If it’s true that history repeats itself, then a portion of Cajun musician Bruce Daigrepont’s life is “déjà vu all over again,” as Yankees legend Yogi Berra once quipped. After a three-year absence, Daigrepont’s Sunday afternoon Fais Do-Do dances at Tipitina’s are back. But instead of being weekly, as they had been during their 30-year marathon run from 1986 to 2016, they’re now monthly, starting in January of this year.
Around a year ago, Tipitina’s general manager Brian “Tank” Greenberg began calling Bruce Daigrepont about the possibility of firing up the dances, since people were inquiring about them. “He said ‘I would really like to get you back here and get the Fais Do-Do’s going again in some capacity,’” says Daigrepont. “He’s the reason why I went back.” So far the response has been great. “We’ve had very good crowds,” says Daigrepont. “People seem to want us back.”
“I figured I probably played Tipitina’s 1300–1400 times,” Daigrepont explains about the Sunday Fais Do-Do’s legacy. He estimates he played Tipitina’s 40-plus times in 2016 before sadly pulling the plug due to dwindling crowds. Of course, he didn’t play every Sunday due to occasional touring conflicts or when Tipitina’s had a special event.
Before Tipitina’s, Daigrepont had a five-and-a-half year run on Thursday nights at the Maple Leaf Bar, starting in 1980 when he was 22 years old.
Just like any other longstanding Crescent City music tradition, Daigrepont’s Fais Do-Dos are essential to the musical fabric of New Orleans. They introduced the cherished cultural music of Southwest Louisiana to many non-Cajuns who may have been unfamiliar with it otherwise. “When we played the dances at the Maple Leaf on Thursday nights, we were the only ones playing Cajun music in the city of New Orleans on a regular basis,” Daigrepont says. “Allen Fontenot was in the area but played mostly in Kenner and on the outskirts of town.”
Among the regulars at the Maple Leaf Fais Do-Do’s were Jack “Tutu Man” Varuso and Ralph Marchese, the spiritual leaders and high priests of the legendary watermelon sacrifices that occurred during the break.
“They would take the watermelon and put it in the middle of Oak Street and about 20–30 people would dance in a circle, chanting the watermelon song for five, ten minutes until they went almost into a trance,” Daigrepont describes. “And then Jack and Ralph would start carving circles around the watermelon until eventually they cut it up and everybody ate watermelon. Nobody ever stopped it. They had to have stopped traffic because it was in the middle of street.”
Daigrepont never participated in any of this, other than to observe with amazement. “When I got offstage, I didn’t feel like dancing around a watermelon,” Daigrepont said. During one break, he met his future wife.
Later on, when Daigrepont moved the Fais Do-Do dance to Tipitina’s, the gang performed its sacrificial ceremony on Napoleon Avenue’s neutral ground. For a while they took their show on the road and performed it at Jazz Fest and Festivals Acadiens.
Though Daigrepont appreciated having Sundays off during the hiatus, he recognizes the fruits of his labor by playing weekly, starting with the dance community. “The dance community becomes like a family. The regular people get to know each other and become good friends,” says Daigrepont. “I don’t know how many couples have met at our dance and got married and to this day, still have great relationships.”
Additionally, the weekly Fais Do-Dos helped his longstanding band of fiddler Gina Forsyth, bassist Jim Markway and drummer Mike Barras be one well-tuned machine. Since there were no rehearsals, Daigrepont introduced his new songs to the band before the gig and then gave it a shot during the second set. “Of course, some of it was pretty good and other parts had a kink that needed to be worked out,” Daigrepont explains. “Then the next Sunday I would play that song again and it started getting better from week to week. After six months, you had a song that was really gelling.”
Daigrepont is considered to be one of the most prolific songwriters in Cajun music, having recorded 55 originals in French. “To be honest with you, I don’t know anyone that would come close to having 55 original Cajun songs,” he says. “But when I write these songs, it’s me by myself. I’m totally isolated from the mainstream of Cajun music in Lafayette. It’s not like I’m getting together with a bunch of other Cajun musicians sharing ideas.”
Whether it’s the locals or visiting tourists, Daigrepont says there is an audience for Cajun music in New Orleans. Often when he’s playing during the week at the Tropical Isle Bayou Club on Bourbon Street with the Cajun Drifters, tourists tell him they came to New Orleans to experience the culture. “A lot of times they don’t know about [our gig],” Daigrepont says regarding those who just found him by happenstance. “It’s just a matter of getting the word out.”
“I think it would be sad if there was not a regular fais do-do dance in New Orleans anymore,” he says.
Thursday, April 11, 2p