released in 1999 from RHINO RECORDS
America's Premier Cajun Band Turns Up The Heat And Turns The World On To Cajun Music
--- by Curtis Darrah
Down on the Louisiana bayous, tradition demands that you start your gumbo in an old, black iron pot with the Holy Trinity of Cajun cooking: onions, bell peppers, and celery. After that the choice of ingredients is up to you, as long as the result is hot and tasty.
For over 20 years and 21 recording projects, Michael Doucet and BeauSoleil have been following the same winning recipe. Take three traditional ingredients-soulful Cajun French lyrics, hot fiddle licks, and irresistible accordion-then add savory elements from the well-stocked pantry of decades of bayou musical influences. A pinch of Caribbean rhythm, a dash of New Orleans jazz, a dollop of Old World ballads, a hefty measure of blues, and maybe even a hint of surf music, bayou-style. Served up hot by six seasoned musicians, you have the music of BeauSoleil, who Rolling Stone praised as "the best damn dance band you'll ever hear."
At the helm is Michael Doucet, founder, fiddler extraordinaire, songwriter, and lead vocalist. As a high school senior in 1969, his love for Acadian culture lead to in-depth study of this traditional music across the kitchen tables of the rapidly vanishing older generation of musicians who had shaped and defined it.
"I couldn't be doing what I'm doing if I hadn't learned a hundred songs by Dennis McGee," Doucet explains. "The more songs you play by these artists-Dennis, Dewey Balfa, Canray Fontenot, Amédé Ardoin, and all the other greats-the more you learn. First, you understand their musical theories, then you can create music that fits within the tradition.
As Doucet once explained early in his career, "If I was going to play Cajun music, I wanted to play it right. And if I was going to change Cajun music, I had to be sure of the directions."
Audiences around the world seem to agree with Doucet's road map. The band have been honored with seven GRAMMY nominations and one GRAMMY Award. In 1997, their Rhino album L'Amour Ou La Folie (Love Or Folly) earned the GRAMMY for Best Traditional Folk Album. In January 2000, CAJUNIZATION, released in 1999, gave the band its seventh nomination with the nod for Best Contemporary Folk Album.
CAJUNIZATION rockets Cajun music into the 21st century with an eclectic mix of Doucet's finest songs yet, performed with ferocious virtuosity by the group A Prairie Home Companion's Garrison Keillor calls "the best Cajun band in the world." Doucet feels CAJUNIZATION really captures BeauSoleil at its best, and expands its exploration of Cajun music's roots.
"Jimmy Breaux can play anything on the accordion," Doucet says. "The things he makes sound simple aren't simple. Take the song 'Cubano Bayou': what he does with that tune is amazing. And, naturally, he just wails on all the Cajun tunes."
"My brother, David Doucet, is just an incredible guitar player and getting better all the time. We really worked on tone for our new songs, because I love his style of playing and his leads.
"Al Tharp plays a lot of instruments," Doucet continues. "He plays an electric bass that sounds acoustic and warm. He plays second fiddle on the McGee songs and even adds banjo and occasional lead electric guitar on others.
"Drummer Tommy Alesi is a really laid-back guy, but watch out: There's a certain kind of groove when we all get together that he can sense, even though we might be speeding up or slowing down. Tommy knows us so well, he keeps it all tied together no matter where the music goes.
"And percussionist Billy Ware could play anything-frottoir [rubboard], congas-but he played a lot of triangle on the new recording, which really brought it together on the songs which needed that traditional touch. And when he added percussion textures on other songs, 'Perfecto!' "
As great as Doucet and BeauSoleil sound on disc, nothing compares with the band's spicy blend of bayou music cooked up fresh on stage in over 100 live performances each year. Even TV audiences have sampled their authentic Cajun flavor in appearances on a GRAMMY Award show and the 1997 Superbowl with Mary-Chapin Carpenter performing "Down At The Twist And Shout." ("There ain't no cure for my blues today, except when the paper says BeauSoleil is coming into town," Carpenter sings on that tune.)
What is it about Doucet and BeauSoleil's music that strikes such a responsive chord? "We sing in French, a different language, but still get our message across," Doucet said.
"It's like opera: You may not understand Italian, but you understand the emotions being expressed."
Doucet, the descendant of Acadians, grew up speaking French with his family, an influence that even the Americanization of his school days could not water down. Much of BeauSoleil's music springs from the heart and soul of common Cajun cultural roots, and the shared emotions of joy and suffering.
Louisiana's Cajuns descend from the French-speaking Acadians who settled in Nova Scotia in 1604. Their New World community was overturned in a 1755 event called Le Grand Dérangement, when English soldiers seized the Acadians, arbitrarily splitting up families and forcing them onto ships sailing south. Half died on the voyage. The survivors were scattered, although many made their way to the protective isolation of Louisiana's bayous.
One of Doucet's new songs, "Recherche D'Acadie" ("In Search Of Acadie"), mystically connects with that painful voyage. Doucet remembers how, after running each day, he would drop into a hammock hung between two ancient cypress trees outside his 180-year-old Cajun cottage. "After swinging for a while, the sounds of the rope against the trees, combined with the image of looking straight up at the trunks, reminded me of a ship's mast. There were related Acadian souls back then who could probably envision me now in hope that I would tell their tale."
"Cajun music is wrapped up in emotion," Doucet said. "Maybe some of the emotions, the more modern emotions, aren't adequately covered by the old songs. So that's what we try to do through our new compositions. In many ways we're the same individuals our ancestors were 300 years ago, but the times around us have changed. If the music captures where we are now, it just adds to the preservation of Cajun music."
"In our career, BeauSoleil has always reflected the diversity of Cajun music, not just the two-steps but ballads, blues, jazz, Tin Pan Alley-everything that made up our musical culture-from near-forgotten individual musical craftsmen to such influences as brass bands, jazz, Texas swing, country and swamp pop.
"Throughout our history Cajun music has been evolving: all these ingredients have made it what it is," Doucet explained. "The past and the present are all linked."
Melodies soaring like red-tailed hawks in full flight above the Cajun prairie. Surging percussive rhythms that drag even normally reluctant feet to the dance floor. Like the masters of Cajun music that have gone before them, Michael Doucet and BeauSoleil continue to create spirited music their grandfathers and great-grandfathers would recognize as true to the tradition.