Only a decade ago, most people's knowledge of Cajun music began and ended with what they knew about fiddler Doug Kershaw, and that was only because he's always billed himself as "The Ragin' Cajun."
Nowadays, pop fans across the country--in fact, around the world--have had numerous opportunities to discover how much more there is to the unique music of southwestern Louisiana than that one manic musician with the Marty Feldman eyes.
Whether it was through such films as "The Big Easy" and "Belizaire the Cajun," the backing Paul Simon got from zydeco musician Rockin' Dopsie on his "Graceland" album or Mary-Chapin Carpenter's exuberant 1991 hit paean to all things Cajun, "Down at the Twist and Shout," millions have gotten at least a taste of the joyful music that's part of daily life throughout the 22 Louisiana parishes known as Acadiana.
For the last six years, promoters of the annual Southern California Cajun & Zydeco Festival have been working with the fervor of religious missionaries to spread that gospel locally. And this weekend, when the event gets under way again in Long Beach, organizers are looking beyond merely introducing Southlanders to the music.
Not that there will be any shortage of music: The lineup may be the strongest yet, with return appearances by Beausoleil (the stellar Cajun band that supplied most of the "shout" for Carpenter's "Down at the Twist and . . . "), zydeco accordionist John Delafose & the Eunice Playboys, relative newcomer Nathan & the Zydeco Cha-Chas and Joe Simien, the Creole accordionist from Lawtell, La., who's been living in Los Angeles for the last 45 years. (The lineup and hours for the festival are the same both days, except for the opening acts: Bad Boy Zydeco from Fresno opens Saturday, while Simien's Country Boys kick things off Sunday.)
Additionally, there will be a couple of introductions: the Savoy-Doucet Cajun Band and Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys will make their first festival appearances.
The Savoy-Doucet Cajun Band consists of accordionist (and accordion maker) Marc Savoy, his guitarist-musicologist wife, Ann, and fiddler Michael Doucet, from Beausoleil. It's been nearly two decades since the Savoys performed in Southern California. Though they aren't exactly unsung heroes at home, their low-profile approach and infrequent appearances outside Louisiana make them something on the order of quiet linchpins of traditional Cajun music. (During open jam sessions every Saturday morning in their Savoy Music Center in Eunice, La., Marc Savoy, who makes some of the world's most prized handmade accordions, has been known to apologize to other players when he has to put down his instrument and actually sell something to a customer.)
Riley, who is in his early 20s, sticks to the traditional style of Cajun accordion-playing, unlike such slightly older peers as Wayne Toups and Zachary Richard, who have landed major-label deals with hybridized music that aims at the rock audience. A regular at Mulate'srestaurant-dance club in Breaux Bridge, La.--food, drink and music are as inseparable as the other Holy Trinity in this section of the world--Riley originally was scheduled to appear with veteran fiddler and songwriter Dewey Balfa. But Balfa has been seriously ill and as of press time, it was not known whether he would be well enough to travel.
Beyond the music and the usual assortment of Cajun-Creole food booths, this year there will be even more emphasis placed on exploring the cultures out of which the music blossoms. "For the first time, we're going to have cultural workshops," said Franklin Zawacki, the festival's San Francisco-based promoter.
"I feel in a huge way the importance of cultural understanding," Zawacki said. "There are many distinctions between Cajun and Creole cultures that need elucidation andunderstanding."
One thing central to these close but distinct cultures is family connectedness, and the festival will reflect that with a variety of activities for children and their parents. Most of these, including mask-making workshops, a Mardi Gras-style parade and lessons in Cajun two-steps and waltzes for all ages, are being coordinated by Comprehensive Child Development, a Long Beach child-care facility.
Zawacki also has put together a string of workshops designed to explore various aspects of Cajun and Creole culture. The workshops will run each day.
At 1:30 p.m. will be a session exploring the differences between Cajun and Creole people and their cultures. (In a nutshell, Cajuns are the white descendants of French-speaking Acadians who were exiled from Canada by the British in the 18th Century and ultimately resettled in the bayous and prairies of southwestern Louisiana. Many speak French and English; a good percentage still speak French exclusively. Traditional Cajun music is played on accordion, fiddle and triangle, sometimes with acoustic guitar added. Creoles descended from intermarriages of blacks, American Indians, Caribbean islanders and/or French and Spanish settlers. French also is the language of a large number of Creoles. Zydeco is the more rhythmically forceful Creole answer to Cajun music, characterized by the use of the metal rubboard, or froittoir , as well as drums, electric guitar and bass.)
At 2:30, a workshop in "The Music of Dewey Balfa" will feature Steve Riley and his band and their insights into Balfa's long career.
At 3:30, Marc Savoy will conduct a session he's titled "Accordion Maintenance and Repair," which Zawacki said will have as much to do with the mechanics of accordions as Robert Pirsig's cult classic "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" had to do with repairing Harleys.
And at 4:30, Ann Savoy and fiddler David Greeley (from Riley's Mamou Playboys) will lead a workshop in "Cajun Song Lyrics." This session will draw upon Ann Savoy's extensive interviews of Cajun and Creole musicians, many of which are transcribed in her 1984 book "Cajun Music--A Reflection of a People, Vol. 1."
"Ann spends so much time researching, she finds gems none of us would probably ever hear," Zawacki said. "The popularization of Cajun and zydeco music has really taken its own course now, but it's lovely to go back in time with the things that Ann comes up with."
The lineup for the Sixth Annual Southern California Cajun & Zydeco Festival in Long Beach:
Noon: Bad Boy Zydeco (Saturday); Joe Simien & the Country Boys (Sunday).
1 p.m.: Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys.
2 p.m.: The Savoy-Doucet Cajun Band.
3:15 p.m.: John Delafose & the Eunice Playboys.
4:30 p.m.: Nathan & the Zydeco Cha-Chas.
5:45 p.m.: Beausoleil.
1:30 p.m.: Cajun-Creole Culture.
2:30 p.m.: The Music of Dewey Balfa, with Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys.
3:30 p.m.: Accordion Maintenance and Repair, with Marc Savoy.
4:30 p.m.: Cajun Song Lyrics.
What: Sixth Annual Southern California Cajun & Zydeco Festival.
When: Saturday and Sunday, May 30 and 31, noon to 7 p.m. (Gates open at 11 a.m.)
Where: Rainbow Lagoon, Linden Avenue at Ocean Boulevard, Long Beach.
Whereabouts: Exit Long Beach (710) Freeway at Shoreline Drive, go south. Turn left onto Linden Avenue. Rainbow Lagoon is adjacent the Long Beach Arena.
Wherewithal: $17.50, general admission; $15, senior citizens and students; $5, ages 10 to 16; free for children under 10.
Where to call: (310) 404-1608 or (714) 638-1466.