Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Roots of Fire: Modern Cajun/Creole Music

It turns out music will survive if people value it. In the late Les Blank’s recently re-released 1989 documentary, I Went to the Dance, it often feels like the audience is watching the end of an era for great Louisiana roots music. Then this film comes a long, like the response to its call, introducing us to a generation of younger musicians building on the foundation of their elders. Maybe nobody is getting rich, but Cajun and/or Creole music is alive and kicking in Abby Berendt Lavoi & Jeremy Lavoi’s Roots of Fire, which opens this week in theaters.

After years of being told to scrupulous differentiate between Creole and Cajun, the Lavois’ talking heads now come along a ask us to basically consider it all “French Music.” After all, the black accordion legend Amede Ardoin first recorded just about all the foundational Cajun standards in the 1920s—and then went on the perform with white violinist Dennis McGee, who is widely considered the original defining Cajun musician.

On-camera commentators like Musician Jourdan Thibodeaux also point out the Arcadians had already mixed to a large extent with indigenous Canadians, before the British expelled them from the Maritimes. As far as the musicians in the film are concerned, everyone who plays music in Southwest Louisiana share considerable cultural commonalities. There is a spirit of brotherhood expressed throughout the film, at least until someone mentions the English (which is fair enough, given Arcadian history).

Obviously, the music is good, because we see Cajun musician and record label producer Joel Savoy throw a shindig for three groups of local friends, who were all nominated for the Best Regional Roots Album Grammy in the same year. (None of them won, but that’s no reason to put a damper on a good party.) Clearly, Cajun musicians are not inclined to allow extraneous details detract from the music, considering Savoy still regularly plays with his ex-wife, fiddler Kelli Jones.

Jones also happens to be a prominent example of younger Cajun musicians who are developing fresh spins on Cajun music, making old standards and rediscovered tunes sound contemporary. It really is fitting to see
Roots of Fire soon after I Went to Dance, because the new film truly answers the unspoken questions of what will come next and how will the music survive.

Of course, it all sounds terrific. Maybe
Roots of Fire would not seem as hopeful if seen in complete isolation, but it is still relatively upbeat. Regardless, you should watch every Louisiana music doc that comes to your local theaters. This is definitely a good one. Recommended for all fans of French Louisiana music, Roots of Fire opens Thursday (9/21) at the Laemmle Royal.