Cedric Watson grew up in Texas, developed an early love of Cajun and Zydeco music, and made his way to the city of Lafayette, Louisiana, wellspring of Cajun culture, where he fed himself through the guts of several groups and came out with one of his own. He has a smart grasp of Créole accordion and fiddle, and he sings. “[A]ll in French,” asserts his biography, although whether this is meant as a celebration of his talents or as a warning to listeners who might react to an album called L’Ésprit Créole with shouts of, “I thought this shit was going to be in English,” I’m not sure.
On this album he acknowledges his home state with “J’suis parti au Texas”, a skiffling autobiographical piece. The singer’s delivery makes it sound at times like a Créole patter song, adapted from a tune recorded in the 1930s by Alan Lomax. Modern folk musicians picking up old sources and revitalising them is nothing new, but Watson’s way of doing it is vivid. The living musicians swing into the songs with joy, and the modern interpretive touches contribute to the traditional music without asserting themselves at its expense. The Cajun accordion sits around the lilt of “C’est la Vie”‘s reggae beat like a natural parentheses, and the meaning of the song’s vocal refrain, c’est la vie, is supported by the Caribbean bob that lazes along like a flow of relaxed shrugs. In pop culture the accordion is a goofy instrument — the poster for the Accordion King on the back of the son’s bedroom door in Fargo is a sight gag at the character’s expense — but in the face of an album like L’Ésprit Créole that prejudice would be difficult to sustain. You would have to lie to yourself; “No, no, really, this is boring, I’m hating it …”
In a few spots the modern introductions are not successful. The electric jazz guitar in “Le Sud de la Louisiane” seems wan next to the stab of the accordion. In a different setting it would sound laid-back, part of the scenery. But here, with the more declarative stamp of the other instruments around it, the sleek, quiet chords seem to be apologizing for their existence. The fact that the guitar has its own near-solo moment while the other instruments retreat to accommodate it suggests a rare species that needs to be protected in order to flourish.
This is unfortunate. Part of the thrill of this Créole music comes from its brashness, its rude bold swing, the swift pendulum rhythm that steps forward for an instant as if it’s about to grab hold of you, then steps back, retreating, winking, daring you to come after it. The music has a tidal drag, which is also the pull or drag of teasing, and of the charmer’s grin: the expression that lets you know how clever it is, and offers to let you come closer. But what will the charmer do if you take up the offer? Giving in to this music feels like a pleasurable act of daring. Once you launch yourself, you’re asking to be caught.