In my opinion, Cajun music constitutes some of the most remarkable music under the umbrella of American Roots Music. The fact that it is sung as part of a living tradition of French language that has existed in our country since its founding is pretty remarkable. That it’s accompanied by 19th-century German accordions and played in a style developed in part by Afro-Caribbean immigrants and slaves in southwest Louisiana seems kind of wild. The fact that a huge annual music festival dedicated to this music exists in San Diego, California–Gator By The Bay–is simply insane.
Yet, there is a surprising history connecting our dried-out, sun-baked desert home to the swampy bayous of Cajun country. It’s a story that is at once completely improbable and entirely American.
The High Life Cajun Band is one the few bands playing traditional Cajun music in Southern California (our own San Diego Cajun Playboys are another example), and their formation is deeply indebted to this nearly forgotten history. At the band’s core are fiddler Ben Guzman and accordionist Paul Rathje who first met sometime in 2014. Guzman had already made a name for himself as an old time fiddler, playing Appalachia-centric music with the acclaimed Triple Chicken Foot, but explored more distinct styles of Louisiana Cajun fiddle on his own. Rathje became inspired to learn Cajun accordion after attending Cajun dances in the 1990s. Before meeting each other, each took trips to Louisiana to study with Cajun masters, and Rathje’s account was particularly remarkable: “In the last 10 years, I’ve probably spent two years of that time total in Louisiana.” There, he studied with Paul Daigle, a legendary player revered by Louisiana musicians. Rathje’s commitment to Cajun music was so strong that, in the hopes of one day forming a band, he even undertook lessons in Cajun French from Daigle’s family. If this doesn’t impress you, keep in mind that this is Cajun French, not “I took French in High School” French. Comparing Cajun French to Parisian French would be like comparing Bob Marley’s English to Winston Churchill’s. A dwindling number of Cajun families with names like Thibodeaux, Broussard, or Guidry still speak in this dialect, which broke off from its homeland over 300 years ago, but more on that later.
At home in Los Angeles, Guzman and Rathje lacked some context or community that would catalyze their future band. Communities and audiences for Cajun music had dwindled in recent years and there simply weren’t many opportunities to share the music. As Guzman puts it, “Old time music is already a pretty niche-y genre, and Cajun is an even smaller niche within it.” They found the catalyst they needed in Joe Fontenot, a now 82-year-old Louisiana-born Creole accordionist who, for a brief time, hosted a Cajun jam at his Los Angeles home. News of Mr. Joe’s (as he is called by friends) home jams quickly spread throughout Los Angeles’ old time community to draw out the few Cajun devotees. Out of a city of millions on the West Coast, 15 or so musicians showed up to the first one, including Ben Guzman and Paul Rathje.
Keenly aware that his own time carrying the torch of Cajun music would one day be over, Fontenot actively encouraged others to start their own Cajun bands, including Rathje, whom he personally invited to play dances with him. Rathje laughs as he remembers, “At the show, Joe would introduce me to the crowd and say, ‘Hey, I really want this guy to have his own band!’” Later, Rathje received a phone call from a club that sometimes hosted Cajun nights, asking him personally to play. “I said, ‘Gosh, I’d love to but I don’t have a band,’” to which the club owner replied, “Oh, me and Joe worked that all out and we’ve got a band for you!” So, Fontenot effectively painted Rathje into a corner wherein he was given six weeks to teach a brand new band 30 songs. Backstage, before they began their set, they ruminated about a name for their ensemble, when they realized that inspiration was in their grasp. “One of us looked at the beer we were drinking and said, ‘Hey how about the High Life Cajun Band?’” Thus, Southern California’s newest Cajun band was born. It may seem like an unlikely story, but considering the full history of the Cajun people and their music, it’s pretty much par for the course.
Cajuns descend from French settlers of North America who first came to the French colony of Acadia in the 17th century in what now forms the Maritime Provinces of eastern Canada. After over a century there, the colony fell under control of the British who began a massive campaign of forced removal in the mid-18th century. After a few years living as refugees across America’s eastern seaboard, most Acadians would resettle in the southwestern regions of present-day Louisiana.
At the time, the region was owned by the Spanish, who would later give it to the French, who finally sold it to the United States in 1803. All of these exchanges meant relatively little to most Acadians, though. Out amongst the remote swamplands surrounded by circuitous bayou waterways, they mostly faded from the outside world’s view and memory. Acadians continued to develop their unique culture. Among other things, their dialect and accents evolved in such a way that their preferred identification of “Acadian,” began to sound more like “Acayjun,” and then was elided to “Cajun.”
Their music developed in a way that could only have happened in America. The distinct sound of traditional Cajun music can be boiled down to a core of three instruments: the fiddle, the button accordion, and the “petit fer,” or “little iron” otherwise known as the triangle. Fiddles have existed amongst the Cajuns since the earliest days of settlement in North America. Some of the earliest Cajun dance music we know about consisted only of fiddles, like the gorgeous fiddle duets recorded by Dennis McGee and Sady Courville. Though they recorded them in 1929, they played in an older 19th-century style popular before the arrival of the accordion from Germany.
The old Cajun button-style accordion is a beauty to see and a wonder to hear. They’re quite unlike the accordion most of us have seen and might associate with, say, Italian restaurants or Weird Al Yankovic. With it’s wooden frame, polished metal fingers, and elastic diaphragm, you could be forgiven for thinking it was some kind of steampunk contraption from a Jules Verne fantasy. The sound is commanding and assertive: It’s an instrument you can’t ignore–not that you’d want to. It is suspected that Louisiana’s Black and Creole communities were the region’s early adopters of the accordion, and that they shaped a rhythmic, percussives approach to the instrument that persists today. There are even some accounts of Haitian immigrants using them in voodoo ceremonies. Like much of the South, Louisiana society was shaped by racial hierarchies, but its music and culture was defined by sharing across race lines. Though modern Creole music, more frequently called Zydeco, and Cajun music sound quite different today, when one listens to older recordings from Cajun and Creole performers, the differences can become much harder for modern ears to hear.
When the the accordion was paired with the fiddle, Cajun dance bands suddenly became much louder and therefore able to support much larger crowds. Instead of having small gatherings in homes, large dance halls were built. They were so big that dancers at the end of the hall had trouble feeling the beat of the music emanating from the opposite side of the hall. So, one fateful night, a musician grabbed a triangle from the farm and started clanking out rhythms that carried all the way to the back. The resulting sound of these three core instruments is one of exuberance, joy, and sometimes an intense longing that comes through even if you can’t understand the band’s French singing.
The first half of the 20th century saw an exodus of Louisiana Cajuns looking for work outside of a depressed Louisiana economy–another upheaval that would send them wandering across a continent. As it turned out, in California’s urban centers they found economies and jobs not entirely dissimilar from those they knew in Louisiana. They often left jobs in gulf shipyards and oil fields to work on those in San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. This generation of migrants is still visible in Southern California. In the 2000 U.S. Census, you can find a map displaying by county the percentage of the population self-identifying as Cajun. A single county in northern Maine on the Canadian border shows a small population of Acadians whose ancestors escaped forced removal by the British. The largest populations of Cajuns show up of course in Southwestern Louisiana. A smattering of counties in neighboring eastern Texas appear. Aside from these, the only counties to register in all of the United States are our very own San Diego and Los Angeles Counties.
The Cajuns and Creoles of this great migration brought their accordions and fiddles and started dances, and though the generation is aging and dwindling, bands like the High Life Cajun Band are finding that this music still resonates in California. As Guzman told me, in the early days of the band they would rehearse outside at Echo Park Lake, “and every time someone would stop and say, ‘Oh my God I’m from Louisiana and this is just like home!’” It’s a reaction that speaks to the real power and vitality of this music but also the way in which folk music traditions can so powerfully encapsulate feelings of home or belonging and identity. It would be a tragedy to lose them, but so remarkably, and improbably fortunate that this music lives on in our own backyard.
The High Life Cajun Band will be playing at the Kalabash School of Music the Arts in La Jolla on Saturday, July 8, at 7pm. Ben Guzman and Paul Rathje will be joined by Jacob Pennison on guitar and Angela Wood on triangle. Tickets and more info can be found at http://kalabasharts.com/events
Clinton Davis, PhD, is a freelance musician and educator raised in Kentucky and based in San Diego. You can hear him play solo or with his award-winning group G Burns Jug Band around town. For more information visit http://clintonrossdavis.com