- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 24, 2003

LAFAYETTE, La.

Festival International de Louisiane has proven to be a piece de resistance even in a state that prides itself on throwing big parties. What began in 1987 as part of a strategy designed to lure desperately needed tourist dollars to a region devastated by the oil recession had mushroomed or, rather, champignoned into an internationally acclaimed celebration of French culture that last year drew about 200,000 visitors to this city of 150,000.

Promoters are confident that the recent spate of France-bashing won’t affect this year’s turnout.

“Last year, Rotary International picked Festival International as one of the top 10 festivals in the world,” said Gerald Breaux, executive director of the Lafayette Convention and Visitors Commission.

He said the festival’s popularity has grown outside Louisiana, largely by word of mouth.

“It’s not really a secret, but some people think it is,” Mr. Breaux said. “This year we’re probably in the best shape ever because of the three new parks that have been built downtown since last year. International Park is where the main stage will be.”

On that stage tonight to kick off the 17th Festival International will be New Orleans native Aaron Neville and his quintet. By the time the festival winds down Sunday night, 41 different bands representing three states, five Canadian provinces, 10 countries and two French dependencies will have performed on the four stages, or “scenes,” set up downtown just beyond earshot of each other.

As usual, most of the folk-oriented bands performing this year will be from Louisiana, primarily Cajun and zydeco, or from Francophone countries.

South-central Louisiana is the logical venue, having long been the crossroads of people and cultures washed up from far-flung shores: French colonists and their Creole descendants; Acadians, or Cajuns, expelled from Nova Scotia by the British in the 18th century; black slaves and freed Creoles from Africa and the Caribbean; Spanish colonists; American pioneers; and later, waves of German, Italian and Lebanese immigrants.

Two bands this year will be from France, La Rue Ketanou and Bratsch; two from Quebec, Dobacaracol and La Volee de Castors; two from Martinique, Kassav and Marce & Toumpac; and Mathieu D’Astou from New Brunswick; Vishten of Prince Edward Island; the Duhks from Manitoba; the Cottars from Cape Breton Island of Nova Scotia; Marka of Belgium; and Gokh-bi Systems of Senegal. For the first time, Reunion Island, a French dependency in the Indian Ocean, will send a band, Salem Tradition.

Rolling Stone magazine is following La Rue Ketanou on its U.S. tour, including Festival International, said Sekaran Murugaiah, the Malaysian-born president of Festival International’s board of directors this year and director of the international-affairs office at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

Over the years, the festival has branched out to include folk-music groups from Latin America and Anglophone countries, one of which is back for a second year by popular demand.

“The Waifs, of Australia, are returning because they won the poll as the most popular group last year,” said Mr. Murugaiah.

Also on the lineup are a band from Central America, Mexican folk groups from Texas and Mexico, an Andean flute band from Ecuador, a Cuban-American group and two from Anglophone Africa: Ammamereso Agofomma, a drum and dance troupe from Ghana, and Labaja, from Nigeria.

Besides the music, Festival International offers an orchestra of cuisine primarily Cajun, Creole, Southern and Southwestern, as well as fare from Latin America, the Mediterranean, the Middle East and the Far East.

This year, the Pavilion de Cuisine will be in newly created Parc Sans Souci, which has been in the national spotlight for the dedication of the September 11 memorial, made with steel girders from the World Trade Centers and cement rubble from the Pentagon.

As one would expect at a Louisiana festival, beer and cocktail booths will be ubiquitous.

Other popular features of the festival are the Marche du Monde and the Marche des Arts, open-air markets where vendors from several continents hawk traditional arts, crafts and apparel; La Place des Enfants, where puppet shows and other performances are staged for children; and theatrical performances.

The crafty founders of the festival scheduled it for the last weekend of April to snare tourists en route to the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. It has worked, and thousands of tourists now return to Lafayette, in part because Festival International boasts one major advantage over Jazz Fest: It’s free.

The success of Festival International was so phenomenal that in 1991 it became a nonprofit corporation with a full-time executive director, a post now held by Dana Baker Canedo. The Texan earned a public relations degree at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, fell in love with the local culture and stayed.

“The first festival attracted an estimated 75,000 to 115,000,” she said. “Our annual growth has averaged 5 [percent] to 15 percent. Maybe the only year it went down was in 1995, when it rained.”

Is she concerned that the anti-French sentiment stemming from the Iraq war may rain on this year’s party?

“It’s a question I’m asked on a daily basis,” she said. “Obviously, we’re not a political event. I’m not naive, but it’s not something I think will take place. They just come out to hear the music, and the people coming from out of state have been coming for years. There has been no reduction in the hits to our Web site.”

Mr. Murugaiah and Mr. Breaux were equally optimistic.

“Music transcends all that,” Mr. Murugaiah said.

“Our French ties are not only with France, but with Belgium, Canada and French-speaking countries in Africa,” Mr. Breaux said. “Our culture is something to be proud of, not something to be embarrassed about. This [dispute] is a government-to-government issue, not a people-to-people issue.”

Although the festival’s national and international reputations are growing, Mrs. Canedo said, it still advertises only locally, not nationally.

“Our mission is unique,” she said. “Part of our mission is to have an economic impact, which is about $10 to $15 million a year. But it’s also to enrich the community, to educate the community about global cultures. It’s about the French culture, not just [the Cajuns] Canadian roots, but the African roots, the Caribbean roots. It’s free for specific reasons, so people from the surrounding areas can see something they ordinarily couldn’t afford to see, or wouldn’t have access to.”

Mrs. Canedo said organizers are “about 50 percent ready for next year as far as bands” is concerned. She advised out-of-staters to make reservations in December or January if they plan to stay in Lafayette; hotels in Baton Rouge, 50 miles to the east, always profit from the procrastinators.

Mr. Murugaiah coyly declined to say what new offerings the 18th festival, scheduled for April 21-25, 2004, may have.

“The board looks for things that need to be tweaked for the better,” he said. “We always try to have something [new] to look forward to.”

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