Sunday, April 10, 2011

Cajun Culture and Music -- Part 2

With questions about the role of music in the Cajun culture, we headed to the Savoy Music Center a few miles east of Eunice, LA, on Route 190. Every Saturday morning cars begin parking along the shoulder just before 9:00 a.m. for the weekly jam session.

In referring to these jam sessions, Marc's webpage announces: "We are open for business, and admission is free, but a small box of boudin or cracklins would make you the most popular guy in there for about 2-3 minutes."

We earned our popularity minutes with the two plates of boudin and a few cracklins (upper portion of the photo, right).

Born and raised in Eunice, Marc opened the Savoy Music Center in 1966. At the store he builds several accordions a month, sending them out to all parts of the globe.

Called "..the finest Cajun accordion player of the era," Marc was awarded the prestigious National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1982.

One of the past three Saturdays that we attended the jam, we were fortunate enough to hear a brief stint of Marc on the accordion.

His regard for the jam is briefly stated in his guide posted near the door: "This jam session is not intended to showcase the talent of babies or children regardless of how "cute" they are. They are welcome to join, provided they take a back seat to the older musicians. Performers are encouraged to go perform elsewhere."

As you review photos of the jam participants, including the well-coiffed accordionist, the 92-year-old vocalist, the woman who played a type of drum with brushes and a washboard with wisks, a fiddler, a dobro player, and a soleful fiddler/vocalist, I want to spend some time referring to Marc's devotion to preserving Cajun culture. "Savoy loves being in Louisiana where he is known for being an outspoken cultural preservationist, fighting to keep the music pure and unadulterated"
(savoymusiccenter. com).

His philosophy is briefly stated on this 1987 hand-written note posted by the entrance, (but for a more complete statement of this philosophy, as well as the story of how an ex-convict and information specialist played vital roles in his accordion-building career, read the entertaining "Ponderings of a Reincarnated Neanderthal," savoymusic

"So you tell me that you can't speak French even though you have lived in a French-speaking area all your life.

"You say you have never learned because no one ever showed you. Yet somehow you managed to become a normal, stereotype clone of Anywhere, USA, even though no one ever showed you that either.

"Bullshit! I'll tell you why you never learned to speak French. It's because as you were growing up, you were so busy pursuing mundane American trivia and making fun of those who did speak French that you could never find time to recognize the beauty of your heritage. You turned your back on a hot bowl of gumbo in favor of a cold tasteless American hot dog. Now that Cajun culture attracts world-wide attention, you have decided to be Cajun, also. That's fine, but don't make a second mistake and try to take credit away from the people who kept the torch lit when "Cajun" was a dirty word. I pledge myself not to let that happen."

When I expressed my interpretation of the importance of the jam sessions to the joy of folks playing with a group of friends and the unification of a community spirit, Marc nodded.

He then talked about the origin of the jam session. In a two-page document entitled "Supper" that he showed me, Marc noted that "we always give credit to the musicians of Mamou (LA) for the cultural Renaissance that began in 1964, but their efforts would never have survived, much less flourished, if it had not been for the church "suppers." "These suppers were the infrastructure that kept the musician count higher than in any other community in Acadiana. Cajun music was and is such an integral part of Mamou life that the concept of having any function without Cajun music is about as foreign as having Christmas without carols."

Maybe that is why we feel privileged to attend these jam sessions; we feel as though we are, for a brief period of time, welcomed into a close-knit community.

This photo caught a glimpse of some of the instruments.

The younger son of Marc and Ann Savoy, Wilson, could whistle and hum complicated Cajun melodies note for note before he could even speak. Besides being a musician on fiddle, accordion, piano, bass, and guitar, he is an avid filmmaker. Shown here playing the piano, he leans in to hear the words of the singer on the right in the photo.

Joel Savoy, described as one of the finest fiddlers of his generation, "...has developed a fiddle style that is at once authentic and on the cutting edge. In performance he represents his culture with an authority that few people his age can, and his playing leaves no doubt that Cajun music is still very much alive" (bio on the savoy family webpage).

"On November 19, 1966, I opened the doors to Savoy Music Center. I remember three people telling me... it was unheard of for someone to open up a music store in the middle of a cotton field so far away from the City. What they really meant was that it was unheard of for someone to open up a business that specialized in Cajun music, because in those days Cajun was still a dirty word to many people. Being Cajun usually meant that you were not too bright, poor and socially from the wrong side of the tracks. I didn't agree with any of this. On the contrary, I thought that they were extremely perceptive, innovative, industrious and very talented--earthy, yes; but never socially improper" (Marc Savoy, "Ponderings....).

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