When asked to describe the precise sound of Cajun music, and what separates Cajun music from zydeco, Creole and other Louisiana music, Quenton Fontenot replies, “It would be easier if you asked me the meaning of life.”
“I’ve tried to explain it many times before,” says Fontenot. “In my own words, I’d say zydeco is a little more syncopated, while traditional Cajun has more melody — though there is melody in Creole music as well. But then Cajun doesn’t usually have a washboard.”
The other difference is Cajun music’s scarcity — or rather, its former scarcity, before Fontenot and several dedicated friends started the Cajun Music Preservation Society in April of 2014, with a stated mission to increase amount of Cajun music publicly played in the Acadiana region.
Fontenot, who works at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, started out helping run the school’s annual Swamp Stomp Cajun Zydeco Music fest.
“I worked getting the artists on and off the stage, and got to talk to the musicians,” says Fontenot. “A lot of those who played traditional Cajun would pull me aside and say, ‘We used to play lotsa fests in and around the area,’ but they weren’t being invited anymore. Sure enough, I started looking at the band lineups at the fests and I’d see not one traditional Cajun band — maybe hybrid styles, but not pure Cajun music.”
Cajun fiddler Tysman Charpentier and photographer Misty Leigh McElroy helped cofound the Cajun Music Preservation society. McElroy shoots photos and videos of the events and Charpentier seeks out and books the acts.
“The past 20 or 30 years Cajun music just continued to die off,” says Charpentier, who has been playing Cajun music for the last dozen years with groups all around the world. “For a while there, I was the only person in the area playing this music it seemed.”
So, the month after helping found the CMPS, Tysman devised another plan to help grow the Cajun scene.
“One day I showed up in the middle of downtown Thibodaux with a fiddle, and drew a crowd,” says Charpentier. “If two people would have shown up to jam with me, I would have been ecstatic, but I was surprised when it took off like crazy.”
After the jams had been established with dozens of people attending and playing, Nicholls University stopped hosting the Swamp Stomp Festival.
“That’s when we decided to take over the festival,” says Charpentier. “This year will be the eighth festival, but last November was the first one that we produced.”
While the fest once consisted of three days of Cajun, zydeco, swamp pop and everything else under the Louisiana sun, the CMPS narrowed it down to a one day festival featuring only traditional Cajun music.
Meanwhile, Tysman’s open jam, which has continued every other Wednesday at Venetian Food and Spirits in Thibodaux, became a breeding ground, creating a slew of new Cajun musicians.
At the jams, Fontenot even became a musician.
“I learned to play accordion at those jams!” he says. “Not that well, but I do play it now!”
Tysman has since moved to the Northshore, but the Thibodaux jams have sustained in his absence.
“Three years ago there were zero people doing this, but we invited all kinds of different musicians to come down and learn with us,” says Tysman. “We have kept a record of all the musicians who have come in, and we’ve had 80 or 90 individual people who have come and jammed. Whether it was just once, or 30 times, we’ve had 90 people total.”
Tysman wasn’t any more enthusiastic about attempting to describe the subtleties of Cajun music, but still gave it a shot.
“Cajun music would be more guitar, plus accordion, fiddle and possibly a triangle,” says Tysman. “The main thing is that it is front porch music, house party music that is more derived from French culture. Whereas Creole and zydeco are more rhythmic and bluesy, Cajun music is very…straight forward, meaning your waltz, your two-step.”
Tysman hypothesizes that the form had been dying out because young people saw it as “old-person music.”
But at his Wednesday Cajun jams, he says, “We have college students, working people, retired people. I have been able to get Grammy-nominated musicians like Lost Bayou Ramblers to come, so that all these people who think it’s just old men sitting on their porch playing, they see young people and women playing it, they see it’s more than what they assumed it was.”
Now, when not organizing the fest or the jam sessions, the CMPS is also a go-to group for anyone who’d like to hire a Cajun band for their wedding, festival or other function.
“All these fests are now calling us and asking us to hire Cajun bands: the Rougarou Fest, the Best of the Bayou Festival, and Thibodaux has a new stage dedicated to just Cajun music,” he says. “Seeing that happen tells me we are bringing Cajun music back to this area and making it a strong part of our culture again.”