Ailee Pardi wasn’t living in Louisiana when the Cajun music bug bit. But it left a mark that she happily hopes never heals.
Growing up in Edgewood, Washington, Pardi remembers her fiddle teacher introducing a few Cajun tunes in class. Those tunes pushed her to attend Cajun and Creole Week, a summer camp at the Augusta Heritage Center in Elkins, West Virginia, for five years. At Augusta, Pardi heard there was a university in Lafayette, Louisiana—the Cajun and zydeco heartland—that would let her obtain a degree in the music. The news was sweeter than a Harry Choates waltz.
“I decided to come check it out,” said Pardi. “I like the [Cajun] fiddling style. I really enjoyed that aspect of it, the heavy double stops and some of the stylistic features about it. As a whole, I like the genre and I like the people. It was a really inviting experience.”
Pardi’s love of Cajun fiddling turned her into a history maker at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Last May, she became the first graduate in the school’s traditional music program. UL Lafayette is one of only two dozen schools in North America offering hands-on instruction in oral traditions. It’s the only one to feature the Cajun and Creole music of Louisiana. Students can take classes in Cajun and zydeco accordion, fiddle, French vocals, songwriting and history of the genres. Instructors include professors and working musicians, such as Grammy nominees Wilson Savoy, Corey Ledet and Kristi Guillory. Semesters end with students performing for credit in ensembles, which also feature blues and bluegrass.
The program started in 2010 with the hiring of Mark DeWitt, the first holder of the Dr. Tommy Comeaux Endowed Chair in Traditional Music. Named after a musician and physician who was killed in a 1997 bicycling accident, the program was born after a decade of fundraisers collected more than $1 million. The state’s Board of Regents provided matching funds.
DeWitt praised Pardi as a trailblazer. “Ailee’s graduation is a major milestone for our program in traditional music, and a confirmation that there is a place in the world for a liberal arts degree in traditional music,” said DeWitt. “She brilliantly combined the study of musical performance, music history, and a minor outside of music, culminating in a senior project. She took the curriculum we designed and made it work for her, which means that it can and will work for others. We hope that her example will help us to recruit more students into the program.”
Pardi officially graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Music with a concentration in Traditional Music. She relishes her role in UL and Louisiana music history. “It’s a very young program, so I was a little bit of a guinea pig,” said Pardi, who had a minor in French. “I was the first one to get through the whole thing. I had a lot of really amazing teachers—David Greely, Kevin Wimmer, Brazos Huval, Megan Brown. They gave me a lot of really good exposure.
“It kind of surprised me. But I like that they kept it really traditional. I didn’t have to read sheet music. It was still all done by ear, like the music is done today. They kept the music traditional but highlighted the best parts of it. I think it was a really well set-up program.”
Pardi played and sang with the Angelle Aces, the university’s Cajun band-for-credit, led by Kristi Guillory of the band Bonsoir Catin and Roddie Romero of Hub City All Stars fame. She expanded her repertoire as a member of Vermilion Express, UL’s bluegrass ensemble under the direction of Dr. Len Springer.
For her senior project and recital, Pardi focused on Cajun fiddle tunes, particularly those of deceased pioneers Dennis McGee and Dewey Balfa. Born in 1893, McGee recorded groundbreaking waltzes and two-steps with Creole accordionist Amedé Ardoin. He also preserved the polka, mazurka, reel and other styles rarely performed today.
Balfa, a National Heritage Fellowship winner from the National Endowment for the Arts, was a fourth-generation fiddler and leader of the highly-influential Balfa Brothers band.
“Dr. Dewitt had told me ‘Take a topic you like and figure out how to explore it.’ I always like the fiddle tunes that are played in Cajun music—the ones that are only played on fiddle and not really with a full band. So I decided to do an exploration of that. I detailed those tunes, their origins, what makes them special. I wrote a 20-page paper, but that’s the condensed version of it.”
With her degree in hand, Pardi is considering taking a couple of years off from school. But she may return for a master’s degree and continued exploration of Cajun music.
Pardi advises students who follow in her footsteps to never stop doing homework—play music. “Take every opportunity you get. This program really provides you with a lot of opportunities—things to do and people to meet. Jump on them all. Get out there and play a lot. Don’t get too caught up in the book work. I went to a weekly jam at the Blue Moon [Saloon] and I called it my homework. It really was.”