Editor’s note: Also check out PopMatters’ coverage of this year’s Jazz Fest.
Search beyond New Orleans’ aura of vampire voodoo, Bourbon Street bra-less, and gas firelit silhouettes of dirty sailors. Wind your way through the syntax of Starbucked strip malls alternating with shotgun houses, cane fields, and “CRAWFISH FOR SALE” signs. Stop 90 minutes west in the heart of a modern city with a well-preserved, well-pulsed, but little known, Cajun French culture. Yes, the 100,000 plus city of Lafayette, Louisiana may seem an unlikely place for a five-day gathering of world music. But once you step into the carousing crowd traveling the downtown streets amongst the six stages, once your ears catch the accents surrendering hometowns from around the United States and multiple continents, once you understand the spirit of this free, “donation and concession-funded only” event that draws 350,000 annually, you’ll understand Festival International is perfectly located in a city where fiddles and accordions are as plentiful as guitars and amplifiers and where folk history stretches over the cultural consciousness like the ghost of Marie Laveau still throws voodoo over New Orleans.
The locals call it “Festival”. It starts on Wednesday night with high profile local acts filling the two main stages, including youthful two-time Grammy nominees the Pine Leaf Boys, whose music is representative of the part tradition, part innovation of the young Cajun/zydeco scene in Lafayette that has produced several Grammy-nominated acts in the last several years. The Pine Leaf Boys often sing in French and work from the Cajun French folk genres and tonalities, but swing and jump blues rhythms sometimes texture their tunes, and these nuanced textures mark an authentic but original interpretation for the area’s French and Creole roots—a sound generally absent from national ears since the Band sometimes borrowed these sounds in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
The international acts do not appear until Thursday evening after the opening ceremonies. But by Thursday night, the world beat has begun. Chicha Libre, a Peruvian “Psychedelic Cumbia” act, take one stage, while Locos Por Juana, an upbeat Latin act from Colombia and Venezuela, crosses Latin and reggae rhythms in the city’s central park. I arrive to catch the last few numbers of Locos Por Juana, but the dance space in the park is quickly disappearing as people arrive for the evening’s headliner, Marc Broussard. Broussard, who recently moved from Island to Atlantic Records, could be labeled the most white bread act of the weekend, and he is most likely on the bill only because he is local. Having toured with Dave Matthews and Ben Harper helps his roots credibility at a world music festival, but his singles have ranged from Al Green covers to a new country duet with LeAnn Rimes to some decent Delta Southern rock in the form of his single “Home”, by far his best song to date.
An interesting tension surrounds Broussard’s show, which has been billed as Marc Broussard plus Surprise Guests. All day rumors swirled around town as to the identity of the surprise guest. Immediately, Dave Matthews was seen buying a sandwich downtown, Jessica Simpson was seen through the window of a limousine, and a radio caller predicted the ghost of Elvis. By Broussard’s third song, no special guest has appeared, yet my friends and I must exit the show for the balcony bar across the street so we aren’t fighting for air with the 9,000 or 10,000 packed into the gated concert area.
Half way through the concert, the special guests appear. A trio of female vocalists trot onstage, their name unintelligible from my seat in the patio bar. The crowd applauds politely. Toward the sets end, Broussard, perhaps taken aback by this crowd that reaches beyond the park gates, apologizes for rumors of Dave Matthews’ attendance. But is the main stage’s attendance at its peak simply because Dave Matthews was rumored to be in town? Perhaps not. Besides being a local celebrity, Broussard has a solid live show and a one-in-a-million voice that can compete with the likes of Ben Harper or Al Green. His voice is the reason he still has a developing career after much lukewarm songwriting on his Island Records releases. At 11 in the p.m., the show ends, and the crowd, thousands strong, pour, as they will every night, from the festival stages to the clubs and pubs just one block away.
Friday is the first full day of the festival, with acts running from 11 a.m. till 11 p.m. on the main stages and all six stages are in swing by mid-afternoon. Because of Louisiana’s French heritage, many of the acts derive from countries with a French-speaking population, and spectators are often sung to in French. Dobet Gnahore, playing her brand of Ivory Coast Afrobeat on several stages over the weekend, apologizes for her minimal English, but she needn’t. Her voice, like an Afrobeat Dianne Reeves, is raspy and powerful, and language becomes inconsequential. Her set of almost operatic high intensity shifts between staccato and legato vocal cadences make you forget you speak a language at all, and her shoulder-high kicks while playing shakers and tambourines provide visuals tantamount to her soaring vocals.
A more political African art form than Gnahore’s world beat often appears. The Crocodile Gumboot Dancers, something akin to traditional African dance infused with Stomp, dance an hour set every afternoon on various stages. Gumboot dancing itself is a working class dance that developed in the mines of South Africa. The miners, contractually obligated to silence, created a code of stomps, clicks, and slaps on their knee-high waterproof “gumboots” to communicate and to pass the time. Now, gumboot dancing incorporates contemporary dance as well. I know nothing about dance, but the Crocodile Gumboot Dancers appear to value athleticism and group performance to overly stylized modern dance infusions. Whenever I was in the mood for such an athletic experience over the weekend, I caught their act.
If you want flair and the big show, you can certainly find that as well. Thursday night’s Ile Aiye of Brazil, billed as Carnival Drum and Dance, were boundlessly energetic. Eight male drummers, three female dancers, and zero instrumentation and technology—in our age of iPods and digital sampling, its harder to imagine a less American musical experience than Ile Aiye. The traditional patchwork of red, gold, orange, and yellow sarongs and dresses shimmered as both dancers and drummers took turns freestyling against the steady rhythms of the group. On Saturday night Rachid Taha, the French-Algerian raï master, packed the main park with his alluring mix of smoky-voiced funk, Middle Eastern half-tones, club beats, and bevy of bellydancers small and large. As will prove to be the case more times than not over the weekend, I cannot understand the cultural significance of what I am experiencing, but the mood is enough to give me a feel for what is traditional and what is new, what is political and what is not, and when I am being entertained, instructed, or praising the collective.
For those in any particular mood, the festival offers opportunities to bounce from stage to stage, catching all Latin funk, all traditional Southern folk, or as in the case of one main stage on Friday, all African music, whether traditional drum circle or uber-modern world beat. Local food vendors offer Louisiana’s culinary exports in numerous arrangements of seafood, rice, beans, and deep fry. Small cities of art, jewelry, and clothing vendors appear between the stages, letting you move from Abercrombie & Fitch to citizen of the world in five minutes for 50 bucks if you wish.
The local musical experience can be found as well. The Heritage Stage offers the area’s best musicians, from folk ballad singer/songwriters to high-energy blues. Of both musical and historical interest is Saturday evening’s Balfa Toujour, with members from the Balfa family, Louisiana’s first family of Cajun music dating back to the early 20th century. Afterwards, the evening’s headliner, the Grammy-nominated Cedric Watson, another of the young innovators of the Lafayette Cajun/zydeco scene, completes the sonic history of local music begun by the more conservative Balfa Toujour. Also of note over the weekend is Quebec’s Genticorum, providing a Canadian Cajun sound, The Bluesrunners, who play Cajun and mostly zydeco at crystal meth speeds, and the Red Stick Ramblers, who add some Texas swing and rockabilly stylings to the affair.
While too many acts take the stages over the weekend to even list them here, several have stuck in my mind. Los Angeles’ Dengue Fever, a Cambodian pop/psychedelic rock act, grabbed a Saturday afternoon audience and didn’t let go. With a Cambodian female vocalist and all-male West Coast hipster-to-hippie instrumentalists, the band is even interesting visually. The sparsely vocaled “One Thousand Tears of a Tarantula” would be at home leading off the soundtrack to one of Tarentino’s Kill Bill movies or replacing a Bond theme from the early Roger Moore years. The pop tune “Seeing Hands”, sung in what I imagine is Vietnamese, captures a sound I thought I could find only if slipped to me by a teenager on an Asian street corner black market. The duet “Tiger Phone Card”, a modern tale of long distance love, gains a true Trans-Pacific texture when guitarist Zac Holtzman sings “You live in Phnom Penh” and the thick Cambodian accent of vocalist Chhom Nimol responds “You live in New York City”. Their accents and the song’s late 60s’ pop organ evoke an era when American imperialism eventually led to the cultural intrigue that allows for a band like Dengue Fever to now exist.
Quebec’s Malajube, the only true alt rock band at the festival, were impressive in both live show and songwriting range. Tunes like “Fille a Plume” and “Le Metronome” find the band moving easily from high distortion to extremely clean one and two chord jams, like Muse turning into Hot Hot Heat. They often add well-orchestrated cacophonous instrumental breaks that remind one of early Radiohead, but they can also update Beatles-esque songwriting reminiscent of XTC or cuts from Silverchair’s Young Modern album, as with their single “Montreal -40 degrees C”. Despite the variety of sounds, Malajube always sound like themselves. With both energy and serious musical know-how, Malajube was well chosen as the festival’s only true rock band. Equally energetic was Jamaica’s Rootz Underground, who closed the festival on Sunday with music that is reggae at its core, but often found its way mid-song to a heavy backbeat and hard funk breaks not heard in more traditional reggae—for example, the music of last year’s closer Burning Spear.
Festivals such as Festival International de Louisiane are best experienced as living aesthetic and cultural textbooks but also as a sustained mash-up. Seek connections, but make your own meaning. And do not be too critical. The five days of the festival are satisfying to the body if you want to dance, trance, eat, and drink, and they are pleasurable to the brain if you want to catch up on contemporary world music or experience living musical histories. The festival also purposely coincides with New Orleans’ Jazzfest, which is more restrictive in its diversity. So if you have an African drum fetish after hearing gypsy jazz, if you’re hot for ol’ timey harmonies alongside Baptist choirs or Texas swing, if you want to experience the difference between Peruvian, Columbian, Mexican, and Texan Latino alternative, if you’re wondering how Moroccan world beat is different than French or Quebecois world beat, if you want to hear French acoustic blues alongside Delta acoustic blues, if you desire Michael Flatley’s craftsmanship without Michael Flatley, if you want music devoid of the wonky consumer charisma of musicians desperately seeking approval, or if you want to visit a place where people can walk the street with plastic cups filled with alcohol and you can buy Jell-O shots at drive-thrus, Festival International provides a stellar collection of undiscovered jewels year after year.