Menard and Delafose Still Spicing Up Cajun and Zydeco : Music: Two veteran performers bring their pure Louisiana sound to the Cajun and zydeco festival in Long Beach.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

To Cajun and zydeco music veterans D. L. Menard and John Delafose, there's nothing wrong with younger performers who mix elements of traditional Louisiana music with rock, blues, country or R&B; to reach a wider audience.

But for themselves, the music of their homeland is like air itself: the purer the better.

In guitarist Menard's case, that means eschewing the fancy stuff in favor of basic, three-chord strumming behind his old-timey two-steps and waltzes.

For Delafose, it means still singing the bulk of his zesty zydeco songs in the traditional Cajun French, rather than abandoning his native tongue to lure English-speaking audiences.

And what that means to those who catch Menard and Delafose this weekend at the Fourth Annual Southern California Cajun and Zydeco Festival in Long Beach is that they'll be hearing the flip sides of rural Louisiana music pretty much the way it has sounded for decades throughout Cajun country.

(In addition to Saturday and Sunday performances by Menard's Louisiana Aces and Delafose's family-dominated Eunice Playboys, this year's lineup includes two other Louisiana acts--relative newcomer Nathan Williams & the Zydeco Cha-Chas and accordionist Bruce Daigrepont's Cajun Band--plus three California-based groups.)

Ask Menard and he'll be at the front of the line defending such crossover acts as Beausoleil, Zachary Richard and Wayne Toups for gaining ground in rock circles with a musical gumbo that combines traditional and contemporary styles.

"You play music the way you feel it," Menard, 58, said in a recent phone interview from his one-man chair factory in Erath, La., where he turns out custom straight-backs and rockers when he isn't on tour.

"It doesn't bother me if Wayne Toups jumps up and down on stage and does a split--I'm all for it, if that's the way he likes it," Menard said. "I feel like doing it real straight--that's the way I'm comfortable with it and that's the way I'll keep on doing it."

Much in Menard's outlook can be traced back to a chance 10-minute chat with his idol Hank Williams nearly 40 years ago, though he still talks about it as if it happened last week.

"Hank Williams told me this one time--he said: 'All music is good if it is your music,' " said Menard, who has been dubbed the Cajun Hank Williams for plaintive vocals that sound eerily like those of the country-music giant.

Menard's Louisiana Aces band currently includes accordionist Eddie LeJeune, the son of Cajun music great Iry LeJeune, as well as his longtime, champion fiddle-playing cohort Ken Smith. In a warm-up for this weekend's festival, Menard's group will play a Cajun dance Fridayat War Memorial Hall in South Pasadena.

John Delafose is often mentioned along with Boozoo Chavis, Rockin' Dopsie and Buckwheat Zydeco's Stanley (Buckwheat) Dural as a leading contender for the "King of Zydeco" crown left by the 1987 death of Clifton Chenier.

But Delafose isn't particularly worried about when, or if, that crown will be passed. Of the man largely credited with inventing zydeco, the rollicking, R&B-infused; strain of Cajun music, Delafose, 51, said, "In Clifton's time, it was only Clifton for a while. But there are so many (zydeco) bands around now, it's hard to have a single person as the people's choice.

"Now," the accordionist added with a chuckle, in a phone interview from his home in Eunice, La., "Rockin' Dopsie has got himself a crown and says he's the king. But I think that should be appointed by the people. Anyway, it's all right if I'm not the king--as long as I get the most gigs."

If Delafose has a concern it would be that if too many bands stray from the musical source, "In the next 15 years, there's gonna be few zydeco bands left."

But he's doing his small part on that count--his son Geno, who plays drums for the Eunice Playboys, also plays accordion and speaks Cajun French, "so he's gonna have a good zydeco band of his own one day." Another of Delafose's sons, Tony, also is his bass player.

While some advocates hoped the 1987 film "The Big Easy," with its Cajun and zydeco-rich score, would catapult Louisiana music to the national forefront the way "Urban Cowboy" did country music in the early '80s, Menard and Delafose don't fret much that it didn't work out that way.

"In some ways maybe people were disappointed, but it's still growing," said Delafose, whose band also plays tonight at Patout's Cajun restaurant in Westwood and Friday at Verbum Dei High School in Compton. "There's (Cajun-zydeco) festivals in California, Texas, San Francisco, Rhode Island. People will go to a festival and like it, then go home and spread it out."

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