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The Lost Bayou Ramblers Reinvent and Reclaim the Music of Acadiana

An exclusive interview with Louis Michot, the lead singer and fiddle player for the Lost Bayou Ramblers, who, earlier this week, were nominated for their second Grammy Award.

When he was 19, Louis Michot of Pilette, Louisiana, a tiny community in between Lafayette and Broussard, decided he wanted to learn French. In many ways, it is surprising he didn’t already know the language. He was born and raised in the heart of Acadiana, a region in Southwest Louisiana named after the people of Acadie, French settlers who migrated to Louisiana after being exiled from their home in Canada.

His paternal great-grandparents spoke French, though they insisted their children only speak English in the home. His paternal grandfather, also named Louis Michot, became a successful businessman and prominent politician, and when he served as Louisiana’s state superintendent of education in the 1960s, he helped spearhead the creation of CODOFIL, the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana.

So, at 19, Louis enrolled in an intensive, five-week French language immersion program in Nova Scotia. He also made another life-changing decision that year: He taught himself how to play the fiddle. About a year later, he and his brother Andre formed the Lost Bayou Ramblers.

Earlier this week, the brothers and their bandmates were nominated for their second Grammy Award. In 2008, their album Live: A La Blue Moon received a nomination for Best Zydeco or Cajun Music Album, a category that has since been eliminated and replaced with Best Regional Roots Album, which means the Lost Bayou Ramblers are competing against a Native American powwow band and Josh Tatofi, a singer known as “the Polynesian Luther Vandross,” among others.

In Louisiana, we would call the category “lagniappe,” which seems more fitting for a band like the Lost Bayou Ramblers.

Louis sings exclusively in French. He plays the fiddle. His brother plays the accordion and a lap steel guitar. Technically, they’re a Cajun French band, first cousins with zydeco, a genre that is more associated with and informed by African-American culture. But the Lost Bayou Ramblers also feature a bassist, an electric guitar player, and a drummer. They’re not merely a Cajun French band or, if you prefer, a Cajun band that plays French music. They’re genre-defying, in many ways. One of their bandmates now plays with LCD Soundsystem, a rock band known for their electronic dance music. They’ve opened up for the Arcade Fire and jammed with the Violent Femmes and the Pogues and Scarlett Johansson (yes, you read that correctly).

At a recent show at Tipitina’s in New Orleans, they had an audience of hundreds of people, the majority of whom in their twenties, dancing like they were at high-octane rock show, and then, just as easily, stunned the crowd into silence with an incredible version, sung in French, of Ledbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”

A few weeks ago, I sat down for an hour-long interview with Louis. We talked about everything from family genealogy to the similarities between their music and the music of Hawaii and the Caribbean. We also spoke, at length, about his influences and the ways in which Louisiana history and culture informs his craft.

But the first thing I wanted to know is how often they surprise their audiences by only singing in French, especially when they’re performing outside of Louisiana. “In any other state, there will always be a handful of people who know what Cajun music is,” he says, “but (for most), I’m sure it’s quite a shock when I open my mouth and start singing.”

Occasionally, he will encounter someone who also speaks French but has never heard the way it’s spoken and sung in Louisiana. “I call it lyric poetry,” he says. “It’s partly improvised, but it’s definitely it’s own kind of language, the sung Cajun French. Most Cajun French people can speak to a Frenchman or a Parisian and get along just fine, but in music, we have a difference cadence. There are certain words we stick in, just for the sake of rhythm, and it can confuse people. Sometimes, I’ll meet someone after a show who will ask ‘parlezvous français?’ Because they don’t even know what I’m saying. They don’t recognize it. It’s strange to them. Because, yes, it is definitely a very unique singing style.”

It may be unique, but it certainly is not a gimmick. With the Lost Bayou Ramblers, Louis is doing much more than introducing audiences across the world to the peculiar way Cajun French music is sung; he is also rescuing songs that threaten to be forgotten forever, and in doing so, he is helping to preserve critical stories in Louisiana’s history.

“There are hundreds and hundreds of songs that need to be rescued from obscurity,” he says. “There are way more songs that have not been revitalized than have been, and that’s largely because this is a very prolific art. But in all of our albums, you’ll always hear songs that we have dug up from old 78s or even field recordings, songs that you’ve probably never heard anyone play.”

Although he can name a litany of musicians and songwriters that have influenced him, his biggest influence was, in his words, “completely unknown,” a woman who lived across the Vermillion River from his family’s camp named Ethel Mae Borque. “She taught us so many songs, some that she wrote, some standards that she put her own style on. She had so much knowledge about the language and the depth behind the music.” The band honored Borque, who passed away in 2011, by putting her picture on the cover of their second album.

The Lost Bayou Ramblers are not just rescuing or revitalizing music; they are reinventing it and introducing it to an entirely new generation of music lovers who may have never even heard of Cajun French or zydeco before. “That’s the beauty of it to me,” he says. “There’s not just so much material; there’s so much profound material.”

I mention to Louis that his music, to me at least, sounds more like rock n’ roll than what I’d always thought of as Cajun. “It’s actually a natural Cajun band tendency, being from the era we’re from. There aren’t many bands that don’t have an electric guitar or a drum set,” he says. “Cajun music has continually borrowed from and allowed itself to be influenced by the music around it, whether it’s country or blues or rock.”

Still, though, Louis readily acknowledges that he and the Lost Bayou Ramblers are doing something different than their contemporaries in the genre. “There aren’t many of us who are pushing to advance this music,” he says, as a way of explaining why the Grammys decided to drop the Best Zydeco or Cajun Album category.

The band’s latest album, Kalenda, for which they received their latest Grammy nomination, is perhaps their greatest work to date, and Michot is particularly proud of the album’s title track. “There’s so much information and history in it,” he says. “It has the African Congo Square rhythms; it has the dance call; and then it has a whole story about a man from New Orleans- a royalist aristocrat who was anti-Napoleon. And all of the anti-aristocrats would sing this song about him- and that’s in the middle of the song. The words, though, are line for line from a guy in Lafayette named Vavasseur Mouton. What is great, I think, is how all of these pieces of the Louisiana cultural pie come together in this one song.” Michot provides more background on the song and its history in this interview published by Band Camp Daily.

Despite the fact that they maintain almost constant touring schedule, Louis and his bandmates handle all of the band’s business themselves, which means they don’t have a manager or a publicist or the kind of support staff upon which most Grammy-nominated musicians rely.

“We also don’t rely on Cajun or zydeco venues,” he says. They deliberately seek out venues and opportunities to introduce their music to new audiences. “We want to play for the general public. We want to be appreciated by everyone who is a music lover. That’s why we’re in it. Because we love music. And although we will always consider ourselves a traditional Cajun French band, we love music no matter what genre it is in.”

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