Once upon a time, the best way to learn Cajun music and zydeco was to leave Cajun and zydeco country. Master musicians from the homeland, meaning southwest Louisiana cities like Lafayette and Opelousas, were star teachers at cultural camps in West Virginia, Washington, and other faraway states.
Glenn Fields, who grew up in Baton Rouge and became interested in Cajun music, was surprised to find that people outside of Louisiana shared his passion. “[Fiddler] Kevin Wimmer was teaching at Ashokan, a camp up in the Catskills,” says Fields, a former drummer with the now-defunct Red Stick Ramblers. “That’s how I met Jay Ungar and Molly Mason.
“That was the first time I had been to camp and the first time I met other people who weren’t from here but who played Cajun music. They weren’t just interested in dancing;They played the music. It was kind of shocking.”
Fields now serves as executive director of Louisiana Folk Roots, a nonprofit that keeps the master instructors at home and brings students to the source. Folk Roots hosts the 20th Dewey Balfa Cajun and Creole Heritage Week from May 5-10 at Chicot State Park, just north of Ville Platte.
Named in honor of a Cajun fiddling pioneer and cultural advocate, the Balfa Camp features six days of classes in accordion, fiddle, guitar, rubboard, vocals, and dance. Instructors range from multiple-Grammy nominees like David Greely and Cedric Watson, to a beloved legend named “Bird,” a.k.a. Paul Edwards of Eunice, Louisiana. “Bird” can’t read sheet music, but his rubboard and drumming skills have taken him around the world, and made him a camp favorite.
Willie Durriseau, a 101-year-old Creole fiddler who was uncovered last year in Opelousas, is scheduled to this year spend an afternoon with campers. Each evening of Balfa Camp ends with a public dance, which includes Camper Karaoke. Individual campers perform on stage with professional musicians.
“A camper can play with an all-star band that was put together by our staff members,” says Fields. “For one or two songs, they get to lead the band or do whatever they want.
It’s one thing to play in a jam session and another thing to play on stage. This throws them in the fire.You have to have your stuff together. That’s a challenge we haven’t seen at Balfa Week before.”
Fields has also matched campers with legendary musicians in bands that play for dance classes. While the instructors are teaching new dance steps, the masters share life stories with the band.
“It creates these little bonds that you don’t otherwise get a chance to have,” says Fields. “When I’d go teach at Ashokan, I’d play an hour-long dance class alongside an 80-year-old fiddler from Oklahoma. He would tell stories about what it was like to see Bob Wills and Hank Williams, and play on trail rides. That was my favorite part of the whole thing.You’re not going to get that any other way.”