Grab your dancing partner, pack up your dancing shoes and head over to Lafayette this month. Festivals Acadiens, the Cajun equivalent of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, takes place there from September 13 through 17. Lafayette is the unofficial heart of Cajun country, and this is its annual celebration of all things Cajun, and then some. Festivals Acadiens, like the name implies, is not just a festival but a fabulous festival of individual, independent local festivals that last all weekend long. Although it helps, you don’t have to know how to Cajun dance or speak Cajun French to enjoy yourself. All you really need is some Cajun “joie de vivre” and you can pick that up from almost any Cajun you come across during the festival.
This year marks Festivals Acadiens’ thirteenth year, officially sponsored by the Lafayette Jaycees. It has grown so big over the years that it now sprawls across town. Attracting about 100,000 visitors annually, it has been rated among the top 100 events in North America and the top 20 events in the South. However, as popular as this event has gotten, it has never become uncomfortably big. Since about 1980, attendance has leveled off to what organizers consider a consistent and comfortable number. “It’s just been good every year,” says USL French professor and Cajun folklorist Barry Ancelet, who has helped organize the Festivals Acadiens music component since its inception in 1974.
Ancelet doesn’t see any value in trying to pump up Festivals Acadiens as “bigger and better” each year. It is what it is, the premier Cajun festival in the world, and it’s all the better for not having become an over-expanded, over-crowded, over-commercialized three-ring circus.
The first Festivals Acadiens began in 1974 as a single music festival. Back then, it was called “Homage a la Musique Acadien” and was held indoors in Blackham Coliseum. This “festival” was actually one big first-of-its-kind Cajun concert held by CODOFIL (Council for the Development of French in Louisiana) when 150 journalists from all over the French-speaking world attended a convention in Lafayette. The event was also presented in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institute to honor the efforts of the Cajun musicians over the years in helping to preserve Cajun culture.
Despite the horrible weather that year, there was an overflow crowd, recalls Barry Ancelet. “We realized that the concert had touched a nerve and we decided to make it an annual event.”
Eventually, CODOFIL pulled out and the Lafayette Jaycees took over the event sponsorship. Later, other local festivals like Lafayette Museum’s Native Crafts Festival joined forces with the Music Festival, resulting in a co-op of independent festivals held in the same location on the same weekend every September.
The majority of the events at Festivals Acadiens, including the music and food festivals, are held in or close to scenic Girard Park, located around the University of Southwest Louisiana’s campus. For those on foot, or for those who don’t want to hassle with driving back and forth to the various festivals and fairs, a free transit system is available with busses passing checkpoints about every 15 minutes.
In addition to the Cajun music festival (which always includes at least one zydeco band), Festivals Acadiens includes the Louisiana Native Crafts Festival, the Acadiana Fair and Trade Show, the Bayou Food Festival, a Senior Fair and Craft Show, events at the historical Acadian Village and Downtown Alive, a weekly street dance in downtown Lafayette that is open to the public.
Although there is actually more than you can possibly do on one weekend during Festivals Acadiens, make sure, above all else, that you get a taste of the music around the festival and around Lafayette. The festival’s kick-off is Downtown Alive!, which takes place Friday, September 15 from 4:30 to 9 p.m. on the 600 block of Jefferson Street and will feature two bands: Cajun Brew and Bruce Daigrepont. Also, once the festival grounds close, the nightclubs overflow every evening with festival-goers who can watch some of the best variety of south Louisiana entertainment in town all year.
The music festival, which is the original and the most prized component of Festivals Acadiens, has become “the” place to play and be seen. In fact, until Festival International de Louisiane was created three years ago, Festivals Acadiens was the only big setting for Cajun music in Louisiana. Festival International, which takes place in April in Lafayette (and is highly recommended), has given similar albeit fewer opportunities to Cajun groups.
In a day where it is becoming harder and harder to book hot local Cajun bands locally since they are in such demand nationally and internationally, this is the one exception of the year when the best Cajun performers count on being in town. To testify, the closing act on Saturday, September 16 is Wayne Toups & ZydeCajun and headliners for Sunday, September 17 include Bruce Daigrepont, Zachary Richard, Boo Zoo Chavis and Beausoleil.
One of the most attractive aspects of the Music Festival is that the musicians really feel like it’s “their” festival. The idea goes back to the Festival’s beginnings in Blackham Coliseum in 1974 when musicians like Nathan Abshire, the Balfa Brothers and Clifton Chenier showed up to perform in the most wretched weather conditions and without even a small honorarium. The importance for those musicians then, as well as musicians now, was to call attention to the respectability and beauty of Cajun, and to a lesser degree, zydeco music.
“What we were trying to do with the first Music Festival was to put Cajun music on a pedestal by putting it on a four foot stage,” recalls Ancelet. “We were trying to do anything we could to return Cajun music to its rightful place, a place of pride in the culture.” That challenge was a tall order back in ’74. “If we had looked for Cajun musicians under 30 all year long we wouldn’t have found any,” says Ancelet. “Or, if they were out there, they weren’t playing publicly so how could we have possibly known who they were?”
But by 1978, out of 22 groups invited to play Festivals Acadiens, Ancelet says eight of those were entirely composed of musicians under 30 and two of those eight groups were composed of musicians under 20. In a span of only four years, young musicians had turned back to the music of their own culture, and part of the reason was due to the festival itself.
Because local musicians are so dedicated to playing this festival, you can consequently expect to find the cream of the Cajun crop here. Everyone wants to be invited to play this gig. And the bands that do inevitably end up playing at Festivals Acadiens year to year are the real “Cajun imperatives,” in Ancelet’s words.
The theme of this year’s Music Festival is “A culture is preserved one generation at a time.” Festival organizers have focused on groups that reflect the passage of tradition within a generation of a family. An example is Pat Breaux (Cajun Brew), the son and also grandson of a musician. Breaux’s grandfather, Amedee Breaux, was the first to record the Cajun classic “Jolie Blonde.” The Balfa Brothers, who will also perform, are another example of a long line of musicians in the family. Father and son examples represented will be Cajun Tradition, Lawrence Ardoin and Boo Zoo Chavis.
For a taste of what else to expect at Festivals Acadiens, start with the Bayou Food Festival. Generally some 20 local restaurants and caterers are represented under the shade of huge circus-like tents in Girard Park. Everything from crawfish pie to alligator boulettes and endless varieties of seafood and nouveau Cajun dishes are available. And yes, the variety and quality is comparable to what can be found at the Jazz Fest.
Another to-see event is the Native Crafts Festival. This festival showcases South Louisiana’s routines of daily life that have become cultural art forms. You’ll find potters, quilters, boat makers, storytellers, alligator skinners, Cajun men cooking and caning chairs, to name just a few. There is also a gospel tent and a hands-on children’s tent. Then at Blackham Coliseum, the Acadiana Fair & Trade Show exhibits local business products and services to the general public. In conjunction with the trade show there’s a midway of carnival rides.
Of course, there’s lots more, like Louisiana Contemporary Crafts Festival, Acadian Village, or the Louisiana Film/Video Festival. No, “sex, lies and videotapes” won’t be showing, but almost everything else filmed in Louisiana will be, including such classics in the past as “Evangeline,” “Uncle Earl,” and “Tarzan.”
Festivals Acadiens is a kick-up-your-heels festival. But it’s also an induction into South Louisiana’s heritage through the sights and sounds of native music, crafts, cuisine, videos and exhibitors. It was an experiment in “cultural recycling” that has worked. “People are attracted to an entertaining setting and while they’re there, we’re slipping them information,” says Ancelet. The best way to describe the rich cultural experience of Festivals Acadiens, he says, is “undercover academics.”
For a complete schedule of events, call the Lafayette Visitors’ center, 318-232-3808, or 1-800-346-1958 outside Louisiana.
MAJOR CLUBS IN ACADIANA
While in the Lafayette area, some of the best Cajun and zydeco performers are well worth a visit to the local clubs. Here, we list just a few of the night spots…
Grant Street Dance Hall
113 Grant Street, (318) 237-8513. Lafayette’s equivalent of Tipitina’s…the city’s biggest and funkiest dance hall. Bands from The Fabulous Thunderbirds to Stevie Ray Vaughan have performed there. Wayne Toups plays Friday and Saturday nights at Grant Street during the festival weekend.
523 North St. Antoine, (318) 237-1959. One of the area’s hottest blues and zydeco clubs. One of Lafayette’s more cosmopolitan clubs for hearing some of the best zydeco music. Nathan Williams and the Zydeco Cha Chas are regulars here. Buckwheat Zydeco’s favorite place to play when he’s in town.
325 Mills Avenue (Breaux Bridge Hwy.) Breaux Bridge (east of Lafayette via 1-10) (318) 332-4648 or 1-800-634-9880. A favorite hot spot to hear authentic Cajun music from Dewey Balfa to Beausoleil. The dance floor and the food attract tourists and natives alike…a real local hang-out. Lots of celebrities frequent the place (Paul Simon, Huey Lewis and other intergalactic luminaries).
Opelousas, (318) 942-9980. A club that’s a little out of the way (north of Lafayette, about 30 minutes drive on Interstate 49 (call for directions), but well worth the trip for authentic zydeco music and atmosphere. Boo Zoo Chavis, who’s playing at the fest, is a regular there.
555 Jefferson Street, (318) 234-8877. Although this club isn’t as popular as it once was in the downtown club scene’s heyday, you can still find some good “progressive” Cajun groups, like the Blue Runners.
107 E. Main, (318) 232-8241. Downtown Lafayette’s newest and only zydeco club. Also features progressive local bands.