BREAUX BRIDGE, La. — Every Thursday night, one of the best dance bands in the United States hits the stage of a dance hall in this small community two hours outside New Orleans.
But you probably haven't heard of the band, Beausoleil, or the club, Mulate's Restaurant. And a music fan used to big-city rock clubs would find other differences, too. The audience spans all ages, the instruments are acoustic and the lyrics are in French.
"When we play in places like New York, they say, 'This is exotic music--where'd it come from?' " says Michael Doucet, the leader of Beausoleil. "It came from Louisiana. The United States. This is American music."
But seeing Beausoleil on the stage at Mulate's is an experience you won't find anywhere else in America, and an experience that gets to the heart of Cajun music, a festive, joyous style that can fill a dance floor as fast as any Janet Jackson or Prince tune.
One of this country's oldest, most infectious and least known indigenous musical traditions, Cajun--like its more R&B-oriented offshoot, Zydeco--has influenced popular music.
But lately, Cajun culture itself has become more visible: Cajun cuisine is trendy from New York to Los Angeles, while Cajun territory has served as the backdrop for films like "No Mercy" (which got it completely wrong) and last year's low-budget "Belizaire the Cajun." Musically, Rockin' Dopsie & the Twisters backed Paul Simon on a tune from his "Graceland" album, Buckwheat Zydeco has just recorded one of the first major-label Cajun LPs for Island Records and Rockin' Sidney's "My Toot-Toot" was a Grammy-winning hit.
The music will receive one of its most thorough Los Angeles showcases Saturday and next Sunday, when the Cajun/Zydeco Festival comes to the John Anson Ford Theatre. The festival will include half a dozen Cajun bands, plus dance lessons, Cajun food, and musical workshops conducted by Doucet.
Beausoleil, making its L.A. debut with shows both days, recently released "Bayou Boogie," an invigorating album that incorporates electric guitar and synthesizer.
"The record is traditional, but with a kick," explained Doucet before taking the stage for a recent show at Mulate's. "We play traditional music, but we also throw in all the Louisiana sounds: the swamp sounds, the early Fats Domino sounds, Caribbean sounds, jazz from New Orleans. . . .
"It's just a good dance album," he continued. "And it makes a statement: It says you can add all this stuff and still be traditional. It's like making a gumbo. I can make a simple gumbo, or I can take three days and make a Paul Prudhomme gumbo. This album is just a very highly seasoned and concentrated gumbo."
Beausoleil's new music illustrates the Cajun dichotomy between the old and the new--but then, so does a visit to Michael Doucet's home in Lafayette, the capital of Louisiana's rural "Cajun country." He and his family live in a rustic, wooden, 165-year-old Cajun cottage nestled among the trees outside Lafayette. Doucet bought the house for $100 and restored it himself.
"It's great that America is looking at us now as having a valid music," Doucet said as he sat on his porch last year. "Because until recently, it didn't. You wouldn't even see the word Cajun in New Orleans five years ago. Cajuns were those funny people who lived out by the bayous."
In fact, Cajuns are descendants of the Acadians, who left France in the 17th Century to settle in an idyllic section of Nova Scotia--only to be driven from their land when they tried to remain neutral as the French and English prepared for war in 1755. Half of the 20,000 exiles died, countless families were broken up and the survivors were scattered, but many eventually found their way to southern Louisiana, where they retained their French language and their insular ways.
The Cajuns played the music they remembered: French ballads, story songs, jigs and reels, and other rhythmic fiddle tunes--much of it infused with the sadness of separation. More recently, country music and R&B began to influence the style as well.
Doucet spent years researching this music, tracking down and interviewing the musicians who made the first Cajun recordings in the 1920s. In the '70s he began playing in bands of his own, first the progressive Coteau--"the first cosmic Cajun group"--and then returning to the roots with the acoustic, traditional Beausoleil.
That band has released more than six albums in the past decade. The new LP has surprised observers by selling 6,000 copies in two months, small potatoes by pop standards but an excellent showing for a record of its ilk.
Rockin Sidney's "My Toot-Toot" showed that Cajun music can attract a larger audience--but then, it's a far cry from that novelty tune to Beausoleil's richer music. For his part, Doucet is wary of the hit's effect on his community.
"In a way, it was dangerous for the music to have a contrived hit like 'Toot-Toot.' It's a nice song, but maybe it makes people look for a cheap facsimile of the real thing. It's more accessible, but is that really what we're trying to do? Some of us have to maintain the tradition. There have to be some die-hards and hard-heads here."