Separate but equal
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.
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"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.
"Christine, she would come, and she'd watch us play and stuff and have a good time. And I admired that. And after I found out she was Mr. Dewey's daughter, I talked to her a few times. I don't really remember when I officially met her and got to know her. I dunno, we just started seeing more and more of each other -- it was probably at some festivals and stuff -- and I met her husband and all that, and then we got to playin'. [Balfa Toujours is] keeping the tradition going, and I'm doing the same thing.
"Then, after that, I always wanted someone to play acoustic guitar and fiddle with me, and since I was friends with them, I didn't hesitate at all to ask them to play with me," he says. "And they were thrilled to death. And I loved it, because I really like the sound of acoustic guitar. I like to let people know that, hey, just because I'm black don't mean I can't play Cajun music, or just because you're white, you can't play zydeco. It doesn't have a color to it. It has a color to it because you put a color to it, that's why. Anybody can play it."
It recently took a federal injunction to desegregate a Cajun club in Breaux Bridge after an African-American woman who was trying to come in with her white friends and was refused admission just happened to be a savvy lawyer from Chicago. Delafose admits that he gets a little kick from that incident. "Bet that surprised them. She really put the hurt on them," he says with a chuckle.
But Delafose takes a more circumspect approach himself. "I've been to a couple of Cajun clubs," he notes. "I wouldn't go to no Cajun club if I had some friends from out of town or something. I wouldn't take them with me if it was my first time going there. Because you just never know...well, I never know how in the hell I'm gonna get out of there. But I sure wouldn't want nobody to see me fightin' and all that ol' crazy stuff, which I really doubt would happen. I really thought that stuff was kinda done and gone with."
He believes, however, that music presses the proverbial integration suit even better than litigation. "After I finished my CD, La Chanson Perdue...I finished on a Friday, and that Saturday, Christine and them were playing a little club called The Office. So I was off. And they said, if you're off, why don't you come by and meet us, you know? You can play with us or whatever. So I went by. And I had my mom and another friend with me. So I dropped them off in front of the club, and I went and parked my truck," he recalls.
"So when I walked in, I thought they had a cover charge or something, so I was looking for someone to pay to get in. And I was just standing by the door. So this guy, he came by me, and he said, 'How you doin'?' I said, 'I'm doin' fine.' And he said, 'I think ya better leave if you don't want no trouble, because we don't mix too much around here.' That just blew me away, and I started laughing. I just said, 'OK, that's fine with me.' I didn't really go anywhere, I just kinda moved off to the side and stuff because my mom and them was still in there. And then Christine and them called me up to play and stuff. And I went and I joined 'em, and I started playing. And them fucking people in that club went crazy, man. They didn't want me to stop after I started playin'.
"I don't know if the guy knew who I was," ponders Delafose. "I guess he just thought I was just in there to make some trouble or something."
Cajun country isn't the only place where Delafose has found his music breaking down barriers, as he discovered on a tour of Turkey not long ago. "They loved it. They went crazy there," he says. And did the Turks dance with the same enthusiasm as his audiences back home? "Oh yeah. They didn't know what they were doin', but they were goin' crazy."
Delafose also finds that the music he makes not only persuades non-Creoles to drop their preconceptions, but also helps black audiences into more modern sounds become familiar with their traditions. "I done played weddings for people, and they don't know who I was, or what kinda music I played," he notes. "And once I got 'em goin' -- I kind of felt 'em around, played songs they know, a few Motown things and li'l blues numbers here and there. And once I got 'em going and got 'em into the music, I'd switch around like I want, and they love both of 'em."
Although Delafose stresses the Louisiana tradition on La Chanson Perdue, he nonetheless ends the album with the old Doc Pomus-Mort Shuman pop number "Save the Last Dance for Me." Similarly, his last album mixed his own songs and those of his father with Cajun standards by Amédé Ardoin and Iry LeJeune with a cover of Los Lobos' "Let's Say Goodnight."
Delafose's all-embracing approach may be best summed up by the name of his band, French Rockin' Boogie. "It's all the same thing, man," he concludes. "If it make ya dance and make ya feel good, then have at it. You ain't hurtin' nobody."
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