Fortunately, survival is a Cajun core value.
"Around here you don't wait for someone to help," says fiddler Michael Doucet, leader of the premier Cajun group BeauSoleil. "If you have a leak, you don't go looking for a plumber, you fix it yourself or call a relative." At the height of the storm, waters from the Gulf usually 25 miles away reached within nine miles of Doucet's home in Lafayette, La. Doucet had a dozen people staying with him; thousands of families were homeless.
"It was really devastating, and it changed everything," Doucet says. "Some places didn't get electricity until February, and they still had clothes in the trees. But life goes on. And we had the best shrimp season in years."
It's a resilience forged in disaster. "Cajun" comes from "Acadie," the homeland from which the Cajuns' French-speaking ancestors were uprooted by the British in an early fit of ethnic cleansing. (The Brits renamed the land "Nova Scotia" "New Scotland" after another roughly treated province a bit closer to London.) Many of the displaced settled on the then Spanish Gulf Coast, their traditions blossoming from French folk roots transplanted in the rich loam of Creole culture.
The notable results are gumbo, blackened fish and the piquant music that BeauSoleil champions. "Its community music," Doucet says, "in essence, the music of troubadours and minstrels who told stories, filtered down through the waltz and two-step and foxtrots that were popular in the 1800s. It's always rhythmic, sung in French, with voice and violin and, later, accordion."
The band, like the music, has staying power. "We just celebrated our 30th anniversary with several shows in January," Doucet says. "We have over 20 records to choose from, so we played a different set list every night. In Lake Charles, which was really hit hard, there was no place to play. We ended up in the school auditorium." (The tour is documented on the band's new CD, "Live in Louisiana.")
The recordings have won multiple Grammys but don't do the band justice. BeauSoleil plays dance music, better experienced live, preferably on your feet. "We hope that people move," Doucet says. "The more they listen, dance, interact, the more it becomes their show. We work best like that."
The band has had only one member change in three decades. All this experience playing together gives the music both an extensive songbook and a bone-deep spontaneity; it's never the same show twice. Touring and playing benefits since the storms, Doucet is heartened by the expressions of support around the country.
But he recognizes the irreversible changes. "It's a whole different world," he says. "We're lucky to be part of a generation who got to learn from the people who were alive in the 1890s. Maybe this music won't be around forever, but it's around now."
Why should audiences care? "Tell them to come and see the survivors of the hurricane, playing true North American music," Doucet says, "straight from our kitchen to y'all." S
BeauSoleil plays Swingin' on the Tracks Sept. 14 with opening act Chez Roué. Series ticket is $45; single tickets are $10 in advance, $12 at the door. Call 864-1541 or visit www.swinginonthetracks.com.