Friday, April 8, 2011

Cajun Culture & Music: Our Thoughts

The Vermilionville Living History Museum and Folklife Park was created to perserve and represent the Acadian, Creole, and Native American culture within the region. It provides Lafayette residents and visitors from all over the world with a wonderful opportunity to view a lifestyle as it may have occurred during a time period from 1765 to 1890.

Vermilionville hosts a Cajun jam session every Saturday at the Visitor's Center. The Cajun jam session is a cultural partnership between Vermilionville and the Cajun French Music Association
(from the Vermilion webpage).

As the introduction notes, much of Ver-milionville appeals to the intellect, but we want to under-stand and appreciate these jam sessions and their contributions to the emotion and passion that radiates from the Cajun culture.

To us (travelers from the Mid-Atlantic), jam sessions are more enjoyable--and, perhaps, more meaningful--than performances by any musical group. In this room, the audience surrounds the players which allows for the easy transfer of that emotion from the players to those of us without in-struments.

A unique feature of these sessions is that they are led by a prominent musician of the area; the other 10-16 musicians who join in are people who simply love playing Cajun music. The day we attended one of these jams the guest leader was August Broussard.

Coompared to his playing today, his performance (in Eunice, LA) at the Liberty Theatre's "Rendezvous des Cajuns" radio show was subdued. Today every note Mr. Broussard sang was covered with emotion.

From the rousing "Jam-balaya" (re-quested by these two women from Canada) to the plaintiff "Jolie Blon," the traditional Cajun waltz (another request), often referred to as "the Cajun National Anthem," Mr. Broussard sang with deep feelings that matched the energy of the songs.

(I asked one of the participants after the jam, "Many of the songs [in French] sound very sad and the singer sounds plaintiff. Is that accurate?"

His answer, "Not really, just the waltzes." Now, since there are only two types of songs--waltzes and two-steps--I think my observation has some validity.)

(By the way, these two popular songs are rarely palyed in jams and the players rarely take requests; the jams are for the enjoyment of the participants, the audience is secondary--usually such a distance second that they are ignored. But that is as it should be. I am beginning to believe that jams are the means for the players to connect to important aspects of their family, their community, and culture. It is fascinating to drop the feeling of being in the audience at a performance and adopt an appreciation of being privileged to share an emotional connection to the culture of a people.)

Seeing the difference between the "performance" August Broussard and the "jam" August Broussard was meaningful--"performance" shows the skill of the musician, "jam" shows the musician's emotional connection to the culture.

To show the importance of preserving the Cajun culture through the music, Ray Landry (the man in the reddish shirt in photo #2 above and the host of each Saturday jam) took time to announce the presence of Zack, age 14, and a gentleman (Fred, I think), age 84 (photo, left). Bringing in young performers is essential to the preservation of the culture, and it is recognized and valued by the older players.

The following Saturday, we returned to Vermilionville for the jam session. The session was held in the Performance Center at the village and presented a different situation. Being up on the stage made the jam seem like a per-formance. As a result, the two of us did not have the same feeling of connection to the participants as we did when we were virtually among the group in the more intimate setting the week before.

One member of the audience seemed to be trying to establish that connection by helping her sons onto the stage. The guest leader of the jam was Cheryl Cormier, who seemed to be the focus of this unification effort by the woman and her sons.

Ms. Cornier seemed to respond to the setting with a performance mode, i.e., she did not have the same emotional investment in the music as did Mr. Broussard the previous week.

Zack was there again this week and demonstrated his emotional connection to the music. Not only would he keep time with animated bouncing his foot, but he would even reach points where he was beating time with both feet, often bouncing them nearly ten inches off the floor.

Ray Landry was there and kept the group playing.

But we kept wondering, "Did the simple act of setting up chairs on a stage change the setting from a 'jam' to a 'perfor-mance'? Did the stage set-up change the emotional investment of the performers? What if the chairs had been arranged in front of the stage, and we had gathered around the performers?"

Instead, we felt we should have ordered a meal and watched dancers on the large area in front of the stage.

Our questions and observations about the role of jam sessions and music in the expression of the Cajun culture will be pursued.

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