It’s the soundtrack for life in South Louisiana: Cajun music.
For many, it’s not uncommon for a day to start and end with the sounds of a double-stopped fiddle, the bright, melodic turns of an accordion or the echoing sound of a steel triangle.
Fiddlers, accordionists and Cajun musicians alike are “Cajun famous,” a term granted to those with notoriety for championing the culture of the area. In this era, this includes members of bands like Grammy Award-winning Lost Bayou Ramblers, Grammy Award-nominees Pine Leaf Boys and The Revelers, as well as Bonsoir Catin, Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys and The Daiquiri Queens.
These artists are torchbearers of the originators like Amede Ardoin, Canray Fontenot, Dennis McGee and Dewey Balfa. Later lions of the genre included artists like Michael Doucet and BeauSoleil, Zachary Richard and Clifton Chenier on the Creole side.
The music’s distinct mark on the culture of the area can be heard across local radio airwaves, played live on front-porches, or heard in a local lounge. It can also be heard under the bright lights of festival stages statewide.
It can lend acceptance in lone moments of musical reflection and expression, or provide familial bonding across generations.
Cajun music is incredibly significant to south Louisiana’s history, development, culture and future. It is featured in hole-in-the-wall clubs and internationally renowned local festivals, such as Festivals Acadiens et Creoles, Festival Internationale de Louisiane and Blackpot Festival.
Besides shaping Southern Louisiana culture artistically, Cajun music contains historic elements like its unique Cajun French language.
“It was important to me,” said Jamie Lynn Fontenot, a local French-immersion teacher, traveling Cajun musician and vocalist and fiddler in The Daiquiri Queens. “Because I heard it my whole life growing up—in the truck, in the grocery store, in the car.”
Incorporating a cultural language into the music could make the experience even more immersive for both younger and older generations, according to Fontenot.
“My grandparents loved it,” Fontenot said, adding, “And my grandma started buying me CDs when I wanted and she finally decided to let me learn French—that was when I was 20. But they loved records and spoke French and you could teach people French through those songs.”
The music, its instrumentation and melodic structure are all derivative of the French folk tunes and ballads of the Acadian ancestors, from Acadie, of the people in South Louisiana now known as Cajuns.
The fiddle may be an element of Cajun music that sticks out to locals and newcomers alike, or at least to Anya Burgess, owner of local violin shop SOLA Violins and member of Bonsoir Catin.
Although the term “fiddle” is commonly used when referring to the stringed instrument in traditional music styles like Cajun music, Burgess said that there is no distinct difference between it and the violin.
“There’s no difference, it’s just the style of music that you play,” said Burgess. “A lot of the times if it’s a cheaper instrument you would call it a fiddle, but it’s actually the same anatomy.”
Burgess also said despite bias as a violin maker, she would argue the fiddle or the violin being the most important instrument in Cajun music.
“I can’t imagine Cajun music without the fiddle,” said Burgess. “It kind of smooths everything out.”
Traditionally, Cajun music featured dual fiddlers, where both fiddlers worked to harmonize for a smoother tone, as well as produce a larger sound. Now, those traditions have evolved and expanded in size, welcoming larger bands and current amplification methods.
Another prevalent instrument in the music, the accordion, was first popularized by interaction with German immigrants.
Kenneth Lyon, a 61-year-old local Cajun musician, said the popularity of the accordion was mainly connected to its practicality in sound. The accordion could be heard without amplification above the cacophony of shared meals and dance halls.
“Just the fact that the accordion was so much louder than the fiddle is what pushed it to the forefront in Cajun music,” said Lyon. “The fiddle was just more versatile.”
After the persecution of French-speakers in the area in the early-to-mid-20th Century, Cajun music also became essential to generational cultural preservation. Still intertwined in the current day-to-day life of the area, Louisiana’s unique musical culture continues to resurface as one of the many pull factors to newcomers.
“I think people are drawn to the authenticity of it, and the fact that our local culture here still has an indigenous form of music,” said Burgess. “It’s the common person’s music, it brings people together in a way that goes beyond anything that divides us.”
Gracie Allen, a junior majoring in music business at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, originally from Texas, said although she had never experienced Cajun music before, she felt included.
“The lifestyle here is very relaxed, and so is the music,” said Allen. “It brings people in, and people can still be very much a part of it because of French influence.”
The importance of Cajun music to its culture in the region allows newcomers and locals alike to experience the personality of south Louisiana. The genre and its people work together to create an authentic atmosphere, while simultaneously sharing and preserving a culture.
“In this day and age when everything is just so surface level, I think the deep roots of our music attract people,” said Burgess. “Cajun music speaks to your soul.”