The music thrives at Lafayette’s Festivals Acadiens
by ROBERT BUCKMAN
It is a huge, outdoor, Louisiana-style party that not only welcomes crashers but beckons them.
For the 29th consecutive September, Lafayette’s Girard Park will be burgeoning with the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of Acadian (aka Cajun) culture the weekend of Sept. 16-18, an adieu-to-summer party that only the Cajuns could throw.
It is the Festivals Acadiens, plural because it began back in the ’70s as three separate festivals: the Cajun Music Festival, the Bayou Food Festival and the Native Arts and Crafts Show. In 1977 they were merged into one event on the final weekend before the autumn equinox.
“This festival is essentially a self-celebration,” says Barry Jean Ancelet, a French professor at the University of Louisiana Lafayette, adjacent to the park, and the country’s leading scholar of Cajun and Creole culture. “It was designed to help Cajuns explore and celebrate their own culture, but it ended up being a way for outsiders to have an encounter with Cajun culture in a concentrated dose. If 20,000 Cajuns are getting together for a celebration, you can learn a lot.”
Attendance has grown steadily over the years, much of it by word of mouth. Gerald Breaux, executive director of the Lafayette Convention and Visitors Commission, says the “best guess is somewhere to the tune of 150,000. It’s hard to say, because it’s a three-day event and it’s so spread out.”
Moreover, there are no gate receipts to count; this francophone fête is free.
Attendance is only loosely keyed to the weather. The worst turnout in recent years, not surprisingly, was in 2001, when the festivals came just a week after the 9-11 terrorist attacks.
“There was a somber mood in Lafayette and the whole country,” Breaux recalls. “People just didn’t feel like partying.”
Ancelet insists he doesn’t dwell on attendance figures.
“I know that the media is interested in saying that something is ‘bigger and better.’ My hope is that it’s just as good as it always is,” he says. “I don’t see any reason to be constantly expanding artificially. We’re only in competition with ourselves.”
Breaux says visitors have “ranged from throughout the U.S.,” but also from France, Belgium and French-speaking Canada, the ancient homeland of the Acadians, deported by the British from Nova Scotia in the 18th century.
This year’s Festivals Acadiens, in fact, will observe the 250th anniversary of what the Cajuns still call “Le Grand Dérangement,” or the Great Displacement.
The crafts festival, renamed the Louisiana Crafts Fair three years ago, is now sponsored by the Louisiana Crafts Guild. This year it will be co-located with the music festival in the park after a hiatus for the last couple of years to a downtown museum. Before, it was at the park but farther from the music stage.
“There will be traditional demonstrations by weavers, blacksmiths, a wood-turner, some glass-blowers and a lot of people demonstrating contemporary crafts, like jewelry,” said Pat Juneau, an artist from nearby Scott, who is in charge of this year’s crafts festival. “I’ll do metal sculpture, and there are lots and lots of potters, including some really well-known ones like David Wortman of Duson and Tanya Schultz Nehrbass of Grand Coteau. We have a guy who makes great pitchforks and rakes out of oak. We’re trying to get alligator-skinning back, but it’s costly.”
The Jaycees-sponsored music festival is by far the biggest draw every year. This year there are slots for 12 Cajun and zydeco bands, which get cranked up on Friday evening, play all day and into the night on Saturday and finally wrap up when the sun teases the horizon on Sunday afternoon.
“It’s really developed as one of the premier Louisiana festivals, like Jazz Fest (in New Orleans in May) and, of course, Mardi Gras,” says Breaux. “Most of the rest are harvest festivals, like the Rice Festival in Crowley and the Sugar Festival in New Iberia, but ours is a cultural festival.”
Ancelet explained that the idea for Festivals Acadiens was the inspiration of the late Cajun fiddler Dewey Balfa, whose performance at the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island in 1964 began to kindle national interest in this fast-disappearing Cajun-Creole subculture.
Interest resurfaced as well in Louisiana, where for generations Cajun children had been prohibited from speaking French in school. In 1968, the Louisiana Legislature established the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL) to promote preservation of the culture, and it was one of the early sponsors of the music festival.
“In 1974 we got the idea to put together a concert that would pay tribute to Cajun-Creole music and its cultural significance,” Ancelet relates. “Dewey Balfa saw the value of doing it here.
“Right after Dewey died (in 1993), we had the unusual sensation of doing a festival without him. It was hard to imagine how we would do it. But the next year his daughter, Christine, took up the family banner and she’s performed every year since.”
Christine Balfa’s group, Balfa Toujours, will be on the bill this year as well, Ancelet says, as will such regular favorites as Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, Walter Mouton and the Scott Playboys, Jambalaya and the Savoy Family. Younger groups are frequently given debuts.
“We’re in tune with what’s going on in the world of Cajun music and what needs to be put on,” Ancelet said, saying bands rarely eschew an invitation to appear at Festivals Acadiens, an Ed Sullivan-like springboard to Cajun stardom. “We’ve had situations when bands have been unable to appear because something else was happening, but a lot of bands tell us they don’t schedule anything else (for Festivals weekend) just in case.”
Girard Park during the festivals resembles a Cajun Woodstock. The more dedicated festival goers erect nylon shelters and set up barbecue grills, listening to the succession of bands hour after hour. The smell of grilling meat mingles with the smell of traditional Cajun food, such as jambalaya, red beans and rice and fried shrimp and alligator, sold by about a dozen local restaurants that set up Army-like field kitchens under the mammoth, moss-festooned live oaks. Perennial favorites, as at any Louisiana festival, include piping-hot cracklins right out of the cauldron. Of course, beer is sold in prodigious quantities.
Many years, the weather has been idyllic, but neither sweat-evoking humidity, nor the occasional equinoxical thunderstorms that sometimes short out the speakers, seems to dampen spirits. When it is dry, dust swirls upwards from hundreds of pairs of dancing feet in front of the stage, and after a rain, dancers return to stomp in the mud, unfazed.
“One of the things I’ve noticed over the years is that Festivals Acadiens, like Cajun music itself, is driven by the tension between innovation and conservation,” Ancelet noted. “The festivals are inward-turned, to do the kinds of things that any culture needs to do from time to time, to take stock of itself, to see who’s who and who’s doing what and where the culture is headed. The bands that are selected to perform at Festivals Acadiens each year are based on that idea, of who’s moving in a new direction and who’s preserving the past.”
In the former category, he says, are musicians including Steve Riley, Wayne Toups and Richard LeBoeuf, “who are pushing the edge.” In the latter category are Jesse Lege, Bois-Sec Ardoin and Balfa Toujours, a six-member band which, besides vocalist Cristine Balfa, includes her husband, Dirk Powell, who sings and plays accordion; and her sister, Nelba Balfa Henderson, who sings and plays triangle.
“I was 6 years old when they held the first festival,” recalls Balfa, who lives in St. Martinville. “After my dad died, Dirk, Nelba and I began writing songs to deal with our grief. My husband has been a musician since he was 8, but it was the first time my sister and I had ever written a song. We just thought it would be nice to do a CD in honor of our father. We had no idea we’d play music full-time and go on to record six CDs.”
That first commemorative CD, “Pop, Tu Me Parle Toujours” (“Pop, You Always Speak To Me”), became a local classic.
“Performing at our first Festivals Acadiens in 1993 meant a lot to us,” she adds. “It was an honor they asked us to play because of my father’s association with the (music) festival.”
Breaux says that hotel occupancy in Lafayette during Festivals Acadiens is “almost 100 percent” of the city’s 5,000 rooms, but added that “the availability is still there up to a week or two before” the festivals.
Of the increasing number of non-Cajuns who come to experience the festivals, Ancelet says, “We’re delighted to have them, and they might get sucked into a conversation or a dance they might not otherwise have had.” •