If you’re wondering what this title means, ‘lagniappe’ is a Cajun French word meaning ‘a little extra’, and ‘a little extra’ is exactly what you get in Lafayette. This colourful city on the Vermillion River in Louisiana is just over two hours from New Orleans. If you’re planning to visit New Orleans, I’d strongly suggest you also head to Lafayette for that little bit extra.
The Cajun story is a fascinating one in the rich history of America. It is a story of dispossession and rebirth. It is the major influence in the food, culture and music of Louisiana. Cajun is a derivative of ‘Acadien’, the name of the French-speaking people who were expelled from the area around Nova Scotia in the 18th century when the British took over what is now Canada.
Many of the dispossessed Acadians settled in Louisiana where there were already some French colonists and after a period of further repression, the culture began to experience a major revival which continues to this day.
Festivals Acadiens et Créoles
Lafayette seems to have more festivals than any other city I’ve visited. It claims to have a festival for nearly everything, from beer to boudin, shrimp to sugarcane, gumbo to gratins. Little wonder the local tourism folk call it “the happiest city in America”.
One of the biggest celebrations, Festival International de Louisiane, is in April when Lafayette hosts what it calls “the largest outdoor Francophone event in the world” and the whole downtown area is closed off to traffic. I was there in October for the Festivals Acadiens et Créoles, three days of Cajun and Zydeco music and dancing, workshops and talks, along with great food and some inspiring art and craft stalls at the festival venue in Girard Park.
The 2023 Festivals Acadiens et Créoles was dedicated to Clifton Chenier, the self-proclaimed king of Zydeco. He is to Zydeco what H.C. Handy is to Blues music. In 1974 he organized a Tribute to Cajun Music concert, which later evolved into the Festivals Acadiens et Créoles. This year also happens to be the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Parish of Lafayette and that’s a great reason to party. (Louisiana is divided into parishes, similar to counties in other states.)
The Festivals Acadiens et Créoles kicked off with a unique event, the boudin cutting. Other places might celebrate an opening with a ribbon cutting but in Lafayette they celebrate by cutting a boudin. In Cajun country, boudin is a cooked blend of pork, onions, peppers, seasoning and rice stuffed into a sausage casing. There are a lot of variations on boudin but essentially this is a Louisiana Cajun favourite and so it makes perfect sense to cut a gigantic string of boudin to open the festival. Everyone then lines up to get a piece of the sausage, sort of like a Cajun communion.
Cajun or Zydeco music?
Roddie Romeo and the Hub City Allstars got the music started on the opening night and suddenly everyone was up dancing. They were followed by Corey Ladet Zydeco, and the dancing continued. Both bands played as a tribute to Clifton Chenier. Zydeco has its own form of dancing which has evolved in Louisiana and has some serious devotees. The rhythmic driving force of the piano accordion in both Cajun and Zydeco music means that you simply have to get up and dance. So, what’s the difference between Zydeco and Cajun music?
I asked Anya Burgess, the owner of Sola Violins in downtown Layfette, to explain the difference. A talented musician and violin maker, Anya pretty much summed it up thus: Cajun is the music of the white Arcadians of Louisiana, whereas Zydeco is the music of Creole people or people of African/American heritage within the French culture of Louisiana. Clifton Chenier was Creole and his first language was French.
There’s another distinction too, according to Anya, in that Zydeco is a bigger sound with more instrumentation, whereas Creole is more like ‘down home’ music played on the porch with fewer players. Usually, the vocals in Cajun music are in French and in Zydeco mainly English.
Traditionally, a typical Zydeco line up will be accordion, washboard, guitar, bass, keyboard and drums, while a typical Cajun line up will be accordion, fiddle, guitar, bass, triangle and maybe drums. This means no washboard in Cajun music and no fiddle in Zydeco, but with the accordion being common and central to both. The washboard in Zydeco is called a ‘frottoir’ (roughly translated as a rub board) and unlike the traditional washboard played by people like Tuba Skinny’s Robin Rapuzzi in New Orleans, it has no wooden frame and is one piece of metal with straps over the shoulders, worn like a vest.
I got hooked on this music way back when I saw the fabulous Psycho Zydeco perform at the Australian Blues Music Festival. Back then, I also became a fan of Buckwheat Zydeco and noticed a very distinct difference between Cajun and Zydeco music.
But judging from what I saw at the Festivals Acadiens et Créoles, there are no hard and fast rules nowadays, just great music. There were fiddles in Zydeco bands and a variety of instruments in both. Harmonicas, saxophones, trumpets and whatever … all appeared to be welcome. Clifton Chenier’s band included a sax, as do many Zydeco bands — often giving that music a blues or jazz-like element. The festival demonstrated an inclusiveness that has grown up around this music and which typifies how the Cajun and Creole cultures have evolved and intermingled.
Inclusion and Community
Inclusiveness is an important element of the festival and a factor which also typifies Lafayette. Regardless of your culture, colour, language, gender, or the instrument you play, everyone is welcome – all you need to do is move to the music, which isn’t hard at all. There is a strong community feel to Lafayette and this was no more apparent than when we went to the Lafayette Farmers and Artisans Marketon Saturday morning in Moncus Park.
The market has a huge variety of produce, cooked foods, and handcrafted items on offer, and the park itself is well worth a visit to see what a strong community can achieve. During our visit, a Cajun music jam session was taking place in the center of the market, and I was amazed to see someone playing a washtub bass. This is a metal washtub turned upside down with a string through the bottom attached to a wooden stick that can be pushed or pulled to change the tension and pitch. It’s usually associated with jug bands and in Australia the version using a tea chest is associated with bush bands. Who says you can’t use any instrument in Cajun or Zydeco?
This washtub bass made another appearance at the Cajun music jam that we dropped in to at the Vermilionville Historic Village. We had done a tour of this living history museum and had a great lunch at La Cuisine de Maman with some traditional Cajun-Creole dishes (I had a really good gumbo) when the music started up and we were drawn in like moths to the Cajun flame. I presume the man on the bass now had an electric washing machine, so what else would you do with an old washtub but make music with it. Players came and went after each number and when not playing were keen for a chat. I spoke to one guy who very proudly told me he had been to Australia. These jam sessions create a great community atmosphere.
Back in downtown Lafayette, the main street was alive with art and craft stalls, exhibitions, performances and all types of music, both on the streets and in the cafés and restaurants. ArtWalk Lafayette is held on the second Saturday of every month and there’s a welcoming feel as you stroll down Jefferson Street, chat to people, check out the street art and the architecture, and visit some unique shops like the Cajun Hatter, Beausoleil Books and Borden’s Ice Cream Shoppe.
Outside Sola Violins, Anya Burgess was playing with a group of other women. In times gone by, it was unusual to see women playing in Cajun or Zydeco bands — those whose families had the music in their DNA, such as Rosie Ledet and Mary Broussard, being among the few exceptions.
Times have changed and on Sunday afternoon at the Festivals Acadiens et Créoles, there was a talk and discussion on Women Bandleaders in Cajun and Zydeco, featuring Kristi Guillory, Sheryl Cormier, Christine Balfa and Donna Angelle – pioneers in creating the musical invitation and acceptance for women to perform this music.
Later that afternoon, Bonsoir Catin were on the main stage: five women, including Anya Burgess and the aforementioned Kristi and Christine, along with a male drummer (how’s that for inclusion?) and numerous guests. The sound was a spellbinding blend of old and new Cajun.
There were lots of CDs, posters, books, t-shirts, and a very large range of merchandise for sale at the festival venue. Among the CDs I bought was Chers Amis, by the Magnolia Sisters, an all- female group again including Anya Burgess and Christine Balfour – a fantastic album featuring both very traditional and new Cajun music.
Anytime is a good time to visit Lafayette because there’s always something happening. But do try to make it for either the International de Louisiane in April or Acadiens et Créoles in October– we highly recommend these festivals. In the end there’s only one word to sum up Lafayette … Lagniappe!
More information on things to do in Lafayette:
Maurie and Christine visited Lafayette as guests of the Lafayette Convention and Visitors Commission. We were part of a wonderful 3-day fam trip organized for members of the International Food, Wine & Travel Writers Association.
We stayed at the SpringHill Suites by Marriott Lafayette South at River Ranch. Our King studio room was very spacious with a completely separate living/sitting area and great workspace. The hotel is within walking distance of excellent dining and nightlife, and a short drive to downtown Lafayette and a host of great attractions.
With thanks to the Lafayette Convention and Visitors Commission for very generously hosting our stay. It’s an honour to share your destination with our readers.