Feufollet, The Revelers Share the Flavors of Lafayette’s Progressive Cajun Scene
The Cajun band Feufollet is rolling down the highway to Columbus, OH, on the last third of their recent US tour, and their newest member – Appalachian singer, songwriter, and guitarist Kelli Jones-Savoy – is nervous. Her phone is dying, and though this seems like a small detail, cell phones are lifelines for bands on the road. It’s how they check email, how they keep music flowing into the speakers of the car, how they know where they’re going, how they keep entertained. And right now it’s how she’s explaining to me why she loves Cajun music so much.
“Even though most of the songs are talking about heartbreak and miserable lives,” Jones-Savoy explains, “they’re the happiest songs you’ve ever heard, melodically. There’s such a fun-loving energy surrounding them, which is different than a lot of American traditional music. Old-time and Appalachian music has a lonesome edge to it, but that’s very different from the party, fun-loving sound of the traditional music down there.”
‘There” is Lafayette, Louisiana, Jones-Savoy’s adopted home and the heartland of Cajun culture. A laidback city situated on the prairies of Southwest Louisiana, Lafayette today plays host to a new generation of traditional musicians, not just in Cajun music but also in old-time, swamp-pop, roots country – hell, even Swedish music – who have all gathered to be part of a vibrant cultural scene. Nights in Lafayette often culminate at the Blue Moon Saloon, ground zero for this cultural renaissance. Drinking, dancing, partying, jamming, and of course cooking and eating are all key elements here, and there’s no effort made to present the music to tourists as some kind of re-enactment. Decades of battles to keep Cajun French and Cajun culture alive have shaped a generation that sees traditional culture as totally modern; something that fits as easily into social networks like Facebook as it does events like the Courir de Mardi Gras (Mardi Gras Run), an age-old custom from medieval France in which costumed participants go from house to house on the prairie singing the old “Danse de Mardi Gras” and demanding charité, or contributions to the gumbo pot.
Maybe that’s why Chris Stafford, founding member of Feufollet, bristles a bit when asked if he feels like his band is consciously pushing Cajun tradition in new directions. The question at least seems not unfounded. Over half of the songs on their new album, Two Universes, are in English, something virtually unheard of in modern Cajun music, and the group is clearly influenced by ’80s new wave pop.
“I don’t know that I would call this record Cajun music,” Stafford declares. “I think that we grew up playing Cajun music and it’s definitely a part of our story and our lives, our background and how we approach music, but it’s more of a songwriter kind of album. That’s the way that I look at it. It’s a collection of our songs as songwriters.” If that’s the case, then credit is due to new member Jones-Savoy, who contributes six of the eleven songs on the new album, including, surprisingly, two beautiful songs in French.
She’s married to Joel Savoy, a Grammy-winning record producer and heir to the Savoy Family legacy. Jones-Savoy’s father-in-law is Marc Savoy – the famed Cajun accordion builder and one of the lynchpins of an earlier Cajun renaissance that brought us Beausoleil and Michael Doucet, among others. Thus, she has heard conversational French at home much more than most in Louisiana, and she’s been working hard on learning the language.
“Those few [Cajun French songs on the album], in particular, were rhymes that I had played around with,” she explains. “It wasn’t like I had written them in English and decided I wanted them to be in French. … A phrase came to me in French, and I was like, ‘Oh, that would be a cool to expand on that.’ ”
Stafford, Feufollet’s accordionist and electric guitarist, contributes three songs of his own as well, and though he’s written for Feufollet before, the formula for the new album was markedly different. The band’s two previous albums featured traditional Cajun songs as well as French originals penned by previous lead singer Anna-Laura Edmiston, a native French speaker with ties to French Canada.
“Before Kelli was in the band,” Stafford says, “I would write songs; [Anna-Laura] would write songs. I think that’s a cool dynamic to have in a band, to have two songwriters and two singers, but Kelli is quite a different songwriter than Anna-Laura. She’s more influenced by country music, which shows up as an influence on what we’re doing now. When Anna-Laura was in the band, she would write more in French and our band was more Francophone-focused. [Songs that Kelli] brought gave a space for stuff that I had written to fit in. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have thought it would have fit into our formula or our sound.”
The two-songwriter dynamic continues with Feufollet’s new lineup, and has moved even more to the fore, since every song on the new album is original. “In the past,” Stafford explains, “we’ve relied more on other traditional material like standards. This gives us more freedom since it’s songs that we wrote, it’s not working within a certain framework. We do what we think the song needs. … What the songs dictated and how we put them all together, [that] was the way that we approached it.”
A Swirling Blend of Influences
As a result, Two Universes is stuffed with a wide range of disparate influences. “One Foot in My Door” has echoes of classic songs from the Beatles, “Know What’s Next” taps into ’80s roadhouse ballads, and “Early Dawn” harkens back to the ’90s experiments of adventurous Cajun bands like Steve Riley & The Mamou Playboys. Sure, the traditional instrumentation of fiddle and one-row button accordion is featured throughout, but so is the Wurlitzer, Hammonds, Fender Rhodes, and synth played by keyboard master Andrew Toups. The other primary influence on this disc comes from Jones-Savoy’s love of old country music, a love she shares with her husband, who released an album in 2013 titled Joel Savoy’s Honky-Tonk Go-Round.
This swirling blend of influences at the heart of Feufollet’s new music is rooted in the Lafayette scene and reflected in other groups, like Cajun country and swamp-pop revivalists The Revelers. Made up of most of the members of The Red Stick Ramblers – a popular Cajun swing/roots band that made four albums for Sugar Hill Records – The Revelers have Cajun traditional roots but a refreshingly different perspective.
Revelers guitarist and songwriter Chas Justus, who has sat in with Feufollet a number of times, waxes as happily about old soul records as he does about his band’s love for old-school Cajun dancehall artists like Walter Mouton or Belton Richard, neither of whom ever recorded any albums. “They were really important and they were a really big deal,” Justus explains, “but they never left Louisiana. They’re not known like the Balfa Brothers or Beausoleil or Steve Riley, because they never toured. They weren’t really interested in that but they played dances every weekend and they were big in Lafayette. They were big in the area.”
According to Justus, they were also known for bringing in more modern country influences to craft the Cajun dancehall sound we know today. They brought the pedal steel, translated popular country songs to Cajun French, and sang like George Jones or Ray Price. Revelers accordionist, singer, and songwriter Blake Miller is responsible for bringing this sound to their new album, Get Ready, and his song “Pus Whiskey” (Cajun for “No More Whiskey”) is one of the best Cajun – or, for that matter, country – songs I’ve ever heard.
The other side of The Revelers comes from their love of Louisiana blues and R&B. “I’m a big Clifton Chenier fan,” Justus declares. “That was some of the first Louisiana music that I got into, because that stuff was close to what I grew up with in Memphis and the blues scene in Baton Rouge. When I heard Clifton Chenier, it totally made sense.”
This blend of 1950s Louisiana blues and old-school country lies at the heart of swamp-pop and the new sound from The Revelers. Popular Lafayette guitarist and swamp-pop musician C.C. Adcock breaks it down like this: “What defines swamp-pop, and actually what is the common thread in all the varying styles we have here [in Lafayette], young and old, is not the beats as much as it is the sweet sing-song, instantly hooky sense of melody. As catchy as the place is picturesque.”
Though The Revelers are all based in Lafayette, the genesis of the band came from their time in Baton Rouge. Joel Savoy and fiddler Linzay Young were going to school at Louisiana State University. They met Justus, who was also at LSU, and started up the Red Stick Ramblers (named for Baton Rouge, which means “red stick” in French), making a name for themselves in a part of Louisiana not quite as known for its Cajun culture. Returning to Lafayette as a solid dance band, they lit up the scene and became a focal point for other young traditionalists. Justus met Stafford and Feufollet in Lafayette and became something of a guitar mentor to Stafford, eventually joining Feufollet and recording with them for a few years.
When Young – Red Stick Ramblers’ lead singer and songwriter – retired from the road in 2013, the remaining members of the band were looking to keep playing but needed a new focus. So, they formed The Revelers to blend that swamp-pop/early Louisiana R&B sound with underground Cajun dancehall country numbers. Along with the touring, they were also fueling a new festival movement centered around the Blackpot Festival, which they had created in Lafayette. Helmed by Glenn Fields, Eric Frey, and Chas Justus of The Revelers, Blackpot is a festival conceived around a very Cajun conception of music-making.
“For Cajun musicians, if somebody is going to have a party and they’re going to play tunes, they don’t tell you that they’re going to have a jam, like, ‘Oh, we’re having a jam on Saturday,’” Justus explains. “Instead, they say ‘Man, I got a bunch of crabs that we caught; we’re going to be cooking a gumbo. I’m making a big gumbo.’ They don’t even mention that they’re going to play music. That shows the importance of food. … Yeah, you bring your fiddle, but the draw and the appeal is the food.”
So, from the beginning, Blackpot incorporated food as much as music, drawing from traditional cooks in the community rather than restaurant-based chefs. This focus on traditional foodways as a natural part of life extends to more extreme elements of Cajun cooking, like the boucherie, in which a whole hog is slaughtered on the spot and rendered into all the different elements of Cajun food: boudin, blood sausage, cracklins, smoked meat, and more.
VICE magazine recently visited Blackpot Festival cook Toby Rodriguez for a feature on the miraculous Cajun sausage boudin, and Anthony Bourdain has traveled to Southwest Louisiana to hang out with the Revelers and the Savoy Family. In each of these visits by national media – as in real life – the music and dance moves hand in hand with the food. It’s all part of Justus’ manifesto of cultural preservation, a manifesto that he aims to spread.
This month, in fact, Justus traveled to Port Townsend, in Washington State, to do just that, heading up a new festival called Kitchen Culture. The Revelers flew in to teach Cajun music, bringing a dance instructor and a number of cooks, including Rodriguez. The festival was about spending five days immersed in Cajun culture, dancing, singing, playing, jamming, partying, and, of course, eating. And it all centered around a boucherie. Peter McCracken, the regional festival organizer, spent the previous few months immersed in the extremely strict food and livestock laws of Washington State in order to negotiate pig butchering as a group activity – everyone involved was dead serious, even though the end result was great fun.
Bringing the Past to Life
Back in Lafayette, another ex-member of Feufollet is also working hard on bringing new light to old traditions. Joshua Caffery, who played guitar and mandolin on the first two Feufollet albums, is about to release a box set of four EPs of modern re-interpretations of old Lomax family field recordings in Louisiana. Working with Joel Savoy’s Valcour Records label and nearly all of the next generation Cajun and Creole musicians in and around Lafayette, Caffery’s goal is not to revive this music, but to put it back in its original context, and to show how modern that context was at the time.
“Just as black-and-white documentary photography tends to give everything depicted an antiquated and homogenous look,” Caffery explains, “crackly field recordings can sometimes impart a monolithic aesthetic experience, just because of the nature of the medium. I hope that this CD casts these recordings in a different light by using a pretty radically updated color profile.”
Caffery’s work on the box set comes from an Alan Lomax Foundation grant that enabled him to write a book on Lomax’s field recording trips to Louisiana, Traditional Music in Coastal Louisiana: The 1934 Lomax Recordings. He’s also created a website to host all of Lomax’s original field recordings.
Feufollet’s Kelli Jones-Savoy is on the first EP of the box set, and her track is an indie rock-influenced take on the sexually adventurous (for the time) “Inch above Your Knee.” Taken from a Lomax field recording of the mysterious Mr. Bornu – likely a fake name used because of the song’s prurient content – the song is a bawdy English tune from the heart of Cajun country, something that seems a bit strange today. But that’s because our modern view of Cajun music skews too far to the Cajun French revivalist perspective. As Caffery explains, “I don’t know if French Cajun culture in Southwest Louisiana can really be separated from anglophone Cajun culture; and the Lomax recordings, I think, challenge the notion of a pure French Cajun culture in the region.”
He continues, making a point that harkens to the envelope-pushing – or so it seems – of Feufollet’s Two Universes, which is sung, in large part, in English. “Many of the French singers in the [Lomax field] recordings also sang songs in English. Cajun culture evolved in dialogue with a diversity of cultural influences, both anglophone and francophone. I wouldn’t say that the focus on Cajun culture necessarily stifles other traditions, but it can present a dramatically simplified and therefore misleading and imaginary version of what the region was like.”
This imaginary version of Cajun culture – one part tourist marketing and one part old folkie preservationist – means that the Cajun music we’re hearing in Lafayette now seems like its breaking new ground, when in reality it’s just doing what Cajuns have always done: voraciously devouring external influences and spitting them back out with a heavy dance beat and a lot of accordion. Even progressive, “Left Coast” influences that have been pouring into Lafayette are just repackaged ideas from traditional culture. Farmers markets, organic, small-farm food, and locavore diets have always been a part of Cajun life.
“Cajuns were really self-sufficient just because they had to be,” says Justus. “You couldn’t truck everything in. Everybody could fix everything; everybody would farm; everybody would do all that stuff … It’s in the culture now because it’s the way things had to be. If you live out in Eunice, you can’t get all that stuff. You eat what you got.” It’s this crossroads of old tradition, new influences, DIY culture, and good old partying that’s at the heart of Lafayette’s vibrant Cajun culture scene, and that’s been drawing in other young traditional artists from across the US and the world.
It’s not just the newcomers tapping into the scene. Established Cajun legends like Steve Riley are representing as well. After winning a Grammy in 2013 for his work with the Cajun accordion supertrio Courtbouillon (Riley, Wayne Toups, Wilson Savoy), Steve Riley and His Mamou Playboys have a new album coming in June 2015, Voyageurs, that looks to the roots of the music almost as much as to the present or future. Though Riley’s specific blend of Cajun folk, Louisiana twang, and bombastic beats is still front and center, here he’s doubling down on the music itself, pulling out old classics from icons like Dennis McGee and Canray Fontenot, and going so far as to commission a new accordion to better play the newer tunes that fiddler Kevin Wimmer brought to the table.
Riley’s music has always seemed like a heady mix of old and new ping-ponging back and forth, but that’s because he doesn’t see Cajun tradition as something trapped in the past. “I really don’t like the word traditional,” Riley explains, “because what is considered traditional was usually cutting edge when it was going down … We borrow some of those older ideas, but have our own interpretation, as do many of the younger groups coming up. Dewey Balfa [considered a “traditional musician” by most] told me at age 15 that music is freedom and that I should express myself musically as I wish and feel. That made a big impact on me as a teenager and that’s the way I’ve approached the way I play music. Seems as though the younger generation is following suit. The culture and music are alive and as strong as ever because of it.”
With all this activity, more and more people in Lafayette today are connecting to the Cajun scene. “People that I used to know that would be into other styles of music, who were never into Cajun music, you’ll see them change at the dances [now],” says Chris Stafford. “People that I know used to be in rock bands are trying to pick up an accordion and learn it now. It seems to be very fashionable now. You see that everywhere, though, in the United States. People are getting into the local pride movement pretty much everywhere you go. People like to gravitate towards some things they think are real or they can sink their teeth into. There’s so much fake, fabricated culture that people are just bombarded with every single day. Obviously, people are yearning towards something more indigenous to where they live.”
Justus agrees with this, and likens these movements to punk DIY culture: “It’s about getting together with your friends. It’s the punk mentality … [meaning] that you have your local band that represents you. And that’s what I love about Lafayette. We got our bands. These are our people.”
With a new album under their belt and a new lead singer, Feufollet are riding hard on the road, carrying with them a vision that is closely tied to a digital age, made by artists who, though they’re all in their 20s, have been at the cutting edge of tradition for most of their lives. And if they’re comfortable swapping cell phones for long interviews on the road between gigs, they’re just as comfortable back home, nestled deep in traditional Cajun culture: playing tunes at a boucherie or dancing at the Blue Moon Saloon. That’s the balance all Cajun musicians know how to navigate, aware of the lucrative marketing of Cajun culture – whether music or dance or cooking. They reckon that with the reality of these traditions, forced up against the wall by American homogenization in the 20th century, powerfully alive in the 21st, and attracting a new generation of young traditionalists to Lafayette, Louisiana.
Devon Leger works as a publicist and a freelance writer, and is deeply tied to the Cajun, Acadian, and French-Canadian scenes in the US and Canada. As such, he’s worked professionally in the past with Valcour Records, Centrum (the organization presenting Kitchen Culture), Joel Savoy, The Foghorn Stringband, and other elements of this story. He does not work with Feufollet or The Revelers, however.