- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 30, 2000

LAFAYETTE, La. It's part French, part American and part Caribbean: a huge, yearly party that not only welcomes crashers but beckons them in.

For the 24th consecutive year, Lafayette's Girard Park will be filled with the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of Acadian, or "Cajun," culture. Slated for the weekend of Sept. 15-17, it's an adieu-to-summer party that only the Cajuns could put on.

The Festivals Acadiens is plural because it began back in the '70s as three separate festivals: the Festival de Musique Acadienne, the Bayou Food Festival, and the Louisiana Native and Contemporary Crafts Festival. In 1977, they were merged into one event always held on the weekend before the fall equinox.

Since then, the La Vie Cadienne Wetlands Folklife Festival has been added, as has Downtown Alive, a Friday night concert in the downtown area that serves as the event's kickoff. Michael Doucet's Beausoleil one of the nation's best-known Cajun bands and Nathan Williams and the Zydeco Cha-Chas are slated to perform.

"This festival is essentially a self-celebration," explains Barry Jean Ancelet, head of the modern languages department at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and the country's leading scholar of Cajun and Creole culture. "It was designed to help Cajuns explore and celebrate their own culture, but it ended up being a way for outsiders to have an encounter with Cajun culture in a concentrated dose. If 20,000 Cajuns are getting together for a celebration, you can learn a lot."

Adding an African flavor are the zydeco bands. Zydeco is a black Creole musical genre that features a washboard as well as an accordion. Attendance has grown steadily over the years. Gerald Breaux, executive director of the Lafayette Convention and Visitors Commission, said the "best guess" of the turnout in 1999 "is somewhere to the tune of 150,000. It's hard to say, because it's a three-day event and it's so spread out."

One reason crowd estimates are iffy is there are no gate receipts, except for the $5 admission fee for the crafts festival. It is a fact, though, that Lafayette's 4,500 hotel rooms always end up booked.

The most popular event, the Jaycees-sponsored music festival, which features seven Cajun and zydeco bands on Saturday and six more on Sunday, is free. The festivals have their own Web site (www.cajunhot.com).

Visitors come from around the United States, France, Belgium and French-speaking Canada. Nova Scotia is the ancient homeland of the Acadians, who were deported by the British in the 18th century.

Of the increasing number of non-Cajuns who come to experience the festivals, Mr. Ancelet said, "We're delighted to have them, and they might get sucked into a conversation or a dance they might not otherwise have had."

"It's really developed as one of the premier Louisiana festivals, like Jazz Fest [in New Orleans in May] and, of course, Mardi Gras," said Mr. Breaux. "Most of the rest are harvest festivals, like the Rice Festival in Crowley and the Sugar Festival in New Iberia, but ours is a cultural festival."

The concept for Festivals Acadiens, Mr. Ancelet explained, was the inspiration of the late Cajun fiddler Dewey Balfa, whose performance at the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island in 1964 began to kindle national interest in the fast-disappearing Cajun-Creole subculture.

Interest resurfaced as well in Louisiana, where for generations Cajun children had been prohibited from speaking French at school. In 1968, the Louisiana Legislature established the Council for the Development for French in Louisiana (CODOFIL) to promote preservation of the culture, and it was one of the early sponsors of the music festival.

"In 1974, we got the idea to put together a concert that would pay tribute to Cajun-Creole music and its cultural significance," Mr. Ancelet said. "Dewey Balfa saw the value of doing it here.

"Right after Dewey died (in 1992), we had the unusual sensation of doing a festival without him. It was hard to imagine how we would do it. But the next year his daughter, Christine, took up the family banner and she has performed every year since."

During the festivals, Girard Park resembles a Cajun-redneck Woodstock. The more dedicated festival goers erect nylon shelters, set up barbecue grills and listen to the succession of bands hour after hour.

The smell of grilled meat mingles with the enticing aroma of traditional Cajun fare from the adjacent Bayou Food Festival, including jambalaya, gumbo, etouffee, red beans and rice, and fried shrimp and alligator, sold by local Cajun restaurants that set up Army-like field kitchens under the park's mammoth, moss-draped live oaks. Seven restaurants will have booths at this year's food festival, while others will offer desserts.

As at any Louisiana festival, a prodigious amount of beer is sold and consumed, including Abita, Louisiana's best-known microbrew.

Neither the sweat-evoking humidity nor the occasional thunderstorms that sometimes short out the speakers dampen spirits. When it's dry, dust swirls upward from hundreds of pairs of dancing feet in front of the main stage. After a rain, dancers return to stomp in the mud, nonplused.

"One of the things I've noticed over the years is that Festivals Acadiens, like Cajun music itself, is driven by the tension between innovation and conservation," Mr. Ancelet said. "The festivals are inward-turned, to do the kinds of things that any culture needs to do from time to time: to take stock of itself, to see who's who and who's doing what and where the culture is headed.

The bands that are selected to perform at Festivals Acadiens each year are based on that idea, of who's moving in a new direction and who's preserving the past."

In the former category, he said, are musicians like Steve Riley, Wayne Toups and Richard LeBoeuf, "who are pushing the edge." In the latter category are Jesse Lege, Bois-Sec Ardoin and Balfa Toujours, a six-member band that includes vocalist Christine Balfa; her husband, Dirk Powell, who sings and plays accordion, and her sister, Nelba Balfa Henderson, who sings and plays triangle.

"I was 6 years old when they held the first festival," recalled Christine Balfa, who lives in nearby St. Martinville. "After my dad died, Dirk, Nelba and I began writing songs to deal with our grief. My husband has been a musician since he was 8, but it was the first time my sister and I had ever written a song. We just thought it would be nice to do a CD in honor of our father. We had no idea we would play music full time and go on to record six CDs."

That first commemorative CD, "Pop, Tu Me Parle Toujours," (Dad, You Always Speak to Me), became a local classic.

"Performing at our first Festivals Acadiens in 1993 meant a lot to us," she said. "It was an honor they asked us to play because of my father's association with the festival."

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