The swamps are alive with the sounds of fauna and sights of flora. Roseate spoonbills sift for frogs in delta mud and crawfish who’ve escaped the Good Friday boiling pot now elude the prehistoric snout of the alligator garfish. It is springtime on the bayou. And off in the distance, there is drumming.
One sure sign of spring is the annual Festival International de Louisiane. For five days in April (24 – 28 this year) Lafayette, Louisiana becomes a global swarming of cultural happenings, a most cool United Nations sans blue helmets, sans souci, where the world language is world music sung in a lazy French accent. It’s a noticeably different vibe way down yonder on the north shore of the Caribbean.
There is an other-worldliness to Festival that is rarely experienced in these climes. Mildmannered Jefferson Street becomes a Marrakech market-place steeped in a dark roast aroma of Zouk and Zydeco. Folk life imitates folk art and is expressed in tongues from Navajo Indian to Creole French. Bearded souls with rolled-up sleeping bags are no longer homeless transients but anthropologists from Brittany or Switzerland. Bubbas in baggy pants chuga- lug hot sauce and wink at Belgian spandexed rock stars enamoured with boudin balls and frottoirs– that ubiquitous percussion rub board of French LaLa music. The good times roll through like a category-three hurricane.
But Festival is much more than four days of bons temps rouler. It is the fortuitous pretext for international visitors (and their number is considerable among the more than 375,000 souls estimated in attendance) to check out their “long-lost cousins” – the people of South Louisiana. Many come to discover a culture that has miraculously resisted the forces of assimilation – a culture that, despite most appearances, remains distinct and intact. These international visitors do want to see an alligator and a plantation, but most of all; they want to experience a familiar culture in a foreign land and bond with Americans who they recognize as “family.”
The International are all who are related to the Europeans who for whatever reason chose to leave kith and kin and settle the New World in this once isolated yet stunningly beautiful territory called Attakapas – a name that meant “man-eater” in the native tongue. The International are those whose African ascendants may have walked through the “House of Slaves” on Senegal’s Gorée Island, bound for lives of misery in the “peculiar institution.” The International are the relatives of ensuing waves of immigrants from Napoleon’s soldiers to Irish farmers to Vietnamese fishermen to bricklayers from Chiapas. This is so much more than mint juleps and a swamp tour. This is a true celebration of an ongoing Louisiana Story.
The eksperyans of Festival International de Louisiane is a transcultural one: Afro-Boukman- Buckwheat beat jazzed up and dreadlockedin to hues of Tuku blues dipped in salsa, smoked in the Gospel of hillbilly hip hop, fused in Celtic metal, blessed by Indian Indies, swaying, drumming, swaying, drumming – and all consumed by great masses of folk.
It’s not all music. There are arts and there are crafts, but in the land of those who “live to eat,” there’s also extraordinary cuisine. For the children of diaspora, food has always been the medium of choice to strengthen family ties; it’s the common fare that serves as comm for the uncommon people of south Louisiana with their traditions of hospitality and camaraderie. And the Cajun-Creole connection cooks! African okra smothered on Cajun prairie rice. Crawfish: pinch, suck, repeat. Of course there are the de rigueur: jambalaya, chicken and sausage gumbo, alligator sauce piquante, shrimp poorboys, boudin balls, beignets, along with local ethnic délices and lots of stuff on a stick.
Most importantly, Festival International de Louisiane is a celebration of everything French. Lafayette touts itself as the “Heart of French Louisiana.” By placing the accent on the region’s considerable francophone resources, this predominately Cajun-Creole community may just become the “heart and soul of francophone United States”! For five days in Lafayette the bombard transports the Acadian back to the womb of ancestral Bretagne. The drum-story of how it used to be is told by the djembe to local Creoles who carry the last name of “Senegal.” The didgeridoo induces a trance-like journey from the sugar cane fields of Louisiana back to the Montagnes Noires of Toussaint L’Ouverture’s Haiti. And rocking the cradle of rhythm ‘n blues, the push-button accordion becomes a diatonic vortex sucking all into a dusty world of sharecropper’s blues and hot tamale mamas. Liberté? Sure. Égalité? Mais oui. But fraternité, y’all, it’s in the DNA!