It’s May. That means that throughout San Diego, from San Ysidro all the way up to Oceanside you can practically taste the blackened catfish and smell the jambalaya. That’s because Gator by the Bay returns to Spanish Landing on Mother’s Day weekend, with four days of Cajun, Creole, and zydeco, as well as a health dose of blues, swing, and Latin music. There may even be a banjo or two.
Kicking things off on Thursday is the guaranteed Cajun crowd-pleaser BeauSoleil. Celebrating their 40th year as a band, BeauSoleil is one of the most popular ensembles performing the music of Louisiana. Their repertoire of high-spirited tunes includes Cajun, Creole, and zydeco.
Founder Michael Doucet originally intended to study literature as a graduate student but gave up on Keats and Yeats and decided to pursue the music of the Delta instead. Back in the seventies, when many of the old-time Cajun musicians still walked the earth, Doucet tracked them down to study everything about them. With Doucet it’s authentic, from the high tenor vocals, to the fiddle. That is not to say that BeasSoleil merely recreates the traditional sounds of Louisiana. On occasion they incorporate elements of jazz and rock into their music.
If you want the blues, Gator by the Bay will have plenty on hand, including internationally renowned bluesman James Harman. Harman grew up in the epicenter of the blues – central Alabama, a stone’s throw away from Birmingham. He has recorded and been considered one of America’s premier bluesmen since the early sixties, when he started his career. The California Honeydrops, one of the most refreshing bands to hit the national scene in the last ten years, perform Sunday on the KSDS Jazz 88.3 Festival Stage. The band delves into R&B and Cajun, with some Motown and soul thrown in. They give all these genres a light treatment, with humor and grace.
Just as New Orleans now has tejaño and mariachi bands, Gator by the Bay introduced a Latin lineup to the festival last year. The response was so positive that the fun continues this year with some all-star Latin performers. San Diego’s salsa king Manny Cepeda and his orchestra will perform on Saturday.
Maybe it’s their irreverence, or maybe it’s because they’re so gosh darned good, whatever it may be, Los Pinguos have been called the “the Latin Beatles.” Originally from Buenos Aires and now based in Los Angeles, Los Pinguos feature hot Latin rhythms and stellar vocal harmonies. Los Pinguos perform on Sunday.
Added to the jambalaya of music this year will be Gospel music. Missy Andersen, known for her soulful interpretations of everything from the Beatles to Ray Charles, will offer gospel interpretations on Sunday afternoon.
Among the Louisiana-style music makers are some homegrown San Diego bands. The San Diego-based Euphoria Brass Band returns to Gator by the Bay for their fifth year. Drew Miller, the bass drummer and talent who brought Euphoria together, has had a love affair with New Orleans and its music since a trip to New Orleans inspired him to start his “Second Line Parade” radio show on KSDS in which he plays zydeco, Cajun, Creole, and all the other music of the Delta.
Miller wound up making the acquaintance of Ron Bocian and David Bandrowski, two New Orleans two musicians transplanted to San Diego in the wake of Katrina. They made some calls, found some outstanding horn players, and the Euphoria Brass Band was born. “Right from the very first, the horns just kind of had it, that real authentic sound. I knew we had it right from the start,” says Miller.
You can hear the Euphoria Brass Band on stage late Sunday afternoon. Or you may find them earlier in the day marching about as traditional New Orleans brass bands are supposed to do. “I’ve been coming since their second or third festival, back when it was held down in Chula Vista,” says Milller. “I’ve always liked the workshops with other musicians. I like the setting; the whole thing is nice and spread out. It’s certainly not claustrophobic. [They] do a great job of getting an eclectic mix of local performers and bring in some of the best national acts of Louisiana music.”
For years Gator by the Bay has maintained a family-friendly atmosphere. Families are encouraged to roam about or bring beach towels to settle in. The entire festival is fenced, which can help allay concerns of parents. Kid friendly activities include face painting and the Rad Hatter, a space in which kids can make their own one-of-a-kind paper hats. The Great Friendly Gator and Crawfish, seven-foot tall figurines, will be roaming the festival mixing it up with children of all ages. Other activities that kids can enjoy (as well as adults) are the mid-day Mardi Gras parades where everyone is encouraged to participate.
It has been said that one of the great things about New Orleans is that people will tell you what they plan on eating next week. Because what is Cajun or Creole culture without blackened catfish or shrimp etouffee? Chefs from San Diego Mesa College’s Culinary Arts Department will be doing the equivalent of a Louisiana Food Channel at the food demonstration tent, only they will be getting their Rachel Ray on live on stage, sharing with all of those who stop by instruction and tips on preparing jambalaya, etouffee, and other Louisiana delicacies. The chefs will also explain some of the histories of the dishes, the distinction between Cajun and Creole, and the origins of the dishes, whether they are Native American, French, African, or a masala of all of them. At the tent you will also find samples to taste and recipe sheets to take home.
Gator by the Bay runs from the seventh through the tenth of May. If you want to find out more about the festival you can visit www.sandiegofestival.com.