BeauSoleil's Michael Doucet on Setting the Bar: "We Created the Bar, Son!"
BeauSoleil: Proud of their past
World Music can begin right here at home. BeauSoleil, sons of Louisiana's Bayou country and the number one Cajun music band in the world (according to Garrison Keillor of Prairie Home Companion anyway), has proven that precept time and time again over the course of their near three decade career. Named in honor of of Joseph Broussard dit Beausoleil, who led the Acadian resistance to British deportation efforts beginning in the mid 1700s, the band remains as determined as ever to keep their native traditions alive.
The historical reference has served as something of a springboard for the band throughout its career as they achieved milestones of their own in becoming one of the most recognized and admired Cajun bands. Aside from numerous appearances on soundtracks and television shows, they've performed with any number of musical admirers, ranging from Mary Chapin Carpenter to the Grateful Dead. They're the beneficiaries of numerous honors and accolades as well, including Grammys, the Big Easy Entertainment Award for Best Cajun Band (ten time winners), and the National Heritage Fellowship award presented by the National Endowment for the Arts.
Still, any attempt to classify them as strictly Cajun inevitably comes up short. Throughout their career, they successfully pushed its boundaries, incorporating rock, pop, jazz, calypso, French romanticism, and blues into their multi-hued palette. Their latest effort, From Bamako to Carencro is no exception, and easily one of their most accessible efforts to date. The Rhythm Foundation is bringing them to town this weekend to perform as part of their Hollywood ArtsPark Experience in Hollywood.
Still based in Lafayette Louisiana, BeauSoleil is comprised of founder, leader, and musical mastermind Michael Doucet (fiddle, vocals), David Doucet (guitar, vocals), Billy Ware (percussion), Tommy Alesi (percussion), and Mitchell Reed (bass, fiddle). We recently had an opportunity to speak with Michael Doucet and query him on the band's remarkable MO.
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New Times: Let's start at the beginning. Can you give me us an idea of your early influences?
Michael Doucet: My family, Elvis, Louis Armstrong, Aldus Roger, and Doc Guidry, basically a mix of style, French, jazz and rock 'n' roll.
Were you born and raised in Louisiana?
Yes, on a farm near Scott.
What prompted you to pick up the fiddle originally, and when did you start playing?When was your first public performance?
My uncle, T Will Knight played fiddle, banjo, bass in a French-Western band. He taught me three songs and how to hold a fiddle when I was twelve, but i didn't have a fiddle of my own until I was 21. I repaired his old fiddle and began playing gigs two weeks later. Previously, I played trumpet, guitar, and drums.
After nearly 40 years, what keeps you motivated and excited abut playing the music? How do you keep finding new ideas and inspiration?
Playing, making, and creating music is what I do. It's like breathing and gives me great joy to make other people happy and dance, and it makes me search deeper and deeper for the perfect note or chord or tune that just comes up.
I practice Shambhala meditation. This gives my mind, ego, and body a break about worrying about "me." So, it's a means of letting go of things. This obviously correlates to music in that one is "giving away" yourself, the inner and outer everything one plays. Whether for one's self or for a crowd. It's really the same thing. In your head, you thoroughly know what sounds or moods or emotions you hear. Music is about sharing those vibrational things. How can that ever get old?
What prompted you to break the boundaries of Cajun music and incorporate the other styles that you're known for? Did you get any backlash from the Cajun community pro or con?
I never thought of "breaking the boundaries" but rather about discovering the origins of forgotten styles and the unheralded masters of our genre, and bringing them to the surface.
Louisiana was once Spanish and most Acadians were awarded Spanish land grants originally, so Spanish music was prevalent in the early colonial period of Louisiana. Some of our more well known "Cajun" tunes are actually of Spanish origin, going back to Spain, Cuba and the Caribbean. It's all there, but covered up by popular opinion and newer forms of music. I've always found it fascinating to delve into the origins of our ethnic music. They didn't just fall out of the sky, you know? Someone in some other time and place put them together or brought in early influences besides Acadian -- i.e. American, Irish, German, African, etc., to make up our Gumbo music.
I am a student and teacher of Louisiana French music. I learned it firsthand at the feet of the masters -- Dennis McGee, Canray Fontenot, Dewey, Rodney and Will Balfa, Doc Guidry, Luderin Darbonne, and Bébé Carierre. My goal and passion in the late 1960s and '70s was to reclaim this music as our own unique genre, which included both the two seeming opposite areas of academic research alongside the rougher untrained home music.
Have you always had the support of musicians and fans in your native Louisiana?
Well, in the early 1970s, to have young, long-haired musicians playing "old style acoustic French music" was indeed a rarity amongst the mainly farmer oriented musicians playing at that time. They must have thought we were from Mars! I can't name five other musicians my age at that time who played or were even interested in playing this music, much less that making a lifetime attempt at preserving it. Still, I encountered nothing but smiles, generosity and friendship from every musician I visited and befriended. Most were surprised that someone my age -- in my early 20s -- would even be interested in this music, much less playing it. Such humble and gracious individuals I met. It was a wonderful time.
To be sure, there were some "traditional" well known players who would scoff at my affection and affiliation to the "older style" music like Cajun fiddle pioneer Dennis McGee. They were somewhat bewildered and asked such questions as, "Why are you learning those old songs? No one plays like that anymore. Why don't you play more modern music?" But for me, the ancient, forgotten tunes were indeed modern to me. I've been lucky to have been showered with many awards for our Louisiana music and admired by it's people, from the most conservative to the National Endowment for the Arts in DC.
And yes, I've had great support from other musicians, and luckily, I've performed, learned and recorded with the best of the best, as far as I'm concerned.
What do you think makes Cajun music so popular and so universal? How do you account for its relationship to Celtic, world music, country music, and the other genres with which it's sometimes intertwined?
Louisiana French Cajun, Creole Zydeco Music is the world music of the Southern U.S.
We incorporated early medieval music from France, welcoming rhythms and chants of the native Americans and Africans, Virginia Reels, bending the notes and creating the blues, jazzing up French contra dances, adding Spanish and Caribbean influences, and, as I mentioned earlier, adapting swing music and dance to our culture -- the 78 rpm "race records" that were recorded in 1928 to 36 that bore the name French Foxtrot -- to adapting blues, rockabilly, New Orleans boogie and created our own swamp pop genre. It goes on and on.
With more than 30 albums to your credit, can you sum up Beausoleil's trajectory and progression?
It's simple; we just get better and better! I've always followed the improvisational spirit of music, which is sometimes referred to as "playing it your own way or expressing yourself." Indeed, there are guidelines but most are blurred depending on instrument, talent, geographical area, and influences.
Your band often performs at festivals and other events where the jam band ethic is pretty prevalent. Do you see yourselves as part of this populist movement that includes the Dead, Phish, Railroad Earth, Leftover Salmon, and so many of today's bluegrass bands?
We play and interpret traditional La French music our way, and I compose a good bit of tunes. Not really for the sake of a popular culture but for the sake of our own culture that continues to get watered down as Americanization rolls over us.
What can we expect from a Beausoleil concert?
A BeauSoleil concert equals un bons temps... a good time.
With all the amazing awards and accolades the band received -- Grammys, kudos from the likes of Garrison Keillor and Allen Tousaint -- does that set a high bar? Do you feel pressured that you have to continually satisfy expectations? Does that intimidate you in any way?
High Bar? We created the bar, son! No, not at all. We just did what had to be done to save the sinking ship of a forgotten culture. We love the music and greatly admired those whom we learned from, as well as our tradition, the hardships and good times, and we were bent on remaining authentically who we are, both off and on the stage. You know, we were especially lucky, first to have been born when we were amongst this incredible, elastic, creative, fun loving, spiritual and talented French culture in the New World.
And I was lucky to grow up speaking French with Acadian parents and ancestry. I was lucky early on to realize the value of our culture and how quickly it was vanishing. I was lucky to sit at the feet of many master musicians, some who were barely known outside of their locale, some who had recorded in the 1920s and were still alive, some who were Créole French farmers, some who were part of the New Orleans diaspora that moved to the bayous after Storyville was closed in 1917, and of course lucky for my own family, who made it their task to teach me forgotten French ballads.
Anything else you'd like to add?
I really never look back to see what I've done or who've we've influenced. But I do get a kick out of some 16-year-old kid playing Dennis McGee tunes like they were always around, and I'm reminded how they were once rare diamonds in the rough, hidden in the dirt of popular music and opinion.
The Rhythm Foundation presents BeauSoleill with Jon Clary and others at the Hollywood ArtsPark New Orleans Experience Festival taking place at 7 pm on Saturday, March 1 at Hollywood ArtsPark. Admission is free. Visit rhythmfoundation.com.
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