This sojourn baptizes us in the musical culture of Louisiana. Modern Louisiana’s unique history, brought about by French and Spanish colonization, forged to take commercial advantage of the region’s location at the base of the Mississippi River, differed markedly from the British settlement in the original 13 colonies with their focus on religious freedom. The French disaffection for slavery set Louisiana on a path as a more tolerant and open society in which music was destined to flourish. Rampant cultural cross pollination among West African, Caribbean, French, Spanish, German, Italian, and Irish settlers inspired and melded individual cultures, driving the creation of unique expressions in language, cuisine, and, of course, music.
Our sojourn begins in Lafayette. Here we explore the world of the French Acadian settlers, who, exiled from Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and Prince Edward Island by the British between 1755 and 1764, sought the hospitality of their French brethren. Handfuls of exiles, as Longfellow memorialized in Evangeline, “guided by hope or by hearsay, Sought for their kith and their kin among the few-acred farmers On the Acadian coast.” Expressing their mourning through song as friends and family were torn asunder, the Acadians’ ballads imparted their longing for the home they left behind. As the Acadians settled and developed this region of Louisiana, however, these doleful tunes transformed into a sound representing the Acadians’, now Cajuns’, resolve and newfound sense of place and community, known for its spirit and conviviality.
These characteristics of Cajun music shaped, and were in turn shaped by, the music of the Black Creoles, one of the many unique cultural groups with whom the Cajuns shared a home. As Creole music developed into the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it began to reflect the influence of not only Cajun music but also African American blues and Afro-Caribbean rhythms, evolving into what we know today as Zydeco. The term Zydeco, derived from the French term for unsalted beans, les haricots sont pas salés, served as shorthand for the economic hard times the Black Creoles’ experienced when they could not afford seasoning to flavor their beans. Zydeco music, however, with its strong syncopation and infectious emotion, like Cajun music, conveys a vitality that no downturn could deter. Our time in Lafayette connects us firsthand to the joie de vivre expressed in both these musical styles, with their driving rhythms, up-tempo melodies, and unique accordion and fiddle instrumentation, while we bask in the hospitality and heritage of this distinct Louisiana region.
Continuing on to New Orleans we follow the music for a four-day adventure to the heart of jazz. Little documentation exists to tell us how exactly ragtime, blues, and classical converged to become jazz at the turn of the 20th century. Strolling through the French Quarter, however, we see the evidence of distinct societies abounding in the architecture, the traditions, and the cuisine of the city, and gain a sense of how this confluence of cultures, as if through alchemy, spawned an entirely new, entirely American musical movement. Although Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton ultimately left New Orleans to spread the jazz gospel northward, we hear the echoes of their greatness around every corner and in visits to venues like Preservation Hall, established in 1961 to safeguard, pay homage to, and rejoice in this first form of jazz.
Our able guide, Professor Ted Buehrer, leads us through our Cajun music, zydeco, and jazz experiences, expanding our aural understanding of these distinct genres. As Professor Buehrer shares his keen skill for distilling each song into its basic elements and his passion for the music and its composition, we are able to listen to the music in an entirely new way and all the more appreciate the synthesis of each moving part into the polyphonic whole. Actively listening while immersed in these rich settings, we find our joy for the music magnified as we are transported back to the people, the history, and the wonder that created it. You will never listen to this music in quite the same way.
Throughout our sojourn, we attune to the nature around us, especially the Mississippi River, the bayous, and the swamps, which have long and memorably impacted Louisianans. A steamboat trip down the Mississippi allows us to envisage the view settlers experienced embarking upon New Orleans while gaining a firsthand understanding of this river’s continued importance to American commerce. We delight our senses with a bayou and swamp tour for a close-up view of the cypress trees, the Spanish moss, and the alligators, which, like jazz and Cajun music, our minds immediately associate with Louisiana.
No tour of Lafayette and New Orleans would be complete without experiencing the culinary delights of this vibrant area. Whereas Lafayette is known for Cajun food and New Orleans for Creole food, the two cuisines have greatly influenced one another to the point that few can cite the difference between the two. No matter – we let our palettes decide these distinctions as we dine in both cities and culminate our gastronomic adventures with a classic New Orleans Sunday jazz brunch at Commander’s Palace.