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A Musical Journey into Deepest Cajun Country

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It was hard not to gloat while watching the Cajun couple Marc and Anne Savoy perform at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival last spring. An audience of thousands was watching the show, but only a privileged few of us earlier that week had danced to their music while eating 400 pounds of spicy boiled crawfish in the backyard of their house in the swamplands outside Eunice, La.

We had a right to gloat. Not only had we partied with the Savoys, we also had been guests of honor the night before at a special evening of waltzing, two-stepping and Harlem Shuffling to Nathan & the Zydeco Cha-Chas at the band’s home club, El Sido’s, in Lafayette, where we also chowed down on some tasty seafood gumbo.

For fans of this music, it was a fascinating and intimate journey into a world that is usually closed to outsiders.

How did I get so lucky?

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I joined a group of about 40 music lovers and let Nancy Covey be my guide on a three-day tour of Cajun Country. Covey--who is married to English musician Richard Thompson (not coincidentally, a founding member of the folk-rock band Fairport Convention)--runs Festival Tours, a small Santa Monica- and London-based company that specializes in music festival package tours. And each year, Covey, who began taking people on festival trips in the early ‘80s as an outgrowth of her former job producing folk concerts at McCabe’s guitar shop and club in Santa Monica, leads groups of music lovers to festivals around the world.

In the spring, she goes to Louisiana for the jazz festival and in the summer to Britain for such events as the annual Fairport Convention Reunion Festival near Oxfordshire, England, and the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland. In recent years, she has also taken tours to what was the Soviet Union and to Zimbabwe to hear local folk music.

Our New Orleans trip was ostensibly to visit the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival--commonly referred to as JazzFest--which has become one of the top music festivals in the world since it started as a local event in 1970. Last year, a record 350,000 people attended the fest, held over two weekends, to hear acts ranging from such regional fare as Cajun and zydeco, Dixieland and gospel to such international stars as B.B. King, Robert Cray and Los Lobos. JazzFest now takes over the whole city, with evening events at various theaters, in addition to the daytime fairgrounds extravaganzas, and ranks behind only Mardi Gras and the Sugar Bowl as a top New Orleans tourist attraction.

But anyone who went on the Festival Tours trek will tell you that the highlight was the optional three-day Cajun Country side trip between the two JazzFest weekends. While anyone could make his own arrangements for JazzFest, there’s no way the average tourist, or even tour packager, could gain the kind of access to the music and musicians that Covey’s trip offered.

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The goose bumps came for one and all that evening. Those of us gathered at the Savoys’ home got more than our fill of dancing, and the musicians in our group--a fiddler from Sweden and a string bass player from England--got to sit in with the rotating set of players. In fact, the latter (one of more than a dozen British on the trip) even scored a gig accompanying the Savoys on an upcoming England concert tour.

Before going to the Savoys’ house, the tour stopped at the small music store that the couple runs closer to Eunice. It was a chance for introductions to the hosts and to get signed copies of their various compact discs and Anne’s book, “Cajun Music: A Reflection of a People,” a definitive chronicle of Cajun musical and oral history. The store was opened 25 years ago by Mark as an outgrowth of his accordion-building business. He’s recognized as one of the top Cajun accordion makers, as well as players, in the world.

A fierce defender of Cajun culture, Savoy has been tireless in leading the movement to revive and preserve its traditions, which had almost disappeared. As a child he fell in love with the accordion, but could find no one to instruct him in its making or playing. So he made one himself, using such household items as his grandmother’s tablecloth to line the cardboard bellows and toilet float rods to make the levers attached to the keys.

Savoy was a genial host. After making sure that everyone had stuffed themselves thoroughly with crawfish and corn, he became a giddy guide as he took those daring enough for a muddy romp through the swamps on the moonless night--a more adventurous reprise of the mud-bound crawfishing the group did earlier that day.

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That night was clearly the highlight, but there were plenty of others of only slightly less luster. The rhythm & blues-based zydeco at El Sido’s provided a contrast, but no less dancing, to the folkier Cajun sounds, while owner Sid Williams--who built the club by hand seven years ago as a showcase for his accordion-playing brother--was an equally genial host.

A visit to Ville Platte Record Manufacturing, Floyd Soileau’s record-pressing plant in Ville Platte, was also a treat, made even more so by the surprise appearance of Dewey Balfa, the 65-year-old fiddler who is still considered one of the great Cajun musicians.

The stop at internationally acclaimed Lafayette artist Francis X. Pavy’s small studio was just as thrilling. Few on the trip had expected to encounter art this primitive and colorful, but the soft-spoken Pavy--whose works hang in musician Paul Simon’s living room and who had, at El Sido’s the night before, showed that he’s also a supreme two-stepper--was a master at making us feel at home.

Covey doesn’t go to great lengths to organize the trip’s New Orleans stay beyond the basic accommodations and a few group activities. Her emphasis is on comfort rather than luxury, with an eye on costs. The 1991 group stayed in New Orleans at the adequate Landmark Hotel, on the edge of the French Quarter, and at a Travelodge in Lafayette for the two nights of the Cajun jaunt.

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Nonetheless, group activities, friendships and even romances developed. On the JazzFest trip, one person turned out to be an expert on local voodoo myths and historic cemeteries and led an impromptu tour of the centuries-old St. Louis Cemetery, final resting place of several noted voodoo queens. That will likely be repeated on next year’s trip, since that person, like a number of others who have been on a Covey trip, plans to go back for more.

In August, Covey will offer the Britain trip that will include the Fairport Convention Reunion Festival as well as a candlelight dinner in Wales with folk musician Robin Williamson, visits to private castles in Wales and Scotland and a stay in Edinburgh during the city’s famed festival.

GUIDEBOOK

Music Tours to Louisiana

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Festival Tours is now taking deposits on its 1992 “Bop to the Bayou” and an August trip to England, Scotland and Wales. The 11-day Louisiana tour runs from April 24 through May 4. A deposit of $300 before Jan. 15 will guarantee a total price of $1,399 per person, double occupancy, for a package that includes round-trip flight from Los Angeles to New Orleans, hotel accommodations, including breakfast, tickets to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival’s two weekends of events and shuttle tickets to the festival. The optional three-day side trip to Cajun Country carries an additional fee of $250.

Festival Tours is also planning 1993 trips to Zimbabwe and Ireland, and will consult on and/or customize music-oriented trips to the former Soviet Union. For more information, call (310) 395-2486 or (818) 346-5146.


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