Wednesday, November 17, 2010
It's coonass country
At first, southwest Louisiana is a spooky place, where alligators and water moccasins patrol rural residential areas, where the windows have bars and the bars have no windows.
But that soon disappears when the people greet you with a grin and a grasp of the hand. Sure, the grin may be gap-toothed and the teeth in evidence may be stained by the ubiquitous cigarettes, or maybe a pinch of snoose jammed under a lip. But the grin is real and so is the friendly greeting behind it.
Just so long as you get a proper Cajun introduction.
The day after a Cajun jam session at Touchet’s bar near Abbeville, residents at Betty’s RV park were invited to a gumbo feast and music session at the Charon home of Dave Baudoin, a proud Cajun, and retired navy man.
Down the road the sugar cane harvest was in full swing, and in the moments before the gumbo was ready to be ravished, Ian and Jerry — from the trailer next door at Betty’s — hiked down the highway to see the operation in progress.
After a bit, they saw a harvester working in a field, and cut through a yard — no car in the driveway — to get a closer look. As they approached a water-filled ditch, there was a shout from next door and a Carhartt-clad figure marched through the brush.
“What y’all want?” said the man, hands and God knows what else jammed in his jacket pockets.
“Hi, I’m Jerry from Davenport, Iowa, and we just wanted to see that cane harvester in operation,” explained Ian’s companion, striding forward with hand outstretched.
“Why y’all wanna see that?” said the man, hands firmly still in his pockets.
“Not something we’ve seen before,” said Ian. “I’m from Canada, and we can’t grow sugar cane up there, or in Iowa either.”
The man then spit some of the juice leaking from the wad of tobacco in his mouth, squinted and — finally — grinned.
“Well, hi then. I’m Troy and folks along this road is pretty much family so we look out for each other. Folks said they seen you walking down the road and the only folks walking out here is either broke down or they’s been an accident,” he explained.
“But then walking into a yard, no call for that if you broke down or banged up so I had to find out.
“People see strangers walking around, well, they’re likely to have a gun on you and you’d never know.”
The pleasantries over, Troy then set out to tell what he could about sugar cane harvesting, including the fact that the tracked-machine used in the process came from Australia. However he couldn’t take anyone closer, he explained, because of the watery ditch.
“It don’t look like much but there’s quite a few water moccasins (poisonous snakes) in there and there’s a six-foot ’gator that patrols it pretty regular,” he said. “We pretty much leave it alone because the ’gator keeps down the other critters — coyotes and bobcats and wild dogs that run through here.”
Troy also explained some the hunting etiquette of the area.
“See that bob-wire fence over there,’ he said, waving at a side yard. “When there’s one strand like that, it means it’s OK to hunt the land. Two strands means you’d best ask permission.
“Now if you got three strands, you need permission and a family member with you, four strands means family members only and five strands mean private and family member or not, you liable to get your ass shot if somebody catch you in there.
“That’s the old way but there’s still some places back in the bayou where you’d best be able to count to five.”
Troy said the land in the area once belonged to his grandfather, who is enshrined in country music’s Hall of Fame in Nashville, in the Cajun section.
“They call it Cajun and Creole to be politically correct, but really down here we’re just a bunch of coonasses. (Wikipedia says that although many Cajuns use the word in regard to themselves, other Cajuns view the term as an ethnic slur against the Cajun people, especially when used by non-Cajuns. Socioeconomic factors appear to influence how Cajuns are likely to view the term: working-class Cajuns tend to regard the word "coonass" as a badge of ethnic pride; whereas middle- and upper-class Cajuns are more likely to regard the term as insulting or degrading, even when used by fellow Cajuns in reference to themselves). They can call us what they want, but we know we’re coonasses and that’s OK by us.”
Then it was time to head back for gumbo and some swamp-pop music.
We were careful to stick to the road.
The area is truly Cajun country; the evidence is everywhere, from the strong French accent that renders the Louisiana drawl even more incomprehensible to ears attuned to flat vowels of Canadian English, to the bilingual signs, the names attached to businesses and, more than anything else, to the music.
Music is everywhere, and all of it is flavoured by the Cajun influence — the squeezebox accordion, washboards, triangles and other percussion instruments, the French lyrics that surpass Ian’s high school French, 40 years back in the rear-view mirror, and except for a few words here and there, prove too much for Vicki, able to work in French while waiting tables as a university summer job.
And it seems everybody can play something and most of the musicians can play everything. Touchet’s Saturday jam was stalled for a while because many of the regular participants were working elsewhere that day.
Not to worry. A young woman was dispatched to collect her guitar-playing father’s electric bass. When it arrived, it was an unusual five-string model and the bassist-cum-guitarist was an even more unusual three-fingered performer, missing the little finger on his left hand.
The group began with the bassist, a drummer and a 15-year-old accordion phenom on the squeezebox. Then a vocalist came out of the crowd, singing initially with a cigarette in his mouth and a Bud in his hand.
After a few numbers, the drummer retired and another appeared from the crowd. The group missed not a beat.
The microphone stands are equipped with bottle holders. The original drummer made sure they stayed full, for all except the teen, Barrot Navarre, who had had enough and passed the accordion to the fellow who had first joined in playing triangle. The new accordion played proved even better than the young lad, who has only been playing for a year, rocking the house with a stormy blues number that had many of the snowbirds in the audience clapping in rhythm.
After a while the vocalist moved on to rhythm guitar, while another guitarist showed up to dazzle the crowd with virtuoso riffs and the accordionist retreated to play the drums, quite well, while the teen regained the squeezebox. And these are all guys with day jobs.
Not Navarre though. Still in school, he was at the session to gain experience playing before crowds as part of his music education, underwritten in part by a society dedicated to preserving Cajun culture and music. Not that it seems to need much preservation.
And friendly? The beer is $2.50 a pop at the bar and at about 5 p.m., bar owner ‘Red’ Touchet unveils a gumbo dinner for everyone in the building. Free.
Music to our ears.