The Ancient Romans and Greeks had it right when they named this month Aprilis (Latin) and Aphrilis (Greek). Both mean, “to open” – it’s the time of year when flowers bloom, leaves tentatively appear on trees, animals … well, animals procreate (April is sacred to the goddess Venus/Aphrodite, by the way), and we start to leave our homes having been awakened from our annual winter’s nap. It is time to open ourselves to the glory of spring. So, what awaits us sprightly souls?
As South Louisianians have an inherent expertise with how to celebrate (a Ph.D. in Fêtes, perhaps?), it isn’t a shocker that this month is full of festivals. Alas, even though all are worthy (for example, I may have to make it to the Arnaudville Étouffée Festival or Baton Rouge Blues Festival), for this article, I’m focusing on the four largest in April: French Quarter Festival, Pontchatoula Strawberry Festival, Festival International de Louisiane and New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (more commonly known as Jazz Fest.). One thing these festivals have in common is that they’re family-friendly – and what better way to ensure that children are well on their way to a Ph.D. in Fêtes!
[Note: I recommend downloading these festival apps – if available – for iPhones or Androids. They are a great way to schedule your days at the festivals. My only complaint is that I wish the festivals would have them ready much, much sooner.]
French Quarter Festival
While this started out 30 years ago as a local festival, it has now grown so much that more than 574,000 people attended in 2011. That sounds like an intimidating number – one that gives visions of a French Quarter packed with too many people. However, the French Quarter Festival does a great job of spreading the stages throughout the area – along the Mississippi River from the Aquarium of the Americas to the Old U.S. Mint, then into the heart of the French Quarter, including Jackson Square. (I only have one crowd gripe: see “The 411,” below.)
Why do I like this festival so much? The music: Nothing can beat listening to more than 125 acts (this year) on 20 stages surrounded by the graceful historic buildings in the French Quarter, or enjoying the cooling breezes of the Mississippi River. The food: Go with an appetite, as you probably won’t see as many top New Orleans restaurants, caterers and food purveyors (65 as of press time) selling their signature items for the festival’s famous “World’s Largest Jazz Brunch.” Location: The French Quarter. Need I say more?
Date: April 11-14
Location: Throughout the French Quarter, New Orleans
Not one, but three commemorative posters!: To celebrate its 30th anniversary, FQF had three posters designed by artists Simon Hardeveld, Phil Bascle and Tami Curtis.
Do not park or drive in the French Quarter: Between the traffic (caused by closed streets, crowds, those people who parked there earlier than you) and the meter maids, it’s more trouble than it’s worth. Park in the outlying areas and walk in. There is also a shuttle (no service on Thursday) with set hours. Also, biking is a great option.
Thursday is “Locals Lagniappe Day”: OK, you don’t have to be a local to enjoy, but if you’re a resident of our fair city I suggest a long lunch in the French Quarter, or a pressing appointment at the end of the day.
Insider tip: Avoid the walkway between the stage just past (or before, depending on which direction from which you’re coming) the Aquarium of the Americas along the Mississippi River. There is always a human traffic jam that’s hot and annoying. I usually walk around it – I leave the walkway and go into the French Quarter, enjoy some other stages, then return another way to see what is on that stage. Or take the walkway along the river.
Lagniappe tip: Last year my new favorite stage became the one at the Old U.S. Mint. Whoever scheduled that stage did a stellar job creating an eclectic and interesting mix of musical acts. Plus: The entrance to Frenchmen Street is just across the street.
Pontchatoula Strawberry Festival
Even though this year’s official theme is “Celebration of the Strawberry,” it’s safe to say that it’s like that every year. There is a strawberry eating contest, strawberry auction, strawberry dishes, strawberries on the official festival poster … you get the idea. Founded in 1972 as a way to support the area’s strawberry farmers, it has now become one of the largest fundraisers in the state for nonprofits and charitable organizations – when you buy food or drink you’re supporting the group from which you’re buying. And as a community event – albeit, one that has grown to more than 300,000 attending in 2010 – it still prides itself on retaining its small-town flair.
Date: April 12-14
Location: Pontchatoula (aka “Strawberry Capital of the World”)
Main Street style: When was the last time you saw a small-town festival parade? (No, Mardi Gras parades don’t count.) On Saturday at 9:30 a.m., marching bands and floats – including one with the Louisiana Strawberry Festival Queen – take to the main street of Pontchatoula. Egg toss?
Why yes, please!: As well as sack races, strawberry eating contest, a fun run and amusement rides.
Strike up the Band: No festival is complete without music, and this year’s lineup includes a number of crowd-pleasing bands, such as Christian Serpas and Ghost Town.
Did you know?: In 2001, the Louisiana Legislature named the strawberry the state fruit.
Insider tip: Buy a flat of strawberries. Yes, it may seem like a lot, but these strawberries are the best around. You will eat them all before you know it.
Or check out the strawberry auction: Not only is it fun to watch everyone bid on flats, they’re also supporting that farmer (not a bad deal, as bids have been know to go as high as $1,500-$2,000).
Lagniappe tip: Much like the FQF, you don’t want to park at the actual location because of traffic. Park your car in an outlying lot and take the shuttle in. If you are coming from the Southshore, get off Highway 51 (the first Pontchatoula exit), park in one of the festival lots, then get on a shuttle. Last year, I was also told not to get off on Highway 22, nor try to drive down Pontchatoula’s main street. Both solid recommendations!
Festival International De Louisiane
When I look at this festival schedule, it’s almost like I can spin a globe, put my finger on a country and voilà, a musical act from that faraway locale will appear.
While it competes with the first weekend of Jazz Fest, what the Festival Internationale Louisiane lacks in “star power,” it makes up in diversity. How else can you explain Delhi 2 Dublin, who play “Celtic Punjabi Electronica,” and Oliver Mtukudzi and the Black Spirits, who perform “Zimbabwe-Tuku Music.” The website is set up so you can find out more about the musicians.
Set throughout downtown Lafayette, its six-stage set-up makes it easy to go stage to stage without missing a song – well almost! The food includes local favorites dishing out such savories as crawfish pistolettes (Poupart’s Bakery) and seafood fries (Fezzo’s), as well as more international items such as hummus (Zeus Café).
Art and craft also have an around-the-world accent, with a focus on Louisiana.
Founded in 1986 as a music and arts festival to celebrate the culture of Southwest Louisiana – a mix of French, Latin, African and Afro-Caribbean influences – Festival International de Louisiane lives up to its name, though with a definite Francophone feel.
Date: April 24-28
Parlez-vous français?: Southwest Louisiana is one of the only places in the United States where you’ll hear French (or should I say Cajun French) spoken as a first language.
Put on your dancing shoes: No, really, wear comfortable shoes, as you’ll probably spend most of your time dancing.
Getting pinned!: I never knew there was a cult of pins for this festival until, well, I went to the festival. Not only are they decorative keepsakes, your purchase also helps support the festival.
Make it a long weekend: Lafayette is a great place to start your adventure in Cajun Country. Visit Avery Island, where Tabasco is made, and tour the plant, as well as do the driving tour of the island; go on a swamp tour; and if you’re traveling to and from the New Orleans area, be sure to stop at any number of plantations along the route. Do not forget to bring home some native food, such as boudin. Stop at Don’s, just outside of Lafayette, Poche’s in Breaux Bridge, Herbert’s Specialty Meats in Maurice – or just ask a native, as everyone has their favorite spot.
New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival
Ladies and gentlemen, let me present Jazz Fest! Now in its 43rd year, this festival has taken on a Mardi Gras-like presence in New Orleans. Vacations are scheduled; visitors are OK sleeping on your couch; end-of-the-day exhaustion (or night, depending on how you decide to extend your Jazz Fest day); overeating (but enjoying every moment of it); imbibing beverages – adult or not; costume changes of a sort; interesting visual sights (I leave that to your imagination); and, of course, the music – seven days of it!
New acts to Jazz Fest this year are New Orleans native Frank Ocean (given name: Christopher Breaux), Maroon 5, The Black Keys and Hall & Oates. Big acts include Billy Joel, Fleetwood Mac, Dave Matthews Band and Earth, Wind & Fire, while other highlights include Patti Smith, Jimmy Cliff, Stanley Clarke/George Duke Project, Campbell Brothers, Andrew Bird, the Little Willies featuring Norah Jones and Gary Clark Jr., whom I saw at a concert during the most recent Super Bowl in New Orleans and it was a great show.
And while some people come for the music, I’ve actually heard a rumor that food choices also play an important role in the overall Jazz Fest experience. That and the amazing choices of art and crafts from throughout the world, make this an annual event – just like Mardi Gras – you don’t want to miss.
Date: April 26-28; May 2-5
Admission: $50 adult (through April 25), single day; $65 at gate single day; children age 2-10 $5, single day, available at gate only; adult must be present with child.
Other options: Big Chief VIP Experience; Grand Marshal VIP Pass; Krewe of Jazz VIP Pass. For details, see website. Also available: WWOZ Brass Pass (see below)
Location: New Orleans Fair Grounds, New Orleans
And the award for the “Most Improved Website” goes to: Jazz Fest. This year’s site implemented a number of changes, including (to me at least), easier navigation; and if I click on an artist’s name, it now takes me to a brief description of their music, which is helpful for those of us not in the know.
Dreaming of cool breezes?: When the heat of our Louisiana spring gets to be too much, head to the Grandstand. The air-conditioning is well worth it. Added bonuses? The Allison Minor Music Heritage Stage, where you can sit back and learn more about musicians during in-depth interviews, and there are special exhibits focusing on a certain segment of a culture.
FYI: While the Fair Grounds is a horse racing track, you won’t be able to place any bets on the Kentucky Derby, nor watch it. However, the Fair Grounds would be interested in finding out who on Kentucky Derby Day places flowers on the grave of Black Gold, the 1924 Louisiana Derby and Kentucky Derby winner buried in the Infield.
WWOZ Brass Pass: While the Jazz Fest offers ticket packages that also benefit its foundation (which funds cultural programs and organizations), the WWOZ Brass Pass is a favorite for those who want to support this iconic New Orleans radio station. Brass Passes start at $450 and go up to $1,800. Benefits include re-entry to the Jazz Fest, one-year WWOZ membership, access to the WWOZ VIP Tent, and more. (Bonus: If you like to go every day, the basic $450 pass is more affordable than the $65 a day ticket, which totals $455 and doesn’t include any of the Brass Pass benefits!)
Feeling crafty: Jazz Fest, in addition to its fame for music and food, is also a hot spot for the latest in crafts and art from throughout the United States and the world – with a particular emphasis on Louisiana. Bring home a bit of heritage to remember your Jazz Fest experience.
Insider tip: Parking on the street? Well then, you need to observe all parking laws. If not followed, expect to get a ticket or be towed. What isn’t a law, but a particular concern: If someone has put traffic cones, trash cans or what not to hold a parking spot on the street, don’t move those items so you can park. Your car will most likely not be in the same condition as it was when you originally parked it when you return to it.
Lagniappe tip: While there are perennial food favorites with long lines, there’s such an assortment of flavors at Jazz Fest that it’s an opportune time to mix it up a bit. So, in addition to having your annual Crawfish Monica, try sampling the smoked sausage macque choux or fry bread made by the United Houma Nation of Golden Meadow, La., or the jama-jama from Bennachin restaurant. (And I have to do a shout-out to my friend, Miss Linda, whose ya-ka-mein is a weekly addiction of mine.)