BeauSoleil Celebrates the Sounds of Louisiana
by Charles Donelan
Michael Doucet has experienced a great journey of discovery of the history of American roots music. Born and raised in French-speaking Louisiana, Doucet, like many other young people, embraced rock early on and paradoxically did not discover his Cajun heritage until he left the country. As an American in England and Ireland in the early 1970s, Doucet met and played with such great neo-traditionalists as guitarist Richard Thompson and Scots fiddler Barry Dransfield. Their motivation sent him back home to Louisiana, where he began to form Cajun-influenced groups and research the early history of the music. With the help of the National Endowment for the Arts and an incredible pool of experienced musicians, Doucet brought together a broad selection of Cajun tunes and formed BeauSoleil, now celebrating 31 years together. Next Thursday, Doucet will bring BeauSoleil to Santa Barbara for an Arts & Lectures concert. Last week he answered a few questions from his home in Lafayette Parish, Louisiana.
What’s going on with BeauSoleil? It’s our 31st year together and we decided to celebrate by playing some concerts here in Louisiana and recording them. It’s out now as a CD, Live in Louisiana. We went through our old records looking for the 20 best songs, and then we went out and played them live until we got some good versions for the record.
I’ve heard it and it sounds great. I know you are a historian as well as a musician and a bandleader. Would you like to say something to put the Hurricane Katrina disaster in historical perspective? Yes, I would. In terms of history, extreme weather has always been with the Cajun people, even from the Nova Scotia years. And the way that Katrina showed how remote some of these places were from mainstream America, well, that’s nothing new either. One of the reasons Cajuns came to Louisiana is because it was off the map. It was off the map 250 years ago, and, as we saw when it came time to bring relief to these people, it remains in some ways off the map. As a Louisianan and a Cajun, one has to be aware of the elements, because it is what shapes the staff for us, this sense of impending danger. It gives us our work ethic and enhances the playfulness of what we do, this feeling that it is all fragile and subject to change and loss.
Wow, great answer. As a person who is dedicated to roots music and who does not necessarily record or perform with commercial considerations as a top priority, how did it feel to win that Grammy Award? The awards, when they come, are always a surprise. Winning a Grammy without trying to be commercial, as you say, is an amazing feat, no doubt about that. I like to think it is an award we share with all the people in Louisiana who are a part of our culture. There are so many people here who just play because they can and because they love it that that’s actually the norm. Cajun music is not really a genre in the strict sense because it is a living ethnic music, which means it remains open to outside influences and reflects the life and spirit of the people who use it every day. I see what we do as being in a big train with all the others in this country who love and play music — we’re all Americans but we can still all be different.
Have you been to Santa Barbara much? Oh yes, we love Santa Barbara. It’s so beautiful, and the food is great. Also, one of my favorite musical instrument makers is there, Jim Wimmer, who makes these amazing violins that are the same size and type as the Cajun ones I use. We always try to visit him. It’s a great town.
4•1•1 BeauSoleil plays UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Thursday, February 15 at 8 p.m. Call 893-3535 or visit www.artsandlectures.ucsb.edu for tickets.