By Greg Cahill | From the January-February 2022 issue of Strings magazine
When Grammy-winning Cajun fiddler Louis Michot—along with his band, Michot’s Melody Makers—launched his latest recording project, Tiny Island (Nouveau Electric Records), he chose an unorthodox setting—an actual tiny island in Prairie Des Femmes in Louisiana bayou country. Also unorthodox was his choice of instrumentation, reuniting the group with cellist Leyla McCalla. While the cello is hardly a traditional Cajun instrument, McCalla fit right into the festive session. Together, Michot and McCalla contributed linguistic and musical traditions from Louisiana and Haiti, respectively. The result is a joyous recording captured live outdoors around a campfire on one magical night. The session features acoustic instruments accompanied by the island’s local population of frogs and insects.
The countrified five-song EP—featuring Michot, McCalla, guitarist Mark Bingham, bassist Bryan Webre, and percussionist Kirkland Middleton—is a departure from 2019’s rock-influenced Cosmic Cajuns from Saturn, which featured avant-garde reconstructions of age-old Creole and French songs recorded live at the raucous Saturn Bar in New Orleans.
Strings asked Michot about that night and the recording of Tiny Island.
Tiny Island is a departure from Cosmic Cajuns from Saturn. What led to the EP’s traditional approach?
Cosmic Cajuns was recorded at the end of 2019, right before our world got turned upside down, and the Melody Makers have always had the drums and bass rhythm section to push the Cajun-fiddle repertoire. Saturn Bar is a raucous venue and encouraged rhythmic and psychedelic intensity.
But once the pandemic hit, I barely turned on an amp for months, and began busking online and eventually explored the realm of virtual acoustic jamming remotely with other musicians to continue music performance. Tiny Island is to me a culmination of the virtual performance experiences, where after a year of figuring out a new way to connect with audiences, I finally said, “Let’s do this one at night, on [this] tiny island, and all acoustic—except Mark Bingham’s electric guitar. Let’s let it breathe with the night.” Though it was much of the same material we had been performing before with Leyla, the acoustic feel made it much more traditional, but not more so than if you just turned off our amps, pedals, and samples during a regular performance.
The EP embraces the region’s Haitian culture, thanks to McCalla’s knowledge of that island nation’s music. What do McCalla and her cello bring to the mix?
Leyla and I started playing together five years ago, and it’s always been very easy and natural as our repertoires and styles have a lot of common ground. And the cello and fiddle are a rare, but lovely, combination. The first time we performed together live was when Leyla joined me along with the two violins of Pauline Kim and Conrad Harris of String Noise for a special set at my residency at the Stone in New York City in 2016. Leyla first joined Michot’s Melody Makers for an entire set at New Orleans’ Music Box Village last fall for our very first public—and socially distanced—performance since the start of the pandemic.
Tiny Island was recorded in a remote, rustic location. How did that setting contribute to the traditional vibe?
Recording and filming on a tiny island was a pretty surreal experience. It was like we were camping out together around a little fire, taking turns telling stories, sipping on our drinks, and listening to nature. There were none of the usual distractions of amplified sound balancing and rowdy audiences to affect our flow.
The tracks are so earthy—you can almost smell the bayou...
The frogs started chirping rhythmically each time we started a song, and would even stop when we would finish—it was a dynamic I don’t think any of us had ever experienced, collaborating so directly with nature.
In many ways, Tiny Island is a microcosm for life, celebrating the joy of collaboration and the healing power of connecting to your cultural roots.
With roots in New Orleans and Haiti, the musicians are from tiny islands, literally and figuratively, with different worldviews than the surrounding lands—an experience that is not always understood by the outside world. And music becomes the best way to communicate and bring recognition to one’s culture. Even through the hardships of natural disasters and social upheavals, the music continually brings joy and hope to the people, and a voice to continue to make their presence known.
When did you decide to record live?
The recording was originally intended to accompany the video performance put together for a tour stop on Ned Sublette and Ariana Hall’s NOLA Reconnect, a virtual visit to Louisiana with attendees from all over America and Europe. But we fell in love with the recording and decided to release it as an EP to mark this interesting time of performing virtually. The nature elements droning the rhythms and the frogs joining in the beats really sealed the deal.
How does this recording differ from your earlier work with the Lost Bayou Ramblers?
This recording differs from almost any other project I’ve done, as we were just alone with nature and our instruments. We were playing for Ned Sublette’s tour, but we were playing for ourselves as well. Lost Bayou Ramblers has recorded in some pretty wild places, like on the water, and in our fishing camp, but have also been fortunate to spend long hours in some great studios to focus sounds and songs. Tiny Island came together in an instant idea, everyone was willing to cross the water to get there, and it came together beautifully with the help of Samuel Aguirre-Kelly and Connor Reever, who filmed the night performance.
You had a chance to play with Cajun fiddler Willie Durisseau, who was 101 years old when he died two years ago, having recently resumed fiddling after an 80-year hiatus. Tell me about his influence.
Willie Durisseau has really influenced my attentiveness as a music lover, as you never know what amazing creators are around you in any given moment. South Louisiana has so many musicians who lived through a bygone era of one genre or another, and carry a wealth of information and melodies, stories, and songs. And they often live right down the street and you may never know, until someone asks, or they find the right occasion to break out in a tune. Meeting Mr. Willie also validated the importance of the simple tune carried on the fiddle—part of history was in the tunes he bowed at 101 years old, recalling the house-dances he had played in the 1930s with his brother Jimmy.
How did you meet?
I only got to meet Mr. Willie and his wife Irma a few times, all in the spring of 2019, months before he passed away. He had recently broken out the fiddle at a family gathering, and one of his many family members posted a video that attracted the attention of some friends, who eventually invited me to come speak French and play fiddle with him. This record comes from one of those visits.
What do you want fans to take away from Tiny Island?
Music lovers and musicians all shared one main epiphany after the last 20 months of very little live music: Music is important—it’s important for the player, and it’s important for the listener, the dancer, even for processing the movement of life and change. Music holds information, and even though the sound is a fleeting vibration from the instrument, speaker, or vocal cords, it is timeless and has value. We all knew this already, but the pandemic reinforced how much we appreciate it, and this is true for the musicians as well. Tiny Island brought us light in a time of darkness, and we’ll always remember that when it plays.
Be a Part of ‘Tiny Island’
Louisiana’s culturally rich music community has suffered greatly in recent years from a string of natural disasters exacerbated by climate change. Michot is working with the Cultural Research Institute of Acadiana to raise funds to install solar panels on local restaurants to help soften the blow of future storms.
“As we have learned, again and again, this time after Hurricane Ida, Louisiana communities need a central location to keep the essentials going in the case of power outages and other effects of natural disaster,” he says. “For entire communities to be reliant on a grid that can leave them stranded for weeks at a time leaves us so vulnerable. We need backup emergency power, solar and battery systems that can allow the houses that have stood through the last few hurricanes to be better prepared when it happens again.
“I have friends in Lake Charles that have been through two hurricanes, a major freeze, and a major flood, all in the last year. They still haven’t completely caught up, and now Southeast Louisiana is in the same situation. There are multiple organizations such as Another Gulf Is Possible, Feed the Second Line, Footprint Project, and my Louisiana Solar Fund that are all working to support the leaders of our vulnerable and often indigenous communities, by raising money to set them up with reliable power in times of emergency. The situation is really sad—so many people lost their houses from Hurricane Ida that many houses still standing have multiple families living in them right now, and the conditions are not what one would think is representative of our most basic standard of living.”
You can contribute to the Louisiana Solar Fund at gofundme.com/f/Louisiana-Solar-Fund.