It’s Saturday morning, and the weekly jam session at the Savoy Music Center in Eunice, La., is well underway. Milton Adams, 81, is squeezing a Cajun accordion. Adner Ortego, also 81, plays a fiddle he made himself. An elderly woman with a scarf around her curlers keeps rhythm with a triangle, or “tee fer” (little iron), as it’s called in Cajun French. In the background, younger guys pick flat-top guitars and soak up the music’s soul from their elders.
Topsoil runs 6 feet deep around this prairie town of southwest Louisiana. Farmers grow rice in the spring and summer, then flood their fields in early fall so the hibernating crawfish will swarm up, providing the region’s favorite feast. The town’s most abundant crop, however, is its musicians. About 11,000 people live in Eunice, and Mayor Kenneth Peart says only half-jokingly that 90 percent play an instrument.
“It’s the dirt,” says Marc Savoy, owner of Savoy Music Center and a world-renown Cajun musician and accordion maker. “The dirt is so rich, people could come here and prosper. If you prosper in a place, that’s going to create permanence. When you have permanence, that’s where you have deep roots and heritage and everything that follows along with that, including tradition and folk music.”
This rich cultural heritage led the state to designate the rural roadways of St. Landry, Acadia and Evangeline parishes as the Zydeco Cajun Prairie Scenic Byway. One of many scenic byways in the state, this one meanders through towns like Eunice, Opelousas, Mamou, and Ville Platte, where folks greet each other with a hearty, “Et toi?” (pronounced eh twa) and eat boudin (cajun sausage) for breakfast.
Cajuns are descended from the French-speaking Acadians who settled here after the British forced them out of Acadia (now Nova Scotia) in the 1700s. Their fiddles and squeeze boxes (small accordions) produce lively jigs and jitterbugs, plaintive waltzes, and smooth two-steps.
Zydeco, with its syncopated, eight-count beat, is the music of Louisiana Creoles, the French-speaking blacks descended from the melding of the French, African and Caribbean peoples of colonial days. Zydeco centers on a frottoir, a rub board of corrugated metal hooked over a musician’s shoulders and worn like a vest. The frottoir is scratched with spoons or forks to provide rhythm.
This musical gumbo spills out of radios, restaurants, and rural roadhouses throughout southwestern Louisiana. Musicians play for pay-at-the-door dances, and jam regularly at Savoy’s, at the Prairie Acadian Cultural Center in downtown Eunice, even in Mayor Peart’s office.
If you miss a scheduled session, don’t worry. You can drop by the home of just about any musician and jam in his living room or on his front porch. Even professional entertainers welcome friends and fans into their homes–found lining the roads of the Zydeco Cajun Prairie Scenic Byway–often treating them to a steaming bowl of crawfish étouffée and inviting them to stay the night.
“Cajuns are hardworking, fun-loving people known for their music, their friendship and their hospitality,” says Mayor Peart, who plays a mean triangle himself. “They’re the most giving people you’ll find. Playing music is something we all enjoy doing and we enjoy having other people enjoying it with us.”
Geno Delafose, leader of the popular zydeco band French Rockin’ Boogie, holds an annual party for his fans at his Double D Ranch just outside Eunice. He often treats visitors to a ride around the pasture on one of his American Quarter horses.
“I love people, and I don’t look at myself as some big star or nothing,” says Delafose, known as the “Creole cowboy” because he performs in a white hat and boots. “My fans are my friends, and that’s just the way I want it. I don’t want to be hard to reach. If you see me somewhere, come grab me by the hand, come talk to me. I want you to, and I would do the same with you.”
For more information about the Zydeco Cajun Prairie Scenic Byway, contact the St. Landry Parish Tourist Commission at (877) 948-8004 or visit www.cajuntravel.com.