By Kelly Dearmore
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By Rachel Watts
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Although New Orleans is the main attraction in Louisiana for music fans, as too many House of Blues T-shirts attest, the state's real musical magic, and maybe also the best food, is actually found in the heart of Cajun country to the west of the Crescent City. In fact, the target town for a visit to that charming, fascinating land -- one of the few places left in modern America where genuine regional ethnic cultures still thrive -- just may be Eunice, the hometown of accordionist Geno Delafose.
But the great shame of that area of Louisiana, where the music is so soulful and real and the food is like manna from heaven, is that it also remains one of our nation's most segregated pockets. Although Cajun music and Creole zydeco are true country cousins -- sharing similar roots, rhythms, French-language lyrics, and a central focus on the accordion -- a well-ingrained separatism forms a steely Great Divide. But Geno Delafose will have none of that.
The talented young bandleader knows how closely related the two styles are, "and they so separate," he bemoans with a sigh. "I always played Cajun and zydeco. I played both of them. And I like them, and I grew with both of them. I didn't want to get involved in the big scene that's going on. I didn't want to be like everybody else. So I decided I'd play that side. And that's what I played with my Dad, and I enjoyed it, and people liked it."
Playing both flavors of musical roux is just what Delafose does on his most recent album, La Chanson Perdue. Featuring guests Christine Balfa (the guitar-playing daughter of Cajun-music pioneer Dewey Balfa) and her fiddler husband Dirk Powell, both of Balfa Toujours, and Eunice-based Cajun accordionist Steve Riley, a high school peer of Delafose's, it's a truly Creole album that offers a cross-cultural jambalaya that's as tasty as it comes. That's because Delafose has never assigned a color to the local variety of musical ingredients, thanks in large part to his late father, John Delafose, the accordion-playing leader of the Eunice Playboys.
"He was brought up with all that music," explains Geno. "I remember listening to Cajun music when I was a little boy. My grandmother would have that thing on, and we'd be listening to the Reverend Reed and stuff broadcasting out of Mamou. And we'd be out in the farmyard milking the cows and stuff. Some of the songs I play I can remember hearing 'em [back then] and all that stuff. So I picked up on 'em, and took a likin' to 'em, and incorporated that into my show."
If only all his neighbors were so open minded. A few years back, some friends and I were visiting Cajun country on Labor Day weekend to attend the annual Zydeco Festival in Plaisance. It's the most propitious time to catch zydeco's finest acts on home ground at the Festival and at nearby clubs like Slim's Y-Ki-Ki and Richard's. And one can also sample local Cajun music delights at the same time.
On every Saturday morning in nearby Mamou, what may be the most delightful daytime club gig in the world happens at Fred's Lounge. Donald Thibodeux & Cajun Fever serve up a danceable musical brunch for local radio broadcast, while a gal known as "Tante Su de Mamou" -- her T-shirt tells you so -- serves up delightful free samples of local boudin (Cajun sausage) as couples twirl around the tiny dance floor. But underneath the amazingly warm and welcoming atmosphere, there's still an implicit message: no blacks allowed. That attitude became obvious when a friend of mine told a local regular with whom she'd been dancing that we were in town to attend the Zydeco fest. His reaction: "What do you want to go listen to that nigger music for?"
When I tell Delafose this story, his diplomatic tone while discussing racial politics in Cajun country starts to get just a bit strident. "They're so closed-minded around here, some people are. I'm glad the younger generation are changin' a little bit," he notes.
"But you know, all this shit, it comes from what you were taught. It starts off in the family home, all that crazy stuff: You shouldn't listen to zydeco, you shouldn't listen to Cajun and stuff. All that starts out in the home with what your parents teach you. There's a lot out there to offer. As much as they've got some good, they've got some bad. But it ain't all bad."
And rather than examine the bad, Delafose prefers to accentuate the obvious ties between Cajun and Creole musical culture. While he tries to bridge the gap from his direction, he has white allies in Balfa and Riley, who also subtly work toward uniting such divided yet parallel cultures. "I used to see Christine [Balfa] come to the dances a lot at Richard's," Delafose recalls. "That was when I was like 15, 16, playin' with my Dad's band. She would come to the dances. And things hadn't changed like they are today. It was pretty segregated and stuff. And when you'd see a white person in a club, you knew they were from out of town. They just didn't know no better. But they ain't never had no trouble or anything like that.