Sometimes it is the road to heaven that is paved with good intentions.
That's the path Michael Doucet believes he took in the 1970s when he earned a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to track down the Cajun music pioneers living in the bayou region of Louisiana where he was raised. A fiddle player himself, Doucet began sitting in with fiddlers Dennis McGee, Dewey Balfa and other seminal musicians from a then-obscure musical genre.
Events began to steamroll, paving the road forward. In 1975, Doucet and some like-minded compadres put together a Cajun group. They were invited to play in France, but the band didn't have a name yet. Doucet came up with BeauSoleil, which means "good sun" in French, but was also the name of Joseph Broussand dit Beausoleil, an Acadian who fought the deportation of his people from Nova Scotia by the British in the 18th century. Ultimately he led 193 Acadian exiles down to French-held Louisiana, where they formed a bedrock of Cajun culture.
During the band's visit to France, a gentleman told Doucet he liked the music and wondered if the group had ever released a record.
"It turns out he was the president of EMI" -- a major record label -- "and we ended up recording an album the last four days we were over there," Doucet remembered with a laugh. "We came back and played a folk festival or two, and then played Jimmy Carter's inauguration in 1977, less than a year after not even having a record out."
Flash forward to 2010. BeauSoleil is the world's preeminent Cajun band, incorporating not only the zydeco-inflected dance rhythms that McGee, Balfa and others taught Doucet, but elements of the folk, soul, jazz and Caribbean musics that permeate the region. Now they are taking a victory lap of sorts, embarking on a 35th anniversary tour that will stop at the Cedar Cultural Center next weekend for both a Saturday-night concert and a Sunday-afternoon Cajun dance.
"Minneapolis has always been very kind to us -- probably because in the wintertime they need a little warmth," Doucet said by phone last week from Louisiana. "And the Cedar has always been a special place. We've been there so many times over the years. The perfect venue for us is where you can have a concert and also have a dance, and that is the Cedar."
Doucet is ready to celebrate. He says the past year has been "really rough, with a lot of crazy changes for me personally, a really upside-down year that also had the BP oil spill. But I'm coming out of it. I've got six new songs, about love and tragedy and all that good stuff, but also about the environment and what's going on with the wetlands and the delta. I don't want to inundate the market but we've also got a new live album, and this tour."
Opening the shows will be Big Chief Monk Boudreaux and a troupe of Mardi Gras Indians, providing an ideal complement to both of the tour's unofficial themes: honoring distinctive subcultures and having a party.
"Monk is such a great gentleman," Doucet said, "and the New Orleans Indians have a culture just as deep as our Creole and Cajun culture. [The HBO series] 'Treme' has really helped to expose that. It should be a fun show. We'll come out and do some chanting with him."
An 'elastic culture'
As BeauSoleil has broadened its sources of inspiration over the decades, some critics have inevitably carped that the group has bastardized the culture it claims to celebrate. But Doucet, who pursued that initial NEA grant to keep Cajun history and culture alive in the schools and community centers of Louisiana, long ago made peace with the role and identity of his band.
"We represent the culture, but not like a police force," he told me last year, around the time of the group's most recent studio release, "Alligator Purse." "It is an elastic culture. In the 2000 census, there were less than 100,000 people of Acadian ancestry, and yet many other people also play this music now."
The music, no matter how traditional, keeps evolving.
"The great thing about an anniversary concert is we can do whatever we want," Doucet enthused. "We can play the new songs and the old songs, although the old songs aren't the same anymore. I know because some guy transcribed some of the songs we did 30 years ago, and we don't play them that way at all now. But that's OK; we've never needed a faux pop hit anyway. As long as people keep wanting to hear the way we play, we'll keep playing."