Cajun Country

Travel piece for the Sunday Times - 1996 


It's not hard to get to Cajun country. Simply fly into New Orleans, hire a car  and drive east on I 10 for a couple of hours. Then you'll hit Baton Rouge and one hell of a big bridge over the Mississippi. Cross the bridge and you're into Cajun territory - you can tell , because for the next twenty miles or so you'll be driving through pure swamp.  And this is no ordinary swamp :  the Atchalafya Swamp is the swamp's swamp, top rated in the good swamp guide.

 

A little geographical clarification may be in order here.  New Orleans is not in Cajun country  - New Orleans and Cajun cultures are entirely distinct. The Cajuns (or Acadiens as they were originally known) were French settlers who migrated down the Mississippi from Acadie in Canada when the British took over, hoping for a welcome from their fellow Francophones in New Orleans. Instead the New Orleans French wanted nothing to do with these immigrant peasants and kicked them out into the swamplands of south-western Louisiana, where they've since created their own distinctive culture, with its own music, food and strange French patois.

 

Off the Henderson Levee Road that borders the swamp you'll find  McGee's landing, which offers authentic Cajun cuisine and swamp tours.  While I waited for the next boat trip I sat on the dock and ordered up the kingsize cajun platter.  I realised, when I started eating, that it's best to avoid the  places that serve 'authentic Cajun cuisine'; they usually serve up uniformly tasteless plates of  deep fried catfish, alligator or chicken that have to be positively drenched in that ubiquitous local condiment, Tabasco Sauce, if you want to stop your tastebuds from dying of boredom. Instead, try the  places that don't give the cuisine a name.

 

But if lunch at  McGee's is  a bit of a disappointment, the boat trip offers full value. Escorted by a Cajun fisherman with the weirdest French American  accent I've ever heard, it's an excursion guaranteed to  scare the wits out  of anyone who has seen Deliverance, particulalrly when our  amusing guide pretends to be lost somewhere mid-swamp. What makes it especially creepy is that you're not witnessing untrammelled nature but a waterlogged cypress forest  whose trees are mostly now just sinister stumps, after being harvested in the last century.   But there are still some beautiful moss-festooned glades where you can glimpse the snout of a lurking alligator - even though, these days, electric pylons  present more of a hazard to  the pleasure boats on the swamp.

 

Relieved to be back on dry land, I realise it's four o' clock on a Friday afternoon and time I was in Lafayette.  The effective capital of Cajun country, this sprawling university town lies another twenty miles west of the Atchalafya and has little to recommend it apart from its night life. And even that is elusive : if its there a all you can certainly  spend a lot of time driving round without finding it. Downtown Lafayette at six o' clock on a Friday night seems to consist of  one drug store (open) and one down-home cooking cafeteria (closed).

 

No matter - you don't come to Lafayette to shop, but to dance. First things first : find a place to stay.  If you're looking for somewhere classy and romantic, there's the Bois De Chene Guest House, set in the carriage house of the Mouton manor on the north side of the city. Seventy-five bucks will get you a delightful room with a  complementary bottle of wine and an epic breakfast. On the other hand, if you're not expecting to spend too much time in your room, you can do what I did and head for the Howard Johnson, just off the Interstate: thirty-five dollars with a voucher from the tourist office, clean, comfortable , and instantly forgettable.

 

Eight o'clock and it's time to two-step. Lafayette offers a choice of three big Cajun dine'n'dance halls.  Randols is something of a tourist trap, Prejeans is the rootsiest, but the legendary Mulates remains the pick of the bunch.

 

Mulates is a roadhouse ten miles east of Lafayette on the Breaux Bridge Road. Inside it's a spacious well-lit restaurant with stage and dancefloor in the middle, and a bar off to the side.  It's a family kind of place, a real eight to eighty joint. In James Lee Burke's Louisiana crime novels it's the place his hero, Cajun cop Dave Robicheaux, takes his wife and daughter out for celebrations,  away from all the bad stuff -  and it's easy to see why. Mulate's succeeds in achieving a rare balance between the completely wholesome  and the genuinely pleasurable.

 

Mulate's offers its own label beers (pure brewed by Lousiana's only microbrewery, Abita Springs) and a (yup, tasteless I'm afraid) catfish supper.  While you're eating you can admire the way the Cajun bands contrive to play acoustic instruments, often barely amplified,  and still have you tapping your feet  and wanting to dance. By ten o'clock the eight year olds and the eighty year olds have mostly departed , and local farmworkers and lawyers alike are busy twirling their partners in ever more elaborate routines. No hopping from one foot to the other on a Louisiana dancefloor:  it's waltzing and jiving all the way.  The people round here  evidently don't believe in dancing without touching. 

 

America, it's easy to forget, is a nation that dines early.  By eleven, Mulate's is closing for the night. So it's back into the hire car and across Lafayette, out past the Cajundome sports stadium, to the south eastern city limits and the Four Seasons Lodge, the current residency of Mr Warren Storm and the Boogie Kings, stars of Lousiana swamp pop.

 

Swamp pop is Lousiana's hidden secret, authentic white-trash soul music, and its finest purveyors are the Boogie Kings. They're already on stage when I roll up at the Four Seasons, a big blue-collar bar with a middle-aged crowd. The lights are low and the band, themselves a bunch of middle-aged white men, are playing the kind of laid-back country soul you'd have sworn died with Otis Redding.

 

Warren Storm is standing by the bar talking to the manager.  With his jet-black collar-length hair, luxuriant moustache and satin bomber jacket, Storm looks like the third heavy from a 70s heist movie. But when he gets up on stage, the Boogie Kings, already red hot, start smoking. This is the bar band from heaven and the fact that they're playing five nights a week, five hours a night, at the Four Seasons for a one-dollar cover charge is conclusive proof that there's no justice in this world.

 

But that's the thing about Louisiana music:  it doesn't travel much or even really seem to want to travel. Musicians and audience are literally at home with each other, and for the fortunate tourist like myself there' nothing to do but surrender to it all, listening to the Stax and Motown and Elvis and Patsy Cline nuimbers swirl by. Sometime after midnight they play Percy Sledge's Warm And Tender Love,  and it's so perfect, there's nothing for it but to head back to the motel. 

 

It's an early start the next day. It's hard to believe, but I'm told that the ultimate cajun dance session starts at eight o'clock every Saturday morning in a place called Mamou, just north of Eunice and about forty mile from Lafayette. Eunice is Louisiana's prairie capital, five miles or so from Mamou.  Having got there,  I  decide I can't quite face two-stepping at this time of the morning, so stop off at  Ruby's Cafe for a plate of bacon, eggs, biscuits and gravy, plus several cups of coffee. Suitably fortified, I park my rental car, aGeo Metro, a short distance away from  Fred's Lounge so that the assembled pick-up truck drivers  won't sneer at it in the parking lot.

 

Fred's Lounge pretty much is  downtown Mamou. OK ,there's a thrift shop and a little supermarket and a coffee shop, but  that's about it.  You won't spend a lot of time  trying to find  the place. From the outside it's  a pretty ordinary looking storefront bar, lent a faintly forbidding air by a complete lack of windows, but cheered up by  a mural on the side bearing the legend : Mamou- Cajun Music Capital of the World. Inside, however, at nine o'clock on a Saturday morning in November , it's heaving.  People turn to look at you as you come in the door,  not so much because you're a stranger in town but fearing that you might have come to breathe the last of their oxygen.

 

First thing you have to do as you enter Fred's is to head straight for the bar, otherwise you'll be trampled on by the dancers : every inch of space in Fred's that isn't jammed up against the bar or within a couple of booths at the back is de facto part of the dancefloor. Next you have to decide what kind of drink to order in a lounge full of dancing Cajuns at nine o'clock in the morning. Bearing in  mind that asking for a Perrier is almost certainly a shooting offence in these parts, beer seemed like a safe bet.

 

Of course beer isn't what the hard core Fred's devotee drinks. No sir, the serious way to kick off a morning's dancing  is with a bottle of Hot Damn! Hot Damn! is a cinnamon schnapps, served hot in the half pint bottle,  and chased with a glass of iced water.  And after someone offers you a swig, you'll understand how it got its name.

 

One beer later I've found a perch next to a couple of bikers from Shreveport at the far end of the bar. And when the musicians stop for a momentary breather I notice what is perhaps the oddest feature of Fred's Lounge - the  radio station set up next to the band.  

 

It looks like something lashed up in the 1950s and that's exactly what it is. For the last forty years Radio WKVP, out of Ville Platte (itself the smallest of small towns), has been broadcasting live from Fred's every Saturday morning - which  in practice means that every time the band stops,  a man in a suit squeezes in next to the accordion player and makes some announcements into a radio mic. The announcements are made in pure Cajun dialect , a strange mixture of archaic French and English,  and seem to be mostly ads for local feed stores or jumble sales, mixed in with  the occasional ' Bienvenue a Fred's Lounge ' and ' laissez les bon temps rouler'.

 

A while later I fight my way to the men's room , only  to discover when I re-emerge that I've just missed the chance to win a prize, the one  that goes to the person who's travelled furthest to be in Fred's this morning. The winner is a fortyish guy named Al who works for the government up in Washington DC, and Al has just driven twenty-four hours straight to be here.

 

Around noon I'm sitting around a table with Al from Washington, a woman named Jan from Opelousas who's just finished her second bottle of Hot Damn! and a married pair of lawyers from Baton Rouge. There's a half-eaten plate of boudin (Cajun black pudding) on the table along with a mountain of empty cans of Falstaff beer all the way from San Antonio, Texas.

 

Tante Sue , the boss, comes over to get us out-of-towners to sign her visitors' book. She tells me she's been running the place ever since her husband, the eponymous Fred, died.   And as barkeeping jobs go this has got to be the best -  Fred's is only open for five hours a week, from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Saturday morning.  The rest of the time it just sits there.

 

By one o'clock most of the clientele have collapsed from exhaustion or retreated  home. For the diehards, though, there's always the Brass Rail next door to Fred's.  Here the live music session  kicks off at 12.30. By three o'clock, I decide  that if I look even half as rough as everyone else in the bar then it's time to leave. So I arrange to meet up with Al and the lawyers at a Zydeco affair that night and head back out into the November sunshine.

 

Next stop is ViIle Platte, ten miles across country from Mamou, where I pause to visit Floyd's record store, the place to buy your zydeco, cajun and swamp pop records,  and to grab a plate of smothered steak and cornbread from the Pig Stand Cafe, which is far and away the best meal I've had so far.  Then it's back to Lafayette for a couple of hours' kip before my return to the dancefloors.

 

As I drive I listen to WKVP which has now forsworn cajun for zydeco.  The relationship between cajun and zydeco is a paradigm for race relations in the South. Both musics have their roots in European  folk  music, both feature lyrics in pidgin French, and  both have accordions at the heart of the sound. The differences? Well, musically speaking, cajun is acoustic, featuring  lots of fiddle , while zydeco is  full-out electric ,  with   bass, drums, and a heavy ration of blues . But the real difference is nothing to do with music: cajun is white, and zydeco is black.

 

The south these days is still segregated: I noticed that there was not a black face to be seen at Fred's,  nor at Mulate's the night before.  But as time goes on, I become aware that this segregation is to some degree elective, on both sides. The lives of Louisiana rural blacks and whites are broadly similar - far more so than those of most northern blacks and whites - down to the food they eat and the music they listen to, but when it comes down to it neither community wants to live next door to the other, or have their children date each other. There is no integration, but only an accommodation: a sad reminder that  recent history is still too bitter, too fraught, for anything more.

 

Still, no sooner am I seated at the bar in El Sido's Zydeco Club in Lafayette than the owner, Sid Williams, a big guy sporting the unusual combination of dreadlocks and a stetson, reaches over the bar to shake my hand. And no, I don't think it was because he instinctively recognised a fellow member of the Williams clan, but  because he was glad to see some white folks  there on a night when Beau Jocque, the music's hottest new star, was playing.  Zydeco is the kind of music that whites, from Washington to Munich, love to dance to, but here  tonight there's just one group of  them in the place, a bunch of students from LSU.

 

Oh, and Al from Washington, of course. Al soon tests big Sid's enthusiasm for new blood in his club by  asking  one of the black girls seated down the bar from us to dance.  She looks surprised but agrees, and off they go. There's  nothing of a pick up about it, anyone can see that Al's just a dancing fool.  But still,  when the song finishes  and Al  moves on to ask the girl's friend, she shakes her head, and a moment or two later Sid signals to Al and has a word in his ear. From then on Al confines his footloose attentions to the table of students.

 

Meawhile, on stage, Beau Jocque is doing his funky zydeco thing. Syncopated, New Orleans drum patterns underlie his power accordion playing and surprisingly sweet singing. Surprisingly,  because Jocque is a mountain of a man.  Musically it's a wonderful show,  but after the first set I decide to move on. El Sido's is a fine dancehall but, stuck as it is in the midst of Lafayette's northside, it's still a citified experience.  And for  real country zydeco , I'm told there's only one place to go : twenty miles due north, just outside Opelousas ('yam capital of the world') -  the one and only Slim's Y-Ki-Ki Lounge.

 

Slim's turns out to be  a barn of a place,  up in the woods, and tonight you can't park within a hundred yards of it for the mass of beaten-up old pick-ups surrounding it. When I get inside the place is just wild. The big wooden dance floor is solid with what must be five hundred black people all dancing to the deafening, irresistable zydeco beat of Boozoo Chavis.

 

Outside Louisiana, stars like  the late Clifton Chenier or Rocking Dopsie may have the bigger reputation,  but on his home turf Boozoo is king. And it isn't hard to see why: this is zydeco reduced to its essentials . Slim's is a mirror image of the cajun dance Fred's Lounge. The clientele  here have the same look of people who work hard with their hands for a living, and they too like to take their drinks from pint bottles of spirits. And what  they both most certainly share is a singleminded determination to have  a good enough time to see them through to the next weekend.

 

If anyone cared about the one white face in the club, a stranger from somewhere called London, England, they weren't letting it show.   The people at Slim's Y-Ki-Ki didn't  seem to give a damn about anything that night.  One last tip,  though.  Don't go  into a Lousiana zydeco club and ask to cash a traveller's cheque. People will laugh.