“If you had told me in 1974 when we were doing that very first one that in 2016, we would have 65 groups playing and it still wouldn’t be enough on five active stages,” says retired University of Louisiana-Lafayette professor Barry Ancelet, “I would have said you’ve got to be nuts.”
Now celebrating its forty-second anniversary, the free Festivals Acadiens et Créoles (Thursday, October 13 through Sunday, October 16) offers a tantalizing array of Cajun and Creole music spread across five stages. Additionally, there are cooking demonstrations, a photography exhibit, a special film screening, a run and a cultural symposium on Cajun dancehalls and zydeco clubs, the theme of this year’s festival. It’s staggering in scope and even more mind-blowing considering that it evolved from a single night concert, A Tribute to Cajun Music, that occurred on a drizzly Tuesday night, March 26, 1974 at Blackham Coliseum. Among those playing the inaugural event were the Balfa Brothers with Ray Abshire, Nathan Abshire, Clifton Chenier and the Ardoin Family Band with Canray Fontenot. Dancing was not permitted as the organizers—CODOFIL (Council for the Development of the French Language in Louisiana), Ancelet and musicians Dewey Balfa and Marc Savoy—all advocated that the concert should solely be a listening experience as opposed to just dancing to it and “hearing it.”
An estimated 12,000 people showed up and with the concert being so wildly successful, a second tribute occurred on April 15, 1975, again at Blackham. This time, not even the police could keep people from dancing. “So what do you do when Clifton Chenier is playing?” asks Ancelet.
When Ancelet returned home in ’76 from graduate school, he was incredulous that a third concert had not occurred. “What, are y’all, nuts? You got this momentum going. We got to do it again.” Since organizers felt that the point about listening versus dancing had been made, the event moved to Girard Park on Halloween 1976 so people could dance more freely.
One reveler who never missed a tribute concert or festival was chef Pat Mould. Sometime in the early ’90s, he had had enough when a local publication panned the festival as “What’s Hot Not.” So out of the blue, he called Ancelet and pitched the idea of having a tent where he would conduct interviews with musicians.
In 1994, Mould conducted an interview-performance session with Canray Fontenot, “Bois Sec” Ardoin and BeauSoleil’s Michael Doucet. “It was one of the most cosmic sets I’ve ever seen in my life,” says Mould. “Canray, at the time, was dying of cancer. I remember him coming up to me and saying ‘Oh chère, I am not doing too good.’ What’s the matter, man? ‘That cancer has got me bad.’ And I am thinking to myself, shit, Canray is going to die on my stage. This is going to become known as the stage where Canray Fontenot died.”
“I am seriously freaking out, right? He sits down and starts stroking that fiddle and he has got that big Canray Fontenot smile. Michael is playing and trying to keep up with Canray, who is just hitting these Jimi Hendrix licks on the fiddle. And I am thinking five minutes ago this guy was going to drop dead on my stage.”
“I call them cosmic moments and that was one of those cosmic moments,” says Mould.
Mould’s other cosmic moments include a fiddle workshop conducted by Kevin Wimmer and Mitch Reed and a songwriter’s workshop featuring D.L. Menard and Shirley Bergeron who became the best of friends afterwards.
In time, Mould’s interview tent grew into a performance tent, also known as the gospel revival tent since it had an intimate, up-close vibe. “The year Lil’ Band O’ Gold played, I had one little light bulb hanging over the stage, right? So it is kind of semi-dark in there come dusk on a Saturday night. I look over there at Dickie Landry, the saxophone player, and say ‘Hey Dickie, what do you think of my light show?’ And we both look at the light bulb and crack up.”
In 2007, the then-presenting organization, the Lafayette Jaycees, who had sponsored the festival since 1980 after assuming the reins from CODOFIL, dissolved, and a new community nonprofit was formed in 2008. From there, the nonprofit stepped its game up as Mould pursued public and private sponsorship as well as influential media partners.
“For the first 33 years of this festival, there was not one outside public or private dollar invested,” Mould says. Concessions and draft beer sales essentially paid for the festival. “Think about it; it’s a pretty poor business model. We are basing our survival on selling as much draft beer as we possibly can. We’re potentially sending people home drunk in order to survive.”
Today, Capital One is the presenting sponsor but Mould is proud of all the sponsors that include Chevron, the Louisiana Lottery and the Lafayette Consolidated Government. “Our sponsors have figured out that, hey man, if we want our brand to be seen, this is the place to see it,” Mould explains. “This is a self-celebration of how we live, how we eat, how we dance and how we speak.”
Ancelet likens the nonprofit to a foundation where proceeds are invested back into the community. “We decided that one of the most direct ways to put it back into the community was to pay musicians well and we started doing that,” Ancelet says. The inaugural Tribute to Cajun Music concert didn’t pay its musicians, but Ancelet says it was a cause that they believed in to attract attention to the value and importance of Cajun and Creole music. The second Tribute concert basically paid for travel expenses. By 1976, the pay was a whopping $15 per musician.
Besides paying musicians better, Festivals Acadiens et Créoles has five philanthropic arms, music, food, art, language and the beautification of Girard Park—“all the areas the festival touches to make sure there are young people today who are ready to take our places 20–30 years from now,” says Ancelet.
“We have given musicians scholarships to learn French at St. Anne’s (Nova Scotia). We gave a young blacksmith a $1,000 scholarship to do a cast iron table. Last year we paid for a chef’s airfare to be a part of the Cannes Film Festival apprenticeship program,” Mould explains. Last year 50 fruit trees were planted in Girard Park with the assistance of the Boy Scouts. “Maybe this fall, if not next, you’ll be able to step off the trail and grab a grapefruit or an orange and continue your walk,” Mould says.
“It’s a story that’s just developing. Not too many people know about it but when they hear the story, they say that’s pretty cool, man,” Mould says. “We are cognizant of it but we’re not into tooting our horn.”
“I like to think of this festival as a smart festival,” says Ancelet. “It’s entertaining but there’s a message. There’s matter behind it. There is a juxtaposition of this band playing right after that one that is, hopefully, carrying active messages to people. It’s what I have come to call guerilla academics where you sneak information to people while they think they are being entertained. That’s being the professor in me. I have always thought of the festival stage as one of my classrooms. I hope the crowd doesn’t feel that they are in a classroom but walk away with a better understanding of the music and who they are, where they come from and what’s important. And in that way, it’s not just entertainment, its info-tainment.”