Great Music Trails: Bayou Cajun Country

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Photo credit: Josephine Matyas

Music is baked into the Cajun culture

By Josephine Matyas & Craig Jones

They’re in their mid-70s, he tells us with a smile and a twinkle in his eye. “Been coming here couple of times a week for five or six years now” and dancing – the two step – “well … since I was five.” His wife smiles: “We were middle school sweethearts.”

And the Heberts are hardly unique in this crowd; in fact they’re typical on this jammed dance floor at Randol’s in Lafayette, the largest city in the Cajun bayou. The room is an elegant traffic jam of mostly elderly couples – with a sprinkle of youngsters in their 40s and 50s – swirling around and looking like they’re having the time of their lives.

Music is baked into the Cajun culture. In communities that were largely isolated – both by harsh geography and language – music was a way to stay close-knit, enjoy and let off steam. At times, music protected a culture under siege.

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The tunes and the dancing start early. Everyone up and on the floor, even the most flat-footed are encouraged to partner-up and move to the music. Women dance with women, tall dance with short, old men with granddaughters, there is even the occasional soloist who’s just gotta move. They glide around the wooden dance floor and smile and they rarely bump into each other and they clap between songs and strike up conversations with the people next to them, or switch partners, and when the next song starts up they’re moving immediately.

The night begins around six and ends at a reasonable 9pm – and everyone goes home grinning. For most, it’s a weekly event they wouldn’t miss. For many, they see each other two or three times each week on the dance floor.

This is Acadiana – Cajun Country – a cluster of small communities across the Atchafalaya Basin west of Baton Rouge along the Interstate-10, the largest wetland and swamp in the United States. Located in south central Louisiana, it is where the Atchafalaya River and the Gulf of Mexico converge and where the Acadian people, driven out of Nova Scotia in the Grand Dérangement, of 1755–1764 took root.

The area vibrates with music of which three styles dominate: Zydeco, Creole and Cajun.

Traditional Cajun music – enjoying a revival – is usually sung in French and dominated by an externally-miced button accordion to amplify the treble notes. Creole music is blues inflected, reflecting its closer contact with Africans, South Americans and Europeans in the melting pot of cultures that was early New Orleans. Like Zydeco, Creole often features a piano accordion – with the mic inside to accentuate the bass notes – plus a scrub board, guitar, bass, drums and fiddle. Zydeco also features a double-kick or triple-kick on the bass drum, which drives the tempo and fills the dance floor to capacity. The songs tell stories of work, love, life, kids and the all-pervasive cheating heart.

Related Post: New Orleans – Sensory Overload

How we found our dose of Cajun Culture:

Music is everywhere almost every night but we checked local websites and called venues. Sometimes it was as simple as asking a store clerk, a librarian, a passerby on the street. Everyone wants to talk music in Acadiana.

Our musical experience was enhanced with an exploration of the historical circumstances that shaped this part of the continent. With that understanding, we indulged in the compelling musical traditions that still roil this vibrant and enduring community.

Don’t miss:

Fill your car with local Cajun and Zydeco on Bayou 106.7FM, “the sound of Acadiana.”

Vermilionville (Lafayette) offers a regular Sunday afternoon Cajun dance at a living history park where you can also tour authentic reconstructions of traditional Cajun life. We loved the excellent Acadian Cultural Centre at the Jean Lafitte National Park just around the corner.

Randol’s (Lafayette) features nightly local Cajun and Zydeco bands in regulation rotation. The Sunday nights with Corey Arceneaux and the Zydeco Hot Peppers draws dozens of college students who pack the dance floor with lively two-stepping and waltzes.

Prejean’s (Lafayette) hosts live music seven nights a week in their spacious dining hall where the sound and sightlines are great.

Pont Breaux (Breaux Bridge) is another regular music venue – part of the Cajun/Zydeco and Creole circuit – with a long history of great bands that fill the floor. Formerly known as Mulate’s, Pont Breaux boasts a long list of famous visitors including celebrities, astronauts and A-list musicians.

We ate our fill of boudin, cracklin’ and gumbos at places like Chicken on the Bayou and Crawfish Town USA (both in Henderson). Cajun foods are hearty and are rooted in the historical necessity of wasting nothing. For some Northerners, it can be a “culinary adventure.”


Who’s writing

This is an experiment in creating a lifestyle: Taking her expertise (travel writing) and his experience (as a professional musician and freelance writer), stirring it together and seeing what happens. Add a camper van (a 20-foot Leisure Travel Class B, for those who need the specs), an easy going Border Collie (Eleanor Rigby), a window of six weeks and a yearning to follow and write about the great music trails of the Southeast United States. There’s a file full of maps and a GPS nicknamed “Hal” (we prefer the maps).