Al Berard takes his place in a chair at Tom’s Fiddle and Bow in Arnaudville. He runs his fingers down the neck of his violin and taps the bow lightly across the bridge. Luthier Tom Pierce has already set up the room for Berard’s Monday night “learn-as-you-play” Cajun fiddle-teaching jam.
Pierce’s shop is perched above the dark waters of Bayou Fuselier, where the violins in the display window draw visitors inside. The Fiddle and Bow, known for quality work, is also a jam center for Cajun music.
“When I decided to start the shop in Arnaudville, I was advised to host lessons,” says Pierce. Berard, from the nearby Grand Anse community, is among the select few who have taught lessons at the shop.
Pierce, a New England native, first heard Cajun music 25 years ago. “I worked at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and I’d make a wish list for vacation,” he says. “We created this ‘circle of dance’ and traveled all over to dance to the best Cajun bands. It was like a Grateful Dead tour.”
The decision to locate his luthier practice in Arnaudville was easy. “I wanted to immerse myself in the music, especially the violin, and there were so many violin players in Louisiana, I thought it’d be a great place to live and work,” Pierce says.
Seventy-eight year old Harold Begnaud shuffles into the shop and pulls out a shiny violin from its case. “I always wanted to play Cajun music so I bought me a violin,” he says in a distinctive Cajun twang. Begnaud is accompanied by son-in-law Tommy Taylor, who is obviously charmed by the fiddle display in the window. Sisters Julie, 9, and Gracie Babineaux, 12, sit on Berard’s right. Their parents have driven in from Vermilion Parish because they want the children to learn from the Cajun virtuoso. Pierce notices Begnaud’s instrument is strung incorrectly and takes it to his workbench to re-string and tune.
“What y’all want to play tonight?” 52-year-old Berard asks. He bends a note that resolves into the classic “Jolie Blonde.” He plays the melody with such easy grace, you’d swear he’d been fiddling since infancy. Not so, Berard says. Like most teenagers of his day, Berard was wooed by the soul of Johnny Rivers’ voice, Grand Funk’s bass and Boston’s symphonic guitars. He was no fan of la musique Cadjin, embarrassed by the old-fashioned style—a generational shame inherited from his parents. His folks grew up speaking French but were prodded to abandon it. To Berard, Cajun music was cultural baggage.
“Cajun was old people’s music,” Berard says. “I didn’t get it.”
It took a cold night in Winnipeg for Berard to appreciate what Cajun old-timers called “French” music and the younger set classified as “chanky-chank”.
After a stint in the Basin Brothers, Berard got a call in 1986 to play lead guitar with the Hadley Castille CajunGrass Band. He knew Cajun music was undergoing a transformation (the popular BeauSoleil had already released three albums and been performing for eight years).
“So Hadley gets me to play with him,” Berard says. “It was the Festival du Voyageurs and minus 50 degrees. I couldn’t believe it. I remember this big concert hall. I said, ‘My God, they’re not going to have nobody in this hall.’ Hadley said they was going to dance to Cajun music. I said there was no way. I started getting nervous. When the people started coming in, I kept telling Hadley they was gonna boo us off the stage. I played that first song [a Castille original called “Mary Ann”] half of it with my head down. Hadley gave me the sign to take my ride. After the song? The wave of sound from the people, screaming and clapping. I looked up and they were all on their feet. I cried like a baby. Ask Hadley about that. It blew my mind. I came back home with the biggest fire.”
That night, Castille gave Berard his first fiddle lesson.
“When my daddy heard me learning that music and saw that I had gotten it, that it clicked, he was proud,” Berard says. “Of course he had to endure me scratching on that thing for a while.”
After five albums, a Cajun French Music Association Fiddler of the Year award and a Grammy nomination, Berard keeps the faith by teaching fiddle at the Fiddle and Bow. He plays “Jolie Blonde” again, and the beginners note the fingering and bow movements. The melody finally inspires Taylor and Pierce loans him a fiddle. Obviously no one is going to learn everything in one session, but the class gives everyone confidence.
The remarkable thing for musicians like Berard is the cultural baggage he once carried is nowhere to be seen among his students. Today, the folk music of the Acadians is recognized, cherished and even honored by Cajuns and Yankees alike. The music is not, as Berard once believed, “old people’s music.” It belongs to everyone.