Boy, do those Cajuns have it. We are staying in Eunice, Louisiana, right in the heart of Cajun country. This is the most intact, rich and impressive culture we have been exposed to yet. Take last night…
Lunch was another special Cajun meal, this time at Ronnie’s. Observe grilled catfish smothered in etouffe sauce, which has to be tasted – or inhaled – to be believed. One funny thing I haven’t mentioned is the ease of liquor consumption down here. One standard establishment in every town is the drive-through daiquiri stores, which are open at all hours. Why aren’t we all dead on the roads? Well, anywhere you eat, you can have something alcoholic to drink, it seems. What a place.
We spent the afternoon at the Acadian Cultural Center, run by the National Park Service. This is a little different from the normal park service offering. Rather than celebrating a place, like a battlefield or an important home, this one focuses on a people. It has displays of various aspects of the migration from various parts of the world that ended up here, the way they farmed, the clothes they wore, the way they ate, the tools they used, and – most of all – the way they played. There is an incredible history of storytelling, but nothing is more impressive than their love of music.
A sidebar about one of their instruments. The accordion became a key part of any Cajun music, but how did it get here? Well, there was a large German Catholic migration at one point, and when the Germans came to this part of the world, they brought two large gifts – the accordion and the art of sausage-making. If you’ve ever enjoyed andouille sausage, thank the Germans and the Cajuns who merged the casing and the interior.
Just to prove this Park Service center is a bit different, in the afternoon, they sponsored two demonstrations. One was a small concert of Cajun music, complete with dancing demonstration, and the other was a food sampling of boudin, the iconic Cajun sausage. How’s that for your government dollars put to good use? We loved it.
It is wonderful hearing these people move from French to English and merging the two. We know just enough to get the gist, and it is so pleasurable to just listen to them. The accordion player from the music segment, Bubba Frye, also did the food tasting. That’s because Bubba owns a local meat store – or maybe it’s an everything store, can’t tell – and his store sells over 900 pounds of boudin a day. He considers himself a small operation, so that tells you that boudin is a must-have delicacy here, which it seems people crave for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Go, Bubba!
Okay, so what about the evening? Well, around the corner is the Liberty Theatre.
Minnesota has Prairie Home Companion, Nashville has the Grand Ole Opry, and little Eunice has Radio Acadie, broadcasting Rendez-Vous des Cajuns on Saturday nights. Everyone told us we had to go, and go we did.
It was the most wonderful moment of the trip.
First of all, you buy your ticket starting at 4:00 for the 6:00 show. Want to wander in and get settled before the show? No problem. Everyone started coming in and finding a place and the time before the curtain was almost as entertaining as the show. There must have been about 400 people and it was clear that everyone of them either knew every other person or was related to them in some one. It was the most amazing demonstration of community we have ever seen. Not one person stayed in their seat for more that two minutes before they jumped up to hug an old friend or run across the auditorium to see a relative. (Several times we heard people being described as “double first cousins.” Do you have any?) We were right in the middle, soaking it all in.
This is also clearly a farming community, and just about everyone was wearing jeans. There was the air of a Saturday night in town after a hard week’s work, and being all scrubbed up for the occasion. Now layer in the language and a lot of energy, and you know you are not in Nebraska. It was wonderful.
Unlike the Grand Ole Opry, this is not a slick event tightly choreographed and performed for an audience mainly of tourists. No, this is their hall, and their music. You are very welcome to visit, but you are in the minority as a tourist. In fact, we may have been the only ones.
It was a special night at the Rendez-Vous. They were celebrating the life of Cajun music legend Iry Lejeune, a blind accordion virtuoso who died in 1955 and who revived interest in Cajun music . As part of the celebration, they gathered nine of his descendants who are also musicians to play last night – a never-before event. And about 40 of his “bloodline” were also there. The star, in our view, was Bubba Hebert, Iry’s 13-year-old great grandson. He has talent to spare – the Justin Bieber of Cajun music, but with something to offer that will endure.
At one point, he was joined by three of the Vanicors – a band that has been around for a while. In fact, Ellis Vanicor is 84, and his older brother Milton sitting next to Bubba is 95. Orsy at the end is someone’s grandkid, so he doesn’t count. Milton still sings for the band, and jumps up out of his seat when they’re done. Guess Cajun music keeps you young.
This. was. big.
Now, a word about how the concert proceeds. They play and those who can’t sit still a moment longer get up and dance. Old and young, they all mix together and with great personal style and dignity two-step their way into this wonderful music that does make your blood jump. It was amazing to hear and amazing to watch.
We don’t know where the 90 minutes went, but we walked out in a daze, knowing we had just witnessed something very special. We were in a combination of a time capsule and a space capsule, going to a place that is way outside of our normal galaxy, but one we will never forget.