It's nine in the morning, and Fred's Lounge is packed. please do not stand on the tables, chairs, cigarette machines, booths and juke-box! warns the sign on the wall of the tiny, bunker-like tavern on the main street of Mamou, Louisiana. Despite the early hour-the club is open just one day a week, Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.-the all-white crowd is washing down breakfasts of spicy boudin with cold, long-necked beers. As the onlookers tap their toes and stamp their feet, bandleader Don Thibodeaux, backed by an accordion, steel guitar, fiddle, drums and triangle, starts to sing: "Jolie blonde, regardez donc quoi t'as fait ..."
It's after midnight at Richard's Club, 20 miles away in Lawtell. The spacious wooden dance floor is vibrating as the all-black crowd whirls and twirls to an infectious two-step. A young boy tickles the ribs of a frottoir, a washboard-like instrument, with a pair of spoons-zhicka-zhicka, zhicka-zhicka-as a sultry teenage girl in a red Janet Jackson cap thumps out a beat on her electric bass guitar. Keith Frank, their brother and leader of the Soileau Zydeco Band, has the mike. "Get on, boy!" he sings, accompanied by a repetitive, irresistibly danceable rhythm: "Ow! Wooo! Get ready ..."
Welcome to Acadiana, the heart of Cajun country and home of the tastiest food, best dancers and liveliest music in America. In an increasingly homogenized musical nation, the area around Lafayette, Louisiana, a town of 106,000 located 120 miles west of New Orleans, remains blessedly distinctive. Here the Cajun-Zydeco tradition has not just survived but flourished, as 125,000 people were reminded last week at the Festival International de Louisiane, an annual celebration of the music of the Francophone world.
Cajun musicians are a colorful, immensely talented lot whose fame is just beginning to reach beyond the bayous and prairies of backcountry Louisiana. Among them are the scholarly accordionist Mark Savoy; guitar virtuoso Sonny Landreth; Michael Doucet, the leader of the fiery Cajun band Beausoleil; and Zydeco players like Keith Frank, Geno Delafose and Terrance Simien, whose dynamic marriage of white Cajun and black Delta blues offers a thrilling alternative to rap and processed R. and B.
Major record labels are starting to take notice. Musicians like Landreth, Wayne Toups and Stanley "Buckwheat" Dural have been marketed beyond the "roots music" category, and Cajun-Zydeco festivals and clubs have sprung up on both coasts. The Cajun-Zydeco sound has influenced mainstream artists as well. Paul Simon's homage to Zydeco and its late "king,'' Clifton Chenier, That Was Your Mother, was one of the highlights of his multimillion-selling Graceland album. Country chanteuse Mary Chapin Carpenter won a Grammy in 1992 for Down at the Twist and Shout, her foot-stompin' tribute to Cajun music in general and Beausoleil in particular. "What drew me to Cajun?" ponders Carpenter. "In no particular order: percussion, fiddle, spices, waltzes, Acadian accordion, the tempo, lyrics of love and spirit, gumbo, wails, Highway 10, darkness, dance halls."