Great Music Trails: Bayou Cajun Country
Photo credit: Josephine Matyas
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.
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.
How we found our dose of Cajun Culture:
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.
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.”