By David Templeton | From the March/April 2020 issue of Strings Magazine
Tradition. Within the worlds of folk, world fusion, and classical music, a deep respect for tradition has always—or at least often—been key. That is especially true for players like Cajun fiddler Louis Michot, co-founder of the Grammy-winning Louisiana French Cajun band known as the Lost Bayou Ramblers. For Michot, however, tradition—whether as a source of inspiration or instruction—works best when treated like a map or a guidebook, to be studied and interpreted, rather than as a sacred list of laws and rules that must be faithfully followed without question.
“The thing to remember is, what we now call ‘traditional music’ wasn’t always so traditional,” suggests Michot, speaking from his home in New Orleans, Louisiana. “To the people who originally made some of these old songs, at the time, those songs were pretty cutting edge and progressive. In carrying on traditional music, in being the stewards of that music, we also have to be creators and artists. We should never shy away from doing something new with those great old songs, something that honors the tradition, while staying relevant to our times.”
The Lost Bayou Ramblers, formed in 1999 by Michot and his brother Andre (who plays accordion and pedal steel guitar), have earned a strong following by doing just that. Often compared to groups like the Pogues, the Lost Bayou Ramblers are traditional interpreters of French Louisiana Cajun music while also remaining modern, progressive, inventive—and undeniably “punk” in terms of their visceral, rock-steady, occasionally downright wacky sense of playfulness.
The blog “The Green Man Review” suggested as much in praising the Ramblers’ 2012 recording Mammoth Waltz, calling it, “one of the weirdest and greatest Cajun records ever.” The band went on to pick up a Best Regional Roots Album Grammy Award for its 2017 release Kalenda, after which the website SavingCountryMusic.com proclaimed, “If Cajun music ever takes fire and becomes the next hot thing—sort of like swing, bluegrass, and traditional country have at times—you can be assured many will be pointing to the Lost Bayou Ramblers as a major influence, and one of the primary catalysts to creating appeal beyond the Cajun world.”
For all the ink spilled describing the group’s brazen experimentation, Michot often argues that the heart of the band still beats with the pure, authentic, traditional sounds of Cajun music. It’s one of the reasons Michot sings all of the band’s songs in French. “I’ve always believed that tradition is incredibly important,” allows Michot. “It teaches us who we are, where we came from, and how to interact with our society and our landscape. It’s our origins.”
That said, the main thing to remember about tradition—any tradition—is that it always has and always must evolve as the times change. “If a type of music or art isn’t evolving and changing with the times, it becomes stale fast,” Michot observes. “It needs to be alive and growing and relevant and active in its current culture. That’s how it stays vibrant, how it survives and thrives.”
As a testament to Michot’s tireless quest to play old music in new ways, he frequently engages in ambitious side projects. One of those is his other band, Michot’s Melody Makers. Another is the recent all-strings collaboration he’s dubbed “Le String Noise,” a fusion of his own Cajun style with that of the acclaimed avant-garde classical duo of Pauline Kim and Conrad Harris, who perform under the name String Noise. With cellist Leyla McCalla of Our Native Daughters as the fourth member, the hard-to-pinpoint quartet is releasing a live album on April 17. Another live recording, featuring Michot’s Melody Makers, will be released sometime in late summer or early fall of 2020.
Le String Noise is the result of a residency Michot did at New York City’s the Stone, where composer John Zorn serves as artistic director. It was musician Gordon Gano, of the Violent Femmes, who first introduced Michot to Kim and Harris and, to a degree, set the project in motion. “The night Gordon introduced us, Pauline and Conrad had a gig, and she was playing some John Zorn pieces,” Michot recalls. “At one point, they invited Gordon and me up to join them and we ended up doing Violent Femmes songs with four violins. It was wild.”
That was in 2016, and not long after, Zorn asked Michot to do the residency at the club. That residency included the development of recording projects. “I released one other album during that time, but this will be my second release of my residency at the Stone,” he says. “It’s a really interesting group—two violins, a fiddle, and a cello, if you will, and we do so many different kinds of music. Pauline and Conrad are pretty avant-garde, doing really progressive modern classical music. Leyla pulls from a lot of her Haitian roots, and then there’s me with my own take on things. We just kind of went around the board and traded songs. There’s some Cajun stuff, some Haitian stuff, some original stuff, and a few really crazy, out-there pieces that String Noise brought to the table.”
One of those “out-there” compositions is an improvisational piece that involves a specially designed computer program. “We follow the computer, which tells us what key to play in, and what to play,” Michot explains. “It’s really cool, because anything can happen. You just follow some basic guidelines and see where you end up.”
Compared to the Le String Noise project, the upcoming album from Michot’s Melody Makers sounds positively old-fashioned. And it is. But only to a degree.
“I grew up accustomed to playing with accordion-based bands, which is pretty much the tradition among most traditional Cajun and Zydeco bands,” Michot says. “So I started Michot’s Melody Makers as a Cajun string band, which is actually taking things back to the earlier repertoire of Cajun bands, before the accordion came along. Right at the beginning of the recorded music era in the late 1920s, we were lucky enough to catch a few of these much older songs, this much older repertoire, which was fiddle based, because the accordion was already taking over and the fiddle was losing popularity as the lead instrument. That accordion was, of course, a diatonic accordion, which limited the tonal range of the songs, as well as the rhythms and stuff. So, the whole repertoire took a turn in a new direction. But luckily we caught a few dozen good recordings of the earlier Louisiana French fiddle music, and that’s what we play, that early, early repertoire.”
Michot’s Melody Makers includes Kirkland Middleton and Bryan Webre, the drummer and bass player of the Lost Bayou Ramblers, plus Mark Bingham, an acclaimed musician and producer who, among his many other projects, arranged the strings and horns on R.E.M.’s iconic 1991 album Out of Time.
“The music we play is very traditional while at the same time being ultra-progressive,” Michot says, “because we use very old tunes, and we try to do those old rhythms justice, all of which is really fun.” Blood Moon, the first album from Michot’s Melody Makers, was released in September 2018. The upcoming second release was recorded during a two-night stand at the Saturn Bar on St. Claude Avenue in New Orleans.
“That’s an amazing venue to record a live album in because it used to have an old boxing ring, so it sounds great,” says Michot. “There’s a lot of wood, all old material, and a little balcony that goes around on three sides so people could watch the boxing matches back in the day. We had 200 people in there for the first night, and it’s a small place, so the crowd was pretty rowdy, and then we did a second night on a Sunday and it was great, too. Recording over two nights gave us a chance to experiment a little, and to get down some of the songs that never made it onto Blood Moon, along with some stuff we’ve been working on since.”
The album will be released in the late summer or early fall, and when it drops, Michot believes it will prove equally exciting to those who prize strict tradition and those with a desire for something they’ve never heard before.
“In Michot’s Melody Makers, especially with this new recording, we are tapping into a style of Cajun music that really has been long forgotten,” says Michot. “This is music that has not been performed by modern Cajun bands for a long, long time. So in a way, we’re so traditional we’re actually groundbreaking.”
Blending the new and the old, the familiar and the different, is ultimately the tradition Michot reveres the most deeply.
“Music is music,” he says. “It really is the universal language. I have had some amazing collaborations with people whose traditions are very different from mine. I learn from them, and they learn from me. That’s always a beautiful thing.”