Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Cajun country responds

From, one of my favorite ladies from the Living section (oh, who am I kidding? I love all those ladies.)

Joie de SurVivre
By Suzanne Stouse
Staff writer

LAFAYETTE - And just why, again, is this man smiling?
This man, head of emergency planning for Charity Hospital, whose house in Lakeview drowned while he spent six days at work in bureaucratic hell, watching "all we'd planned for fall apart"?

And why this couple, who work for New Orleans' House of Blues, whose everything-in-this-world Katrina washed away?

And this woman, a pediatric nurse at Tulane-Lakeside Hospital, whose Metairie house went underwater while she worked through the nights lofting sick babies into helicopters by the light of a doctor's headlights?

Well, really.

"How can you not smile out here?" asked Orleanian Mike DeAgano at the Festivals Acadiens in Girard Park. The recent two-day celebration of Cajun music, food and culture, in its 31st year, bore the banner "250 Ans et Toujours Grand Debout (250 Years and Still Standing Tall)" to commemorate the Acadians' Grand D�rangement, their expulsion by the British from Nova Scotia starting in 1755.

"We know a little bit about forced migrations around here," says main stage impresario Barry Ancelet, an author, folklorist and professor of Francophone studies at the University of Louisiana- Lafayette who has been amplifying appreciation of Cajun music and culture for more than 30 years. "When bad things happen in this culture, the Acadians learn from their history.

When something like this comes along, the old stuff comes roaring out.

"In their new frontier, the French settlers learned to depend only on their own efforts," says Ancelet, pointing to his as well as ULL professor Carl Brasseaux's research on the subject. "And the Cajuns, heirs of this fierce sense of independence, have continued to rely on their own strategies for survival in Louisiana."

The response to crisis or tragedy is the same: Cajuns turn to each other.

"When something bad happens, you group together," he says, "talk about things, network the community's resources. Ramasseries, for example, gathered members of the community to bring in a sick neighbor's crop. Today, somebody's roof blows off, you get together to fix it.

Somebody's sick, you have a benefit dance, you send some cooked food. This is what you do -- the only thing you know to do.

"We responded that way to Katrina -- as we did in 1927, after Audrey, Hilda, Betsy, all of them. Thousands here culled their closets. Every remotely mobile makeshift cooking contraption was mobilized to barbecue and boil and grill and fry food until the MREs began to arrive."
But Cajuns do not persevere on hard work and generosity alone.

"You have to dance, to sing, tell stories, play music, as a socially-affirming event," Ancelet says. "And we've known this for a long time."

Two weeks ago at Banding Together, an outdoor Cajun/zydeco Red Cross benefit with heavyweight headliners including Michael Doucet and Zachary Richard, Ancelet told the crowd that some people may have questioned the wisdom of a rousing concert "at a time like this." He reminded them that "the first thing our ancestors did when they got here was jump off the boats and start dancing on the dock."

Ancelet admitted that, "We also initially questioned whether it was responsible to hold this festival in the face of this tragedy." But then he came to his senses.

"This year," he said, "I've come to see Festivals Acadiens as a giant benefit dance. There were thousands here who needed a break."

Ancelet makes it clear to a visitor that he heartily disapproves of hurricane parties that take place before a hurricane hits. Those, he says, are for "idiots." After a hurricane is the time.
"Then you can generate help," he says. "That's what we're about."

Around 11 a.m. opening day, the crowd is delightfully slim. In the small Heritage Stage tent ("Dedicated to Rufus Thibodeaux and Harry Hypolite"), slide guitar virtuoso Sonny Landreth is chatting with the 150 or so people who fill the place to capacity. New Orleans artist and guitar/dulcimer player Amzie Adams is there too, recalling "how the Cajuns got here: They were refugees, like us."

Across the way, close to the tent manned by the Krewe des Canailles (roughly, mischief-makers), it's a fais-do-do, straw-hatted old-timers in folding chairs claiming the shady spots around the oak trees, families plopped under tarps (yes! like the Jazzfest That Was), eating boudin and crawfish sausage po-boys and Gator-on-a-Stick and listening to main-stage performer Kevin Naquin, leader of the Ossun Playboys, announce a turn by "Mr. Paul Frug� on the pipes!"

The young people will come "once everyone gets awake -- around noon," a festival worker says.

The early birds had heard Barry Ancelet offer a rousing bienvenu and a "This is for you, New Orleans!," and pitch the purchase of "les T-shirts" for the cause.

"Katrina took a shot, and we're still here," he tells them. "But you gotta wonder if Fats Domino is ever going to play 'Let the Four Winds Blow' again."

Shouts of "aiiieeeeeeeeee!" ring out as friends run into friends. Somebody says "This is the first time I've laughed since that Sunday."

In the shade of the main stage, Tim Butcher, the Charity emergency management director, says he had decided, "If I had a pulse today, I was going to be at this festival." He warns that this conversation will be over the minute Balfa Toujours starts to play, "and I'm going to have to dance."

He talks about thinking for the first couple of days after the storm that the city, state and federal emergency structure he had helped work on for three years "might actually work." By Wednesday, "it had fallen apart completely." On Thursday, he started the begging, calling every official to be found, "but the very top chain of command had broken down." They ran out of food. Then the diesel fuel to run the generators to save the preemies and the criticals. All told, he slept "about six hours."

And then Butcher, this very large man, starts to cry. Not bitter tears, not sad. Thankful ones, flowing with the recollection that, "Every single person from the CEO to the housekeepers was a hero. Not one complained." When the helicopters and the armed boats finally came, "everybody, regardless of his job, grabbed patients and got them on, got them out."

"In the history of the Cajun people there's always been hardship, always been loss," says Butcher, a Lafayette native who's now living in Butte LaRose. "Whether it was the people who came through Le Grand D�rangement or yellow fever or hurricanes, one thing that remains is the music and the spirit of the people. That's allowed them to come back, to be happy."

And then the family Balfa comes on, and Butcher begins to dance. Hard. Kicking up dust with his friend Sandra Robertson from Atlanta. And laughing.

"This is the heart and soul of Louisiana, this right here," announces Charles "Chopper" Brady, the House of Blues production manager just-married to Andrea Gorman by Justice of the Peace Barbara Broussard, of the town of Broussard, at the park's gazebo on a cypress pond.

Committed to marrying eventually, the couple had bumped up the wedding date only two days earlier, when Brady went to get a copy of his birth certificate and realized the place gave out marriage licenses, too.

Before a small cluster of friends and family, on a day the temperature hit 100 degrees, saxophonist Dickie Landry played "Hear Comes the Bride" on a harmonica he'd just bought at a garage sale. The bride, with dark eyes and curls and looking for all the world like Longfellow's Evangeline must have, wore a swirling skirt and camisole.

"We are head-strong: this is NOT going to kill the people of Louisiana," the groom had told a visitor before the ceremony. One big reason, says Brady, who lost two houses in Gentilly: "You hear the bad stories -- mostly false -- and then you go to a place called Comeaux's on Kaliste Saloom Road and the gas prices aren't high at all and I thank the guy for understanding and he chases me down and gives me my $20 back."

One of the weekend's more poignant moments might have come Saturday on the main stage when Terry Huval and Jambalaya brought out Bruce Daigrepont and his band as unscripted "special guests."

Daigrepont, of Metairie, has been a mainstay on the Cajun music scene in New Orleans since 1980 - in fact, back in the early '80s, Daigrepont and Allen Fontenot represented the sum total of the Cajun music scene in New Orleans - and for many years he has catered to local Cajun dancers, moreso than the tourists, with his regular fais do-do at Tipitina's.

Clad this day in a black Tip's T-shirt, Daigrepont and his mates ripped into several songs, interspersed with a heartfelt dialogue about the band's recent travails. Like so many New Orleans-based musicians, Daigrepont and his band find themselves suddenly out of work (if not homeless and out of work), and his appreciation for this opportunity to play music again was genuine.

Later, after crowd favorites Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys wrap up "Ardoin Medley," they segue into "Marie Mouri (Marie Has Died)," a poem written by a slave in St. Martinville that the band found in the Breaux Bridge library and set to music by guitarist Sam Broussard. The beginning sounds almost like a dirge, sad bagpipes-on-the-bayou. But then things pick up.

There's an address to the New Orleans people, telling them how the Cajuns will bring them back, with jobs, with anything they need. How the band will be back as well -- with a Maple Leaf gig planned for the first weekend in October.

As the white buckets for the Acadiana Arts Council's Project HEAL (Helping Employ Artists Locally) pass from hand to hand, Heritage Stage producer Patrick Mould, a Baton Rouge chef who moved to Lafayette to make room for New Orleans friends until they rebuild, echoes the talk of "not being able to imagine Louisiana without New Orleans," of "the dishwashers, the hostesses, the thousands who lost jobs in the hospitality and other industries." He promises, again: "We are here."

A little while later, close to quitting time, a hard rain starts to fall, but the people stay put. It's not enough to shut this party down.

As their ancestors did 250 years ago, as their new friends do today, they keep dancing.
Staff writer Suzanne Stouse can be reached at


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