Years ago, a young musician on his way to play the Blue Moon Saloon sent out a bio that mentioned how his time spent in Louisiana influenced him. The story went that he was able to soak up some of its culture — he may have even used “joie de vivre,” but maybe not — and pour it into his music. There were some very slight allusions to Cajun culture. Intrigued, I pressed him on the subject via e-mail. Turns out he did so by spending a couple weeks a summer at his cousins’ house in my hometown, Kentwood.
My hometown is many things, such as the crossroads of the best fried catfish and chicken and dumplings (or chicken ‘n’ dumplins as it were) in the world and the hometown of a certain pop star who was at her own Crossroads. However, a bastion of Cajun — or even Louisiana — culture it is not. A few years later, during the runoff for the first Cajun/Zydeco Grammy award, Lisa Haley’s King Cake competed with legit Louisiana roots musicians like the Lost Bayou Ramblers, Geno Delafose and others to represent Acadiana culture via music.
Not to say Haley’s was a bad record — oh wait, it was — but it was as much Cajun or zydeco as Chinese crawfish. The title cut, a song about New Orleans, contains this gem: “One side is a river, the other is a lake/Meet me in the middle and we’ll eat king cake.” For some reason, the more recent song “Motor Boating” comes to mind when I think back on Haley’s work. Yeah, it was that bad. Oh, but we shouldn’t disparage her, because you know, she has Louisiana roots.
For reasons like these, we actually have things like the certified Cajun logo. You’ve seen it on your favorite jar of roux — and you know you have used jarred roux. Simply enough, it lets buyers know the product they are about to base Sunday dinner off of wasn’t made in Milwaukee. The logo is such serious business: You actually have to apply to use it. It may or may not require a blood test. Probably not, but that might not be a bad idea. But even if it did, it could still possibly be used by Melody Parker, a San Francisco artist who recently released Archipelago.
Way up high in her bio — and in the e-mail I received imploring me to review her record — it states that her father was raised in Cajun Country (which may or may not mean Fort Polk). Her mother hails from the Philippines, with which it says she connects via poverty and dance. Um, okay.
Instead of sounding remotely like a certified Cajun product, Archipelago is like viewing a different planet through a world music kaleidoscope powered by electronic snippets and various instruments, helmed vocally by her sometimes robotic solo version of the Andrews Sisters. There’s the feel of super busy and frenetic French pop — as in from France — but sung in English. More subdued numbers like “Upon the Dune” display moving cello arrangements. Her one-sheet says “Bold as the Bayous Heave” and points to the Cajun-Philippines connection, as she sings of stilt legs (elevated houses perhaps?) and floods. In all honesty, it might have been a good track as it is well written in a poetic way but can’t be taken seriously for its pop via zany noise delivery.
This is all dandy if you are into that kind of stuff. Hands down, it has to be the most unique record that has arrived in my mailbox possibly ever. All at once it is both anti-pop and pop. You don’t often see accordion, vibraphone and cello credits in the same liner notes. Maybe I am missing the appeal, as Parker explains on “Love,” that it is “gibberish understood by the dim and witty.”
Ultimately, I can’t get around the promised cultural appropriation that doesn’t happen here. Would avoiding the weird stretch to connect what she does on Archipelago with what goes on here, south of I-10, gained her a positive review? Nah, but it didn’t help.
Instead, I can’t help but think about Neutral Milk Hotel. Here’s a band started in Louisiana (Ruston counts as Louisiana, right?) and that even named a record after Avery Island, but you don’t see that in any of the press about them.
Still, I realize that musicians will make the music they want to make. It will be labeled whatever label they want to label it. Lisa Haley will keep calling herself the most joyful Cajun/zydeco artist on tour today but hopefully won’t be up for another Grammy. Louisiana culture and music will be appropriated and misappropriated as they see fit, shoehorning it into an ill-fitting vessel without realizing that some worlds just aren’t meant to be brought together.
And, whoever has the job of reviewing the applications for the certified Cajun logo will have more job security than anyone I know.