“What’s up, Cajuns?” ask the youthful innovators of Louisiana’s Feufollet. The playful salutation went from inside joke to habit for the band members whose love of roots music began in the cradle. Their latest album, Cow Island Hop (Valcour Records; July 1, 2008), brings Mellotron to melancholy ballads, funky horns to time-tested fiddle tunes, and a cool new energy to Cajun music.
A lot of feeling lies behind this little joke: the irony of singing French songs in an Anglophone land, of young hip players devoted to old traditions, of iPod age eclectics dedicated to a very localized ethnic culture. Emerging from a generation newly engaged with their once threatened Francophone heritage, Feufollet has Cajun music in their blood. The mostly 20-somethings grew up speaking French, bopping at Cajun jam sessions as toddlers, taking music lessons from older musicians who put Cajun music on the map, and later touring the U.S. as precocious young performers. “A lot of people today are more self consciously Cajun, but in a good way,” Feufollet accordionist and fiddler Chris Stafford explains. “Our group and our generation are really discovering who we are and where we came from.”
This discovery started early. Feufollet’s fiddler, Chris Segura, remembers his family driving back home to Cajun country, just to catch some good music: “Starting around the time I was three, we would drive almost every weekend to Eunice, a good two hours. We’d go to the jam sessions at legendary Cajun musician Mark Savoy’s record store. Or we’d go to the Liberty Theater and watch a show.” Soon Segura was playing old tunes on a tiny fiddle of his own, learning from master musicians like Steve Riley.
Younger Cajuns like the musicians in Feufollet form a kind of sandwich generation, learning French and trying, along with their grandparents, to promote the language at the heart of their heritage. “The language is what’s most up in the air at this point. It’s up to our generation to keep it intact,” Stafford muses. “There was a gap in the mid 1940s when parents didn’t teach their kids French, and so a lot of the 50-year-olds don’t speak it. Really old and really young people are the ones now making a conscious effort.”
As a part of this passion for local traditional culture, Feufollet find themselves at the center of a vibrant scene in and around Lafayette, forging new traditions of their own. The crowds filling downtown Lafayette clubs to catch roots music have unexpectedly grown more youthful in recent years. Energetic twenty-somethings cram into Feufollet shows and dance a foot from the stage. “People sometimes even fall onto the stage while dancing, right in your face, but it’s cool,” Stafford chuckles.
Yet while Feufollet serenades college students and cultural hipsters, the band also bounces ideas off of veteran musicians like Steve Riley, who give advice along with lessons and who support Feufollet’s playful innovation on traditional themes. Though the band was excited about their experiments on Cow Island Hop, they weren’t quite sure what more traditionalist listeners might think. “We were a bit worried about that at first,” Segura laughs, “but then the reaction was really positive. People thought it was good, even though it was different, because it was respectful,” not to mention performed with painstaking musicianship.
The quirky characters and unbridled energy encountered in the current Cajun scene are behind the album’s curious name. The band was playing a gig near Cow Island, a tiny hamlet south of Lafayette with little more than a bar and a few houses. The evening soon turned surreal, thanks in part to a local drummer named Wooley, whose past included stints as a ’70s roadie. Wooley got up on stage, demanding to play a song or two, and before they knew it, Feufollet was rocking out Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin covers. Wooley ended the evening by posing for an innocent peck-on-the-cheek snapshot and at the last minute giving singer Anna Laura Edmiston a big, sloppy (and uninvited) kiss. The wild night spawned not only endless jokes and an original instrumental by Feufollet’s electric guitarist Josh Caffery, but the album’s name and eerie cover art.
When not rocking the dance floor, Feufollet digs up forgotten gems from the under-explored Archives of Cajun and Creole Folklore, where Chris Segura works, including the little-known song, “Femme l’a dit.” “There is a wealth of information there,” Stafford explains. “A lot of the material hasn’t been gone through all that much, other than by the people cataloging it.” These newfound treasures get reworked with new instrumentation or subtle shifts in timbre.
Feufollet also crafts original arrangements and songs based on the sounds they know and love, Cajun and non-Cajun. Traditional tunes morph as Feufollet plays around with them, transforming spare a cappella songs or double fiddle pieces into raucous dance numbers or spooky ballads. “It’s perfectly acceptable to incorporate different styles into the music, just like bands did with swing or country in the 1940s and 1950s,” Stafford notes. “People shouldn’t be afraid to bring new things to the table,” whether it’s a rollicking drum beat, a tuba line, or a keyboard track harkening back to ’70s rock.
For “Chère Bébé Créole,” a double-fiddle favorite of Segura’s made popular by Cajun fiddle legend Denis McGee, Feufollet began by laying down a more traditional version with two fiddles and vocals. But in the process of working in the studio with young Lafayette engineer Ivan Klisanin, the band expanded the arrangement to include surprising elements like a backward vocal track and even a Mellotron, in a subtle shout-out to the Beatles.
“Sur la Bord de l’eau,” an old Cajun ballad also sung in various forms across the Francophone world, was transformed from a short set of verses into an epic (by Cajun standards) six-minute song featuring instruments from cello to lap steel guitar. To tell this tale of a young woman seduced by a sailor’s beautiful song, Feufollet collected as many verses as they could from various versions they knew, trying to convey the story their favorite vintage recordings didn’t always get around to telling.
For Feufollet, Cajun music is not only about speaking French or playing fiddle or accordion just so. It’s about an awareness of the past and future of a unique cultural community and those who formed it. “Not to sound clichéd, but being Cajun, I’d say, means respecting your ancestors and not forgetting the people who were here before us, who did so much work getting Cajun music beyond this little local thing that nobody knew about,” Segura reflects. “It’s also about moving the music forward for those who are going to come after us.”