Calling it universally appealing Cajun music, Stafford says, “That’s not necessarily consciously making an effort to be different than other Cajun bands. It just kinda comes out that way. ... If we are playing all this stuff that people can’t dance to, it really doesn’t serve us well. So, we try to bridge the gap.”
In a Dirty Linen piece defending The Mamou Playboys’ shift in style and bilingual content, David Greely, the band’s key songwriter, complained that while audiences hung on the band’s every word, “They don’t understand a single one of them ... And it frustrates me a little bit ... I wish that I was communicating with those people.”
Feufollet’s key songwriters Stafford and Jones-Savoy — Kelli Jones-Savoy is married to Marc Savoy’s son, Joel — echo the thoughts of their predecessor. This album’s heavy English content has a similar course as Bayou Ruler. Though quick to reassure fans the band is not abandoning the language, Stafford points out Two Universes, with only four songs in French, is aiming big, and being in English helps set the sights. (Feufollet’s live set remains half French and half English.)
“It’s not to any way say that the language is not an important aspect of the culture, but I feel that we did that so, so long ... I don’t feel like anybody could say that we are abandoning it or shunning it,” says Stafford. “… You can really get into a territory where it’s like, ‘Are you a musician or a cultural preservationist?’ I think in a lot of ways we had a preservationist mentality. Now, I feel whatever is musically inspiring to us first is most important.”
He brings up a valid and often overlooked point: Though this is the heart of French Louisiana, French is very much a minority language, taking a far second place to English. Across the country, where the record hopes to land, the French speaking audience is far, far smaller. “People don’t know what you are saying. To me, I think it is important that people know what you are singing about. Otherwise, it’s just music to dance to, which is fine, which is great,” says Stafford. “I still love to play for crowds, but I think we have the capability to write interesting music that’s in English and that people could potentially understand and resonate with the meaning. To not do that for fear of not singing in French I think is a silly thing to do. Why not do it if you can?” With such monumental changes, it begs the question: With Feufollet all grown up, have they entered their mid-life crisis? Is the band outgrowing its roots? What will it become now that it has evolved from its cuteness and is out on its own, making its own choices un-tethered by traditions?
“I wouldn’t call it an identity crisis, but we change as people, which is bound to happen because we started as very young kids,” says Stafford. “We are more exposed to different types of music that we like. ... We want to make music that reflects who we are as musicians in this point in our lives. It just so happens that our statement is not necessarily playing straight-forward traditional Cajun dancehall music.”
Going back to Bayou Ruler, eventually Riley and the band got back to traditional music and had its greatest successes, including four Grammy nominations. It’s since become the elder statesman of a music genre that, once carried by true elders, grew increasingly young. Next to BeauSoleil, which forged its own musical path years ago, it sits at the height of Cajun music popularity.
Likewise, Two Universes could be a momentary departure for Feufollet, an in-between phase in its love affair with traditional Cajun music.
Segura leaves fans of the old Feufollet with hope. “I don’t think, individually, we are ever going to stop playing traditional music. We just do what we feel like playing.” — Nick Pittman
Feufollet CD Pre-Release Party
with Steve Riley & The Mamou Playboys Friday, March 6 9 p.m.
Feed N Seed, Lafayette