- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 25, 2001

EUNICE, La. — Every Saturday night, this small, quintessential Old South farming town becomes the Nashville of Cajun music. By 5 p.m., the mixed audience of home-grown Cajuns and out-of-state tourists begins lining up to pay the $5 admission fee to the Liberty Theater, an amber-brick structure that first opened 74 years ago as a silent movie house.
It closed in the early 1980s, like so many small-town movie theaters. But since 1987, the images inside the renovated Liberty have been live, and rare is the night that all 414 seats aren't filled for the "Rendez-Vous des Cajuns."
At 6 p.m., a switch is thrown and Barry Ancelet, perched atop a stool at stage right, greets the expectant visitors and his radio listening audience throughout an 11-parish area with a resonant "Bon soir, mes amis."
Mr. Ancelet, 49, a professor of Cajun French at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, holds court for the next two hours as master of ceremonies over what has become both a popular entertainment event and a successful cultural experiment.
One and sometimes two Cajun bands appear each week in this Louisiana version of the Grand Ole Opry. On a recent Saturday, the red-and-white-clad Jambalaya Cajun Band from Lafayette held sway, its fiddles and accordions coaxing couples onto the pine dance floor below the stage with lilting waltzes and toe-tapping two-steps.
A week later, it was 21-year-old Kevin Naquin and his Ossun Playboys. Mr. Naquin is an up-and-comer in the genre who symbolizes the hybrid sounds of the traditional and the modern.
The Liberty Theater is actually a museum, part of the Jean Lafitte National Historic Park chain. The National Park Service operates the Prairie Acadian Cultural Center next door and provides funding for the theater. The city of Eunice owns the theater and is responsible for producing and promoting the shows. Both the theater and the cultural center are designed to preserve a culture that has been acquiescing slowly to the encroachments of modern American society.
But Mr. Ancelet, who is considered the country's foremost authority on Cajun culture, isn't at all intimidated by new looks and new sounds.
"The word 'tradition' is sometimes misunderstood as a thing, when in reality it's a process," he said. "I'm not interested in preserving Cajun culture as something you put under glass in a museum. It's an ongoing process. Cajun music is not ready for an autopsy."
Mr. Ancelet pointed out that the sounds generally identified by outsiders as Cajun, ever since fiddler Dewey Balfa brought national attention to this branch of folk music 37 years ago, were in fact the product of a succession of outside influences over three centuries.
When the original Acadians (the word "Cajun" is an Anglo corruption of "Acadian") were exiled by the British from what is now Nova Scotia in the 1750s, they brought with them the traditional folk music and ballads of their French forebears as well as the hornpipe music borrowed from their Scottish neighbors in Canada.
It was from German immigrants to Louisiana in the last century that the Cajuns adopted what has become one of the mainstays of their music — the diatonic accordion.
One of the country's best known Cajun bands, the Hackberry Ramblers, dates to the 1940s and was heavily influenced by Western swing; they do not even have an accordion. Two of the most successful younger musicians, Bruce Daigrepont and Wayne Toups, are what Mr. Ancelet calls "pop-oriented."
"Cajuns have always been able to take a bite out of something new, chew it for a while, swallow what they like and spit out what they don't," Mr. Ancelet said. "We know when it doesn't work."
The Liberty Theater audience appears to be mostly older than 50, but Mr. Ancelet maintains that younger Cajuns are taking a new interest in their roots.
"A lot are into rock, but there are others who love to go to the Cajun festivals," he said. "We all grew up listening to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. I think we discovered somewhere along the way that we didn't have to give up what was ours to add something new. When we had the first Cajun music festival in 1974, you couldn't have found a musician under 40. So we're moving in the right direction."
Mr. Ancelet has served as master of ceremonies since the first show 14 years ago, and he has seen it benefit both the Cajuns and out-of-staters. Though he announces primarily in French, he lapses into English often enough that Anglophones are not lost.
"People from out of state tell us that it gives them an opportunity to feel part of a real cultural event," he said. "A lot of people want to go beyond the theme-park aspect."
Mr. Balfa died in 1992, but his legacy is being perpetuated by his daughter, Christine, and her band, Balfa Toujours.
The Liberty Theater and the Prairie Acadian Cultural Center are not the only governmental attempts to preserve Cajun culture and put it on display for outsiders; another unit of the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park is in Lafayette.
Additionally, the Louisiana Legislature in 1968 established the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (Codofil), which has sponsored French-immersion programs at elementary schools in eight parishes and funds scholarships for Francophone studies.
"The Liberty Theater is probably the best living showcase of what our culture has to offer," said David Cheramie, Codofil's executive director in Lafayette, "and they do it on a weekly basis. That is an incredible feat."
The live radio show is carried on KRVS-FM, the National Public Radio affiliate in Lafayette, and it was so well received that it once was planned for a national uplink, as NPR does with Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" out of St. Paul, Minn. But Dave Spizale, KRVS station manager, reported that the only nibble came from a friend of his who manages an NPR station in Idaho.
Mr. Ancelet confided that he is not disappointed not to have become a Francophone Garrison Keillor.
"Garrison Keillor's show is in English," he said. "If we go national, then we're going to be under pressure to do it in English. It would be just another nail in the coffin of Cajun culture."

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