On December 20th, 1803 the government of Thomas Jefferson agreed to pay Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte $15 million dollars for the Louisiana territory. The Louisiana Purchase, as this transaction came to be called, gave the U.S. control over access to the mouth of the Mississippi River and all the benefits that came with control of and use of that waterway. The transaction was also one of the earliest examples of a real-estate flip in North America, as the French had only just taken over the territory from the Spanish 20 days prior to selling it off to the new American Republic.
Ten years earlier Louisiana had been part of an agreement reached with the Spanish, as Napoleon dreamed of a Western French Empire with Louisiana as its lynchpin. But when the slave revolt in the French colony of Saint-Dominque succeeded in expelling French troops from the Caribbean, he found himself with a swath of territory in the middle of nowhere and no means of defending it. Making the best of a bad deal he unloaded it for cash that he needed for his attempted conquest of Europe.
Thirty or so years earlier, a few thousand miles north and east of Louisiana, repercussions from the American War of Independence were felt in what are now Canada's Maritime Provinces. The British government needed to re-settle troops and civilians who had remained loyal to the Crown in what remained of British North America. Thousands of French speaking Maritime residents were thrown off their land in order to make room for these new arrivals. With no place else to go, a large number of these Acadians headed down to Louisiana – the only non-British controlled, French speaking colony in North America.
Like the majority of French settlers in New France, the Acadians were originally from the Normandy and Brittany areas of France and had brought the cultural traditions unique to those areas with them. When they headed south to Louisiana, their music and unique French dialects came with them. (French Canadian films today are still sub-titled in parts of France as the language spoken in Quebec has remained relatively unchanged and is still a version of a 16th century Normandy dialect) When they arrived in Louisiana they were absorbed into the already existing French community but made enough of an impact that an abbreviated, phonetic, version of their name has become permanently associated with the culture of the region: Cajun.
Today, while the sound is somewhat muted, you can still hear the echoes of those "Cajuns" who came down south looking for a home. Most of the Cajun music these days contains lyrics written in a pastiche of languages that include French, English, and Spanish, while the Celtic sound of Brittany and Normandy has been diluted by the myriad influences to which it has been exposed. So it was quite a surprise to listen to a CD by a group of young Cajun musicians with not only a great many of the lyrics in French, but the music redolent of the reels and jigs of their forefathers.
Don't get me wrong, Feufollet's forthcoming CD, Cow Island Hop, on Valcour Records, is not some dry and dusty historical restoration piece that will only be of interest to musicologists or folklorists. It's vital, alive, and very much contemporary, but it's also the first Cajun disc that I've heard in a long time that harkens back to the French roots of the colony. That doesn't make it any better or worse than other Cajun music; it just makes it different and distinct.
Cow Island Hop is a mix of traditional tunes arranged by the band, covers, and a couple of originals. What's most impressive is that it's next to impossible to tell which tunes are which merely by listening to them. Not only does this mean they have understood the music well enough to create it, they play it with honesty and passion that makes it live for today's audiences. It's one thing to play an old song note for note like it was played a hundred years ago, or to imitate a style of music when you write a song, but it's another altogether to make the music your own.
Listening to Feufollet play songs like "Femme L'A Dit," "Cow Island Hop," and "Jolie Fille" –a traditional, an original, and a cover tune respectively — you get swept away by the (forgive me for this), jois de vivre that they bring to the music. The joy of life; that's what music is all about isn't it? An expression of the joy of being alive. Part of that joy means feeling things, and that's not always going to be an easy experience, as it's going to involve occasional heartbreak and anger as well as happiness.
On Cow Island Hop you're listening to music where the musicians feel what they are playing, and play what they feel. So instead of just hearing some nice tunes, played in a quaint, old-fashioned style, you're listening to songs that are alive. Fiddles and accordions have been playing tunes like these since the seventeen hundreds in North America, and for who knows how long in other places in the world. Feufollet makes the music on Cow Island Hop sound like they've played it for centuries but only wrote the songs yesterday.
Everything else aside though, the best thing about Cow Island Hop is just how much fun it is to listen to. You can be as authentic and passionate as you want, but if nobody is going to enjoy what you're doing, there's really not much point in doing it now is there? There are plenty of great Cajun bands out there today and they are all worth listening to for the various things they bring to the music. What makes Feufollet distinct is how far back they've reached for their inspiration when it comes to making their brand of Cajun.
Cow Island Hop is scheduled to be release on July 1 and if you're a fan of Cajun music you won't want to miss it.