Arts & Culture

Saving Cajun Music

The documentary Roots of Fire
follows a new generation of Louisiana musicians dedicated to preserving language and culture

Photo: Roots of Fire, LLC, Jeremey Lavoi & Abby Berendt Lavoi

Jourdan Thibodeaux et les Rôdailleurs perform at Festivals Acadiens et Créoles in Lafayette, Louisiana.

A generation ago, the Cajun-French language and culture in southern Louisiana was on the ropes. While the elders were still fluent in the language of the bayous, a swing toward assimilation into mainstream American culture led it to languish among younger Cajun and Créole men and women.

It was an inside job, according to thirty-six-year-old Jourdan Thibodeaux, whose grandmother spoke fluent French but whose mother did not. In the opening to Roots of Fire, a new documentary exploring the present-day resurgence of Cajun music in Lafayette, Louisiana, and the surrounding communities, he doesn’t mince words.

photo: Roots of Fire, LLC, Jeremey Lavoi & Abby Berendt Lavoi

“Languages don’t die; cultures don’t die. They’re killed by choice,” Thibodeaux tells an audience from the stage at Festivals Acadiens et Créoles, an annual gathering in Lafayette dating to 1974. “If you’re not living your culture, you are killing your culture. There is no in-between.”

For Thibodeaux and others in his generation, that culture is worth saving. Along with Jourdan Thibodeaux et les Rôdailleurs, Roots of Fire follows Cajun musicians Kristi Guillory, Kelli Jones, and Wilson and Joel Savoy as they perform in French at festivals and in venues like the Blue Moon Saloon and Artmosphere in Lafayette as well as the Tigermen Den in New Orleans, while audiences two-step to the music.

The documentary will screen both in person and virtually during the New Orleans Film Festival, (November 3–13), including a showing at the Broadside on November 6 featuring a Fais Do Do dance led by Thibodeaux and Wilson Savoy. Producer-directors Jeremey and Abby Berendt Lavoi spent nearly a decade researching, planning, and capturing Cajun French music and culture for the film, which has already won top honors at the Oxford [Mississippi] Film Festival and screened to audiences in San Francisco, Memphis, Houston, and Nova Scotia, Canada.

Jeremey Lavoi’s interest in the culture goes back to his roots. He grew up in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and his grandmother Dorothy Fontenot played a key role in creating the French language immersion programs currently used in regional schools. But for most students, those lessons stay in the classroom. “There aren’t that many people speaking it who aren’t of much older generations,” Lavoi says. “Even the kids who are going through French immersion schools aren’t necessarily keeping that up whenever they’re done with school because there’s not a lot of opportunity to use it anywhere. But it is very alive in the music.”

photo: Roots of Fire, LLC, Jeremey Lavoi & Abby Berendt Lavoi
Musicians Wilson Savoy and Jean Bertrand of Pine Leaf Boys.

Thibodeaux, who was raised with the music he now plays, remembers listening to his grandmother and her friends speaking Cajun French while visiting and playing cards. After she passed away, he decided to do what he could to keep the culture alive. “When she was in the hospital, we’d sit and sing some songs, and they made her feel a little better,” he recalls. “After she died, I set my mind to it, to keep that going.”

Both Thibodeaux and the Lavois are careful to note that Cajun music isn’t the same as zydeco. Although both are rooted in the traditional Louisiana French music played in the southern part of the state, the musical styles diverged in the middle of the last century. Some zydeco artists now incorporate elements of R&B and hip-hop, while Cajun music leans deeper into Americana and other rootsy styles. The Lavois plan to tackle zydeco next. In the meantime, their daughter is learning French at school—but as the documentary asks, will all these efforts be “enough to save a dying community?”

“For so long when we were kids, people were just talking French everywhere,” Thibodeaux says. “Then, as the old people died off, you had less and less. And because there was less, people would do it less, ’cause then it felt uncomfortable. [But now] you’re seeing a lot more people wanting to participate in something that was theirs to begin with.”