Thirty men costumed in the white blouses, short fitted jackets and knee breeches of ancient Europe arrayed themselves across the edge of the food court at the 1990 Festival International de Louisiane. They raised the shiny black shafts of reed instruments that looked like oboes and bagpipes.
A swirling, droning sound enveloped the crowd; their drummers beat a lively tattoo. The group was called, we found, Kevrenn Alre. Regardless, we had a question: if this was a fest that presents French-speaking performers from around the globe, why were these Scottish players there?
The answer was that they were Bretons, men from the French coastal region near the English Channel. Their Gallic culture shares many of the folkways of their neighbors, the British. Their “bagpipes” were in fact French musettes. Near the end of an entrancing set, several Lafayette-area performers slipped into the Breton’s ranks carrying frottoirs, the sleek successors of the scrub-board. As they began to stroke their boards the crowd beamed. See, people seemed to say, we can go home again. We can communicate with the sons of our long-lost forbears.
So it goes at the fest destined to become Jazz Fest’s significant other. Festival International will eventually become a must-see for the legions that make Jazz Fest swing; yet in 1991, its fifth year, it is a relatively small affair. An audience just big enough to fill downtown Lafayette’s main street ambles back and forth between two central stages. There are also performances at other venues, including the food court, Pavilion de Cuisine, and at the kids’ stage, the Place des Enfants. What’s more, the approximately 200 outdoor performances are free.
A FRENCH-SPEAKING UNIVERSE
Connections, linguistic and musical, are the currency of the six-day fete (April 16-21). Through food, dance, cinema and every type of music—classical, pop, folk—a Francophone universe is drawn together. The French language, long the voice of diplomats, ties performers from the Caribbean, Africa, Europe and Canada to Louisiana.
Thus, the city of Lafayette, its corporate friends, the French and many other governments, offer Americans a cultural comucopia in honor of Louisiana’s mother tongue. With Festival International, Lafayette, long known as the center of the isolated bayou world, has opened a wide window to the world.
FESTIVAL ’91: CREOLE OF COLOR
The Caribbean and Latin American world is the focus for the ’91 Fest, says Festival President Tina Girouard. Special attention will be paid to the Creoles of color, defined by the fest as “those of mixed ancestry whose culture is Latin-based, who may be French-speaking, and who call themselves Creole.” The Festival notes that “these Afro-French Americans within the Afro-American minority of the U.S. had a tremendous influence on the architecture, music, art, cuisine and social customs of not only Louisiana Blacks and Creoles, but the white cultures as well throughout the Americas.”
Thus the musical lineup is heavy with performers from the Caribbean islands who will whip out the message of calypso, carnival, zouk-chouv, quadrille, samba and salsa musics.
STILT WALKERS, RED DEVILS, TI-BOIS
Imagine the 45 members of the Plastic System Band of Martinique marching through Lafayette, stilt walkers and red devils at the head of a brown-skinned melee wielding percussion instruments with names like ti-bois, cha cha, and couicas. Trumpets and trombones add more melody to the Plastic System, who’ll make the music—think of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and of Casa Samba, the New Orleans-based group of 30 musicians and dancers who perform traditional music from Rio. Both the Dozen and Casa Samba are part of International ’91. One wonders what kind of orgiastic fusion might take place if all were to parade together.
Martinique, the tiny French possession at almost the eastern-most point in the arc of the Antilles, is also represented by Marce et Toumpak. Percussionist Marce is called the father of zouk, a music that blends rural Martiniquan music with African rhythm and Creole lyrics. Marce et Toumpak will be joined by dancer Francoise Prospa; the result is predicted to be quite a musical happening.
FROM QUADRILLES TO AFRO-CARIBBEAN CONTEMPORARY
From French Guiana will come Wara Dinde with the Serote Brothers, a 10-member group also dedicated to Afro-Caribbean drumming, dancing and singing. From Guadeloupe comes Flamme Abymienne. The nine-piece folkloric group revives the quadrille, a 19th-Century square dance that was a staple at Crescent City balls during the first two centuries of Louisiana’s history.
Jamaica, representing Creole if not French culture, sends Louisiana the Jolly Boys, known as the “grandaddies of reggae” because of their popularity in the pre-calypso, pre-ska decades; their music is called “pop ‘n’ mento.” Cuban music is also promised by the fest, although the musicians had yet to be confirmed by press time.
Les Coquines is a group of nine women from the Caribbean, Africa and France who have created a fusion of musical styles from those regions. The name of the Paris-based group means “mischievous rascals.”
Spectacular African warrior dances will be performed by the Master Drummers of Burundi, a group that was the hit of the ’89 fest. Their show uses traditional costumes, furious drumming and acrobatic dancing to bring crowds to their feet.
EUROPE, CANADA AND “HOMIES”
Europe is represented at this year’s fest by a group of Belgian rockers, Les Tricheurs (“the tricksters”) and Le Quattour de Saxophones de Paris, a much-honored group whose playing ranges from baroque to jazz. From Canada will come Grammy-winning singer Lawrence Jalbert, known as the Bonnie Raitt of Canada, and Figgy Duff, a folk ensemble from Newfoundland.
The legendary Hackberry Ramblers, the Cajun/western swing string band that was founded in 1933, arrive from home turf. And the Jambalaya Cajun Band, featuring fiddler Terry Huval, and New Orleans chanteuse Charmaine Neville will also be a part of the show. Zydeco Force, a popular new Creole group, will appear, as will New Orleans’ avant garde jazzman Kidd Jordan and the Improvisational Arts Ensemble. The Rocks of Harmony will cover the gospel side of things.
DELTA BLUES: JAMES “SON” THOMAS, BOOBA BARNES
Somehow, Festival International’s Francophone universe has been expanded to include not only Jamaica but also the Mississippi Delta. The much-celebrated Delta bluesman James “Son” Thomas will play guitar, sing and tell stories (and additionally present a clay workshop—he is also a visual artist); Delta juke joint musician Booba Barnes is also on the bill.
GALA: TOUSSAINT AND ALLISON
The Gala, a fundraiser that opens the fest (Tuesday, April 16), will feature pianists Mose Allison and Allen Toussaint. Allison is known for a blend of jazz and blues, and for his wit and songwriting. Toussaint is one of the Crescent City’s musical lions, and is well-known for his way with a song—his compositions have been recorded by the era’s best singers, and he is keeper of the flame of New Orleans pianists.
Lynn August and his Hot August Knights will also be a part of the following night’s concert, the Deep South Musical Roots Tour. In addition to the Louisiana artists are the Birmingham Sunlights, a capella gospel singers, and Leon Pinson and Roma Wilson, Mississippi blues artists.
DANCE, THEATER, CIRCUS, ART, KIDS’ STUFF
The streets of downtown Lafayette, festooned with banners and balloons, will be animated by acrobats, dancers, puppeteers and storytellers. Students of the famed Ecole du Cirque de Camplieres circus school will entertain street side. Several art galleries will sell the work of artists from across the French-speaking world (example: Haitian voodoo flags). Additionally, the Pavilion de Cuisine International will offer a wide army of foreign and local delicacies. Movies too will be imported from France, Canada and the Caribbean.
Caribbean Carnival parading, a Belgian theater troupe, a Guadeloupan puppet theater, the French circus students and others will make the kids’ stage, Place des Enfants, a lively area. Mask making and Project Jonah, a study of the life of the whale, are among the specialties offered at the craft area, Les Petits Artisans.
LAFAYETTE TOUR DE FORCE
All things considered, one must wonder how the city of Lafayette, only some 94,000 strong, can undertake this half-million dollar project. Scores of performers from a dozen far-flung countries converge on the town. The city expects some quarter of a million people to pass through the site over the week. Yet the mood remains that of a hearty town having a big party. Festival International, to the jaded, might look like a fattened-up fais do-do, but the quality of its offerings make it more like the Tour de France, Carnival of Rio and glasnost somehow sauteed together. Festival International is a tour de force for the people of Lafayette (over 1,000 volunteers participate) and a leap ahead for the state. For one is left with the feeling that the scope of Lafayette’s vision may expand Louisianans’ thinking. One day.