- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 1, 2005

Talk to Michael Doucet about what makes Cajun music unique and you’ll learn that the genre has as much to do with circumstance and location as it does with rhythm and sound.

“Cajun music goes into two different cultures, the French and the English,” says Mr. Doucet, who along with his band BeauSoleil will be performing at the Herndon Festival tonight. “But it’s American music now.”

Back in the 18th century, the Acadians, people of French extraction who had settled in eastern Canada, were asked to pledge allegiance to the British crown — and when they wouldn’t, were expelled to the wilds of Louisiana, which in 1764 was owned by Spain but had retained much of its French culture.

Shades of “Manon Lescaut” perhaps, but the place where the Acadians found themselves was hardly a desert, musically speaking. The French-speaking Acadians were surrounded by English ballads, Irish jigs and African rhythms.

Yet Cajun music, or French music as it was called, was often ignored by mainstream society as it sought to assimilate its French elements into a broader culture. But some essence of the old remained, in language and in music.

“Cajun music is a distillation of the old contredanses, reels and polkas,” says Mr. Doucet, who learned much of his repertoire from the songs and rhymes of his French-speaking older relatives.

“When that generation started dying, it shook me,” he says. “I started to learn the songs, and when I went to France after graduating from college I heard some of the same ballads there.”

It was enough to make him take up the fiddle, which he did, at age 23.

Today’s Cajun sound also features the accordion, which was brought to the area by German and Austrian immigrants about 1900, according to Mr. Doucet. The accordion is now a strong element of the Cajun sound, providing a solid support around which the other musicians can trace rhythm and melody.

In the 1970s, Mr. Doucet worked in Louisiana schools with the late Dewey Balfa, considered the seminal figure in Cajun music, in an attempt to remove the stigma of what many considered to be “rural, uneducated music.”

Mr. Doucet feels that it is important for mainstream culture to accommodate its minority elements, not the other way around.

“If your grandmother does not speak English then you should learn to speak French,” Mr. Doucet says. “You shouldn’t make her learn English.”

Since its beginnings in 1976, BeauSoleil has performed most of its repertoire in French, although it has incorporated elements from other musical genres into its signature sound. Its new album, “Gitane Cajun, which was released last fall, includes blues and western swing-influenced tracks as well as a tribute to late zydeco great Boozoo Chavis.

Just don’t expect a set list at the Herndon gig.

“We’ve never had a list,” says Mr. Doucet. “We just see how the crowd reacts and go from there.”

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Meanwhile, local favorite Eddie from Ohio performs at the Herndon Festival on Sunday. Part folk, part roots-rock band, Eddie from Ohio formed in 1991 when three of the members, all friends from Northern Virginia, decided to form a trio. That soon led to the addition of percussionist Eddie Hartness to give their sound a bit of bite.

“Some people call us ‘hard folk,’ ” says songwriter and guitarist Robbie Schaefer. “We’re definitely rooted in the folk movement, but we’re not exactly a folk band.”

Over the years, the group has moved from covers of songs by the likes of Blues Traveler and The Byrds to those written by its own members. It’s all part of a creative process that has them listening and thinking outside the box.

“I’ve started listening to more R and B, funk and retro ‘70s music,” Mr. Schaefer says. “I don’t know how exactly that all plays out in the music, but we’re not really straight-ahead folk any more.”

The group was recently commissioned to write the theme song for “PGA Tour 18: Golf’s Ultimate Road Trip,” the PGA reality golf show on CBS. Meanwhile, a new album,”This is Me,” features songs by fellow band member and childhood buddy Michael Clem.

The CD may be a bit of a departure for longtime fans; it’s the first time the group has worked with producer Lloyd Maines, who has also produced the Dixie Chicks and singer-songwriter James McMurtry.

“We’re really excited about it,” Mr. Schaefer says. “I think it’s one of our strongest recordings ever.”

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