By Greg Cahill
“Boy, those Turtle Island guys really like to practice,” says Michael Doucet, with a hearty laugh. He’s speaking over a bad cell phone connection from Ogden, Utah, during a break from a lengthy rehearsal for a six-city tour with the cutting-edge chamber-jazz ensemble.
He sounds out of breath.
The focus of the whirlwind springtime concert tour is Virgil Thomson’s Cajun and Creole-influenced Pulitzer Prize-winning score to Robert Flaherty’s 1948 faux-documentary Louisiana Story, a beautifully photographed black-and-white art film that followed the laidback exploits of a Cajun boy (played by Joseph Boudreaux) and his pet raccoon as they paddle placidly through dark, brackish waters and amid moss-covered Cyprus trees in a remote bayou. The film, commissioned by Standard Oil and shot 50 years before the British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon oil rig spilled 4.9 million barrels of crude oil into the adjacent Gulf of Mexico, was designed to show that oil drilling in that then-pristine watershed was harmless to the environment.
“I’ve been playing these songs for a few years. It’s a blast,” says Doucet, whose words flow at a rapid-fire pace but with an air of authority. “I mean, the film isn’t too flattering toward the oil company, as was intended, since it shows the rape of the bayou, but the music is so good.”
Doucet first saw the film as a child accompanied by his parents at a local drive-in theater in Lafayette, Louisiana (he later met the film’s star). Over the years, he’s performed the music with symphonies and chamber ensembles and he’s noticeably enamored of the movie’s mystical mood. “It’s not the greatest film,” he says, “but for us [Cajuns], it captures a certain time.”
A Griot’s Sensibility
Capturing the essence of Cajun culture is what Michael Doucet is all about, and he’s devoted his adult life to that mission. For the past 37 years, as the world’s preeminent Cajun fiddler and unofficial cultural ambassador for bayou country, he’s been the driving force behind the two-time Grammy-winning Louisiana band BeauSoleil, and a participant in such side projects as Fiddlers 4 (a short-lived American vernacular string quartet that also featured fellow fiddlers Darol Anger and Bruce Molsky, and cellist Rushad Eggleston) and the Savoy-Doucet Band (with the accordionist and Cajun luthier Marc Savoy).
It’s important to remember that this isn’t just an intellectual form of music, it’s a living form that is still as alive in Mali as it is in Louisiana. —Michael Doucet, fiddler
These days, and despite his foray with Turtle Island, Doucet is spending most of his time fronting BeauSoleil (billed as BeauSoleil avec Michael Doucet) on fiddle and vocals. The group’s other members are brother David Doucet (guitar, vocals), Mitchell Reed (bass, fiddle), Jimmy Breaux (accordion), Billy Ware (percussion), and Tommy Alesi (percussion).
Their new album, From Bamako to Carencro (Compass), is a melting pot of stylistic influences—the title refers to the cultural migration of music from Bamako, in western Mali, to the Lafayette, Louisiana, suburb of Carencro. The songs range from fiddle-, flat-picked guitars-, and button-accordion–driven two-step and waltz dance beats to a Cajun-inflected take on James Brown’s show-stopping 1962 Live at the Apollo version of “I’ll Go Crazy” to a raw, emotionally naked rendition of saxophonist John Coltrane’s “Bessie’s Blues,” which Doucet fills with jagged double stops. “Remember, I’m not a learned violinist,” he says, deflecting praise for his performance on the blues-based Coltrane jazz tune. “I picked up a fiddle and two weeks later was playing Cajun music. No big deal. I wasn’t going to do this for the rest of my life—ha, ha, ha.
“But that was the first take, live. It is what it is. I enjoyed that [raw quality]. Sure, it’s nice if everything is perfect, and the result could be elevator music, but we’re never gonna play elevator music. We’re more inclined to climb the stairs,” he adds with another laugh.
The cultural and geographic similarities between Louisiana and Mali inspired the album’s theme, he says, noting that western Mali is regarded as the source of the music transported by slaves to the Mississippi Delta and later transformed into the blues by harsh conditions and the cruel treatment of slave masters. “Louisiana has the Mississippi River, Mali has the Niger,” says Doucet, pointing out regional similarities. “And we also have a connection with the Caribbean—there is so much Spanish music in our Louisiana music that comes to light in the music of Professor Longhair or James Booker or Jellyroll Morton. Creole culture is a mix of African and the French and Spanish and, of course, Creole culture also is tied to those in Haiti, Martinique, Guadalupe, whatever.
“The slaves brought not only music, but spirituality, because in Mali the musician was not only a master of an instrument, but also a griot [the keeper of the oral tradition]. And there’s a lot of that connection between Mali and the wisdom and the music in New Orleans. There’s definitely a thread that runs throughout this music, though you don’t always know what it is—it’s kind of like a snake, it’s there and it fills in the void.
“The music on the album reexamines and exposes the human feelings and the emotions at different times. It’s important to remember that this isn’t just an intellectual form of music, it’s a living form that is still as alive in Mali as it is in Louisiana.”
Born on the Bayou
Doucet, 62, is no stranger to vernacular music. At age six, inspired by his uncle, Doucet began his musical education by picking folk songs on a banjo. Two years later, he learned the guitar and later went on to drums and percussion and then trumpet. He formed his first rock band at age 12 with his cousin Zachary Richard (pronounced Ree-shard), a well-regarded Cajun entertainer. “When I was 15, we were playing rock ’n’ roll in some bar when an altercation broke out,” Doucet recalls. “All I remember was a fist in the face. I figured that was enough of that and decided to start playing folk music.”
At 18, Doucet began studying the culture of Louisiana’s Cajuns, descendents of French Acadians who fled to Louisiana’s bayou country in 1755 after being kicked out of Nova Scotia. He recalls a time not so long ago when it wasn’t cool to be Cajun. “The moment you even mentioned Cajun, you were put down for the way you spoke or criticized because the music was out of tune or the food wasn’t sophisticated enough,” he says.
Tired of being put down, Doucet in 1969 started delving seriously into the music and folklore of the region’s French-speaking inhabitants. “Certainly my family—which is French Acadian on both sides—are a very proud, fair, and honest people,” he adds. “I felt it was time to right the wrong.”
An uncle taught him to play three songs on an old fiddle. That fiddle is now hanging in the Louisiana State Museum in Baton Rouge alongside zydeco king Clifton Chenier’s crown, a bugle from Louis Armstrong’s waifs-home days, honky-tonk singer Webb Pierce’s cowboy outfit, and a replica of a bamboula drum like those played by slaves in New Orleans’ Congo Square (the birthplace of jazz). “There always was music around when I was growing up,” he explains. “People were singing or playing or dancing—music was just a way of life. It was no big deal. To me, music was something that moved you. It was a cool thing. I grew up on a beatnik thing, and bebop was happening. It wasn’t a matter of learning how to play like that, but appreciating that it marked a change of time.”
It was during a trip to Europe that Doucet really connected with his Cajun roots. At 21, he traveled with his cousin Richard to England, meeting Celtic folk-rock pioneer Richard Thompson, then a founding member of Fairport Convention. Thompson, in turn, introduced Doucet to Scottish fiddle great Barry Dransfield, also a talented cellist and respected cello maker. “He was amazing,” says Doucet in a soft Cajun accent. “He was like Beethoven. He said, ‘You must practice eight hours a day until your fingers bleed.’ And like a fool, I believed him, so I did it because I was determined to do whatever needed to be done.”
A subsequent trip to France—where Doucet and Richard encountered young French musicians playing traditional Cajun music—cemented Doucet’s commitment to learn more about his Cajun roots. “Here were serious musicians in their 20s playing and relating to Cajun in terms of what it could be,” he once told the Louisiana Folklife Center. “I began to understand what we had and what we stood for.”
He returned to Lafayette, found an old Acadian house to restore and began to play the fiddle. At the time, Doucet was “attempting” to transcribe the music of old-time Cajun fiddlers. Fortunately, he met Elaine Flannery, an ex-Eastman College instructor, and began a serious endeavor to understand the basis of Cajun music. “I found at that time that the music I really liked was medieval music: renaissance to early Baroque and some classical,” he says. “She taught me scales and gave me a good understanding of how classical violin players think, how they move around on the fingerboard. I learned just enough to get me in trouble, as they say. But it was invaluable in helping me to make sense of the music and to give it passion.”
I think everybody should create their own music and say what they want to say, but they should build a firm foundation in tradition.
Doucet also set out to meet some of the Cajun masters he had heard about in France, including Dewey Balfa, Varise Connor, Canray Fontenot, Hector Duhon, and especially Dennis McGee (with whom Doucet struck up a close friendship before the elder fiddler’s death in 1989 at age 96). Doucet was aided in his quest when, in 1975, he won a Folk Arts Apprenticeship Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to study Cajun styles.
“I grew up as part of the last generation speaking French,” he says. “On one side, we had old-world relatives who maybe had a telephone, but who did everything by hand. On the other side, I had relatives who were moving into the modern world. I grew up between those two worlds. I enjoyed sitting right next to a great master, like Dennis McGee, who was first recorded in the 1920s. I had no thought that I was going to be a musician until the 1970s when I saw that this culture was slipping away and I got grants to bring people like Dewey Balfa into the schools.
“It was a way of embracing our history and our culture. But many of those schools in Louisiana turned us away.”
Master Folk Artist
Armed with his newfound knowledge of Cajun and Creole culture, Doucet soon formed the innovative band Couteau, a short-lived group that played a blend of Cajun, rock, blues, and country. During the same period, he began performing with friends Kenneth and Sterling Richard in a more traditional band called BeauSoleil, which derived its name from a spiritual term describing the Acadian promised land.
“It’s an interesting thing to have created this BeauSoleil sound, to create something that has had meaning at certain times,” Doucet says. “We’ve been together 37 years. It’s been an amazing gig. For a group of people who didn’t really want to be musicians for the rest of their lives, we’ve done a lot as far as creating a path for people who could actually make a living playing a kind of music that’s still important to those in Cajun country who are trying to live a simple life.”
Since the release of the band’s first U.S. album, The Spirit of Cajun Music (Swallow), Beausoleil has spread the infectious joy of Cajun music, spearheaded a Cajun-cultural revival (most notably through the best-selling soundtracks for Belizaire the Cajun and The Big Easy), garnered 11 Grammy nominations and Grammy Awards for Best Traditional Folk Album for 1999’s L’Amour ou Folie (Rhino) and another for Best Zydeco or Cajun Music Album for Live at the 2008 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (MunchMix), and remained in the forefront of a commercial renaissance that has made it very cool to be Cajun.
In 2005, National Endowment for the Arts awarded Doucet a prestigious National Heritage Fellowship, recognizing him as a master folk artist.
“I think everybody should create their own music and say what they want to say, but they should build a firm foundation in tradition,” Doucet advises. “There never really was any definition of our music. I once taught a university course called the French Music of Louisiana: Opera to Zydeco, from Colonial Times to the Present. I wanted people to understand the music around them. You’re not finding a gold mine, but you’re finding yourself, in a way. I just want people to stop and do what they can to appreciate this music before it’s gone because it was rapidly leaving. The way I saw it was that when the last musician or the last storyteller dies, all of the stories or all of the songs would have gone with them.
“That would be a sad thing.”