It begins in the cluttered corner of a closed music shop.
A lone, white-haired man tunes his viola, gliding his horsehair bow across the bridge and sending out one sweet note of music like a suspended sigh. Soon a guitarist steps up and offers him a C; the viola answers back with a harmonious A. The two musicians move into a song before the accordionist sits down and joins in with her jaunty rhythm. The trio becomes a quartet and then a quintet. Within the hour, 15 musicians are playing together in a rich, Saturday morning symphony.
There is no cover — the music is free. On a small table someone plops down a loaf of bread, someone else brings in a box of boudin (thick stuffed sausage). Young mothers bounce newborn babies, children sit quietly, their feet dangling off the edge of their chairs. One middle-aged couple gets up from their seats and starts to dance in the back of the shop.
For the past 35 years, Cajun French musicians have gathered to jam at the Savoy Music Center outside of Eunice, Louisiana. Owner Marc Savoy and his family are all musicians but I don’t recognize them in the mix. Instead, I see Cajun legends like Harry LaFleur (whose picture I had seen the day before at the Cajun French Music Hall of Fame) along with anyone and everyone who shows up ready to play along. Violas, fiddles, accordions, and guitars all wail in sync, a retired man plays a beat on the ‘ti fer (triangle), a woman wearing hospital scrubs snaps wooden spoons on her knee and a blind 13-year old boy bangs out a powerful song on the piano.
The music continues without a hiccup for three hours. The musicians take turns singing and in between songs, they banter back and forth in Cajun French. They smile, they laugh and then they play some more.
Too often I hear Louisiana Cajuns bemoan their fading language, and yet this morning the language is very much alive — thanks to traditions like this casual jam session. Despite pop radio and MTV, the Cajuns keep playing their tremendous music loud and strong — and they’ve made the rest of us tap our toes in time.
N.B. This brief clip features Harry LaFleur (viola), Esther LeJeune (accordion), Leo Urioste (steel guitar), Hayden Presley (piano), Charles Guillory (triangle), as well as several others. Thanks for letting me listen!
- Nat Geo Expeditions