Cajun music is to Southwest Louisiana what jazz is to New Orleans--a way of life.
1 of 7Photo: Art Meripol
About 20 miles west of Baton Rouge, an endless stretch of elevated highway reaches across the Atchafalaya Basin. This is Acadiana's eastern gate, with twisted trunks of cypress trees rising out of the water. From the moment you cross over, you'll hear Cajun music. Fiddles, guitars, and accordions create a sound that can be heard at any dance hall on Saturday nights. The point of music here is dancing and socializing.
Young musicians know they must be able to sing in Louisiana French for credibility, and so music has become a powerful force in saving this almost-lost language. New musicians like Bijou Creole and the Pine Leaf Boys are taking the music to a new generation of listeners.
2 of 7Photo: Art Meripol
Preserving the Past
Ann and Marc Savoy are helping save the soul of Cajun sounds. When the couple got engaged, Marc asked Ann if she'd rather have a ring or a great guitar. She sitll plays that guitar in three Cajun bands, The Savoy-Doucet Cajun Band, The Magnoila Sisters, and The Savoy Family Cajun Band. Her book, Cajun Music: A Reflection of a People, remains one of the definitive books on the culture and music. "It's the feeling you hear in the voices and the rhythm of it all. The soul comes out of the music," she says.
Ann says she loves watching her kids "let all the Cajun things in them come out," and watching the music evolve with the next generation.
3 of 7Photo: Art Meripol
Embracing the Present
Jim Phillips and his wife, Christy Leichty, are both artists and educators who fell in love with Cajun and Creole music while living in California. They started The Big Red Barn Montessori Farm & Camp and are building a performing arts studio for kids in St. Landry Parish. But it's not all work. Jim decided he didn't have the right gathering space for his circle of music-loving friends, so he bouth an old Texaco distribution center, moved it to a secret location, and outfitted it as a dance hall/theater called The Whirlybird. Some of the biggest names in Cajun music and beyond "pass a good time" there.
4 of 7Photo: Art Maripol
Looking Forward for A New Generation
Some worry that the Louisiana French language could be gone soon. The best hope for the language is the next generation of musicians like Pine Leaf Boys and Feufollet. The music that's evolving in their hands "is the most popular and present way of using the language," explains Barry Jean Ancelet, professor of francophone studies at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. They represent a continuity with the past, while bringing something new to the music.
5 of 7Photo: Art Meripol
Experience the Music
Check out these Cajun bands and download a playlist with songs from these groups on iTunes.
•Bonsoir, Catin •Cedric Watson & Bijou Creole •Feufollet •Kyle Huval and the Dixie Club Ramblers •Lost Bayou Ramblers •Low Maintenance •Pine Leaf Boys •Racines •Red Stick Ramblers •The Magnolia Sisters •The Savoy Family Cajun Band
•Whiskey River,Henderson: Live music on Sunday afternoons from 4 to 8 p.m.; whiskeyriverlanding.net •Lakeview Park Dance Hall,Eunice: In an old barn in an RV park; young musicians swear by the dance floor.; lvpark.com •Liberty Theater,Eunice: Live radio broadcast of Rendezvous des Cajuns every Saturday night.; eunice-la.com/libertyschedule.html •Savoy Music Center,U.S. 190 between Eunice and Lawtell: Acoustic jam sessions on Saturdays 9 a.m. to noon.; savoymusiccenter.com •Cafe Des Amis,Breaux Bridge: Serves up live music and crawfish etoufee for breakfast on Saturday mornings.; cafedesamis.com •La Poussiere,Breaux Bridge: Only remaining traditional French club. Serious dancers on a serious dance floor.;lapoussiere.com •Fred's Lounge,Mamou: Live Cajun music and dancing at a bar open only on Saturday mornings--bands usually finished by noon. (337/468-5411) •KRVS Radio Acadie: Plays Cajun, blues, jazz, and more (FM 88.7 or krvs.org).
7 of 7Photo: Art Meripol
Travel to Lafayette
Stay at the boutique Juliet Hotel, within walking distance of downtown music venues and restaurants on Jefferson Street. (337/261-2225)