Sunday, October 13, 2013
Thousands of people flock to Girard Park, an expansive, grassy, island of greenery with rolling hills and abundant flat land smack in the middle of Lafayette. Some come to relax and eat – if the wind is right, the smell of frying food hits your nostrils as you enter the park. A serious concentration of the entire range of Louisiana cooking – shrimp, rice, catfish, crawfish, red beans and rice, jambalaya, gumbo – and sweet stuff like beignets, snowballs, and gateau frit is staked out on one side of the park. On the other is an equally serious concentration of arts and crafts native to Louisiana. Young families mix it all together, bringing their kids to the playground, to picnic on the hillsides, to wander through the arts and crafts vendor tents, and listen to Louisiana music.
Ahhh, music. The Festival Acadiens et Creole dance stages are scattered throughout Girard ParkYou can hear it from one stage or another strategically located in the 33 acre park.
Walter Mouton and The Scott Playboys in the Salle de Danse. Born in 1938, Walter's a legend, played weekends at La Poussiere in Breaux Bridge for over 35 years, began playing when he was 13. These days, he takes it easy, only plays a a few festivals a year - which is one reason the tent is so jammed. The other reason is he's so damn much fun to dance to. Several years ago, Walter said, " I consider myself a dance band as opposed to an authentic Cajun band." C'mon, Walter, singing all those two steps and waltzes in Cajun French, let's compromise - you're an authentic Cajun dance band.
The "Salle de Danse", the only covered dance floor in the festival, is situated in a dell, one of the lowest areas in the park. It rained heavily last night. There is an inch of water the size of a ping pong table on the temporary wooden floor.
Look carefully at the photo above left. See that patch of wood in the lower left corner? That's the dance floor.
The temperature is in the 80s. It's humid. Under the Salle de Danse tent, it feels like we are in a hydroponic garden. How hot is it? When couples from the densely packed floor walk past me as a dance ends, their sweaty bodies give off so much heat it feels like a passing warm front. Men and women towel off after a dance. This is not a genteel environment. We are soaked. Holding a woman close in the sauna that is a SW Louisiana afternoon, slippery skin, garments clinging to flesh, this is my idea of heaven.
Saturday's rain left patches of muddy earth all over the park. Water saturated the lowest area of the park, which, is exactly where the dance stage is located, which explains why there is a slippery puddle covering the makeshift wood flooring. Some happily wade through it, others perform some precise tight maneuvering in order to avoid it.
Ray Abshire is a fourth generation accordion player, his sons on bass and guitar working on generation five. Ray played accordion with the legendary "Balfa Brothers Band" in the 60s and 70s. Dewey Balfa played in the band that introduced America to Cajun music at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1964. Ray has performed at the Kennedy Center in NYC and dance halls over the country. He sings and plays straight ahead Cajun traditional music he learned from masters like the Balfa brothers. No fuss, no frills. Pure Acadiana.
His mentor, fiddle player Dewey Balfa (1927-1992), believed that "a culture is preserved one generation at a time," but he realized it wasn't set in stone. "A culture is like a whole tree. You have to water the roots to keep the tree alive,but at the same time, you can't go cutting off the branches every time it tries to grow."
Dewey would get a kick out of The Babineaux Sisters.They're like a box of cracker jacks with the prize in each handful. I am on my way to another stage when I pass by the Ma Scène Louisiane stage and hear this reggae sounding song with an irresistable beat coming from a Cajun music stage. I stop in my tracks. I grab a woman for a fine and sultry dance and head away again. Whaaat? They're playing a cover of Jimi Hendrix's "The Watchtower" - in French! When's the last time anyone ever heard this at a Cajun festival?
! Iook up at the stage and see these two girls, two teenagers (barely), Gracie Babineaux, 15, on fiddle and Julie Babineaux,13, on rhythm guitar, fronting the band. Next they play a ballad. I missed the title but not the feeling that I need to see them perform again soon, a new band definitely out on their own Cajun limb.
Unpack your camp chair and sit down for a day of Louisiana music. Want to listen to a different band? Drag your chair to one of the other two outdoor stages. Or bring your entire living room to the park!
Girard Park, a bucolic, grassy oasis in the middle of Lafayette, a block from the University of Louisiana Lafayette campus. Who cares about music when there's a big muddy puddle where you can try out your new boots.
Food at the vendor tents is a cash business. But - water and soft drinks are mostly donated - tickets to purchase them sold in $5.00 increments. Water or soda- two tickets. That's one way the festival makes some dough. This festival is free, an extraordinary value. The income from the drink concessions is one way the festival is subsidized.
And buy a festival pin for $10.00 to keep this three day Louisiana music extravaganza festival FREE.
Friends from Lafayette dancing on the turf.
pt with Jackie Simien, KBMT Beaumont, TX news anchor, whom he met at the Festival last year. Jackie has written a lovely children's book, Bon Jour, Tee Belle and was here at the La Place des Petites to read and sign copies. Wayne Toups and Zydecajun finishes the weekend of music as dusk and dew descend upon Girard Park.
Photo of pt and Jackie Simien by Carrington Simien