Deep in the heart of Cajun country with Michot’s Melody Makers
Cajun music has been around long before Louisiana became part of the United States.
While some elements of the music have seeped into rock and country, Cajun has never gotten the mainstream acceptance that reggae, rap and some African styles have, perhaps because it’s sung primarily in the French dialects of Louisiana and features the accordion as the lead instrument.
Louis Michot, the fiddle player, songwriter, vocalist and bandleader of Michot’s Melody Makers, is one of the giants of Cajun music. He’s best known for being the leader of The Lost Bayou Ramblers, a Grammy winning Cajun outfit that’s been bringing the sounds of Louisiana to America, and the rest of the world, since 1999. The band recently took a brief hiatus from touring, but Michot is as busy as ever with a new quartet, Michot’s Melody Makers. They just finished recording their debut, Blood Moon, a record Michot hopes will introduce Cajun sounds to a wider audience. The band’s folk roots are intact, but they also add the rhythms of punk, rockabilly, rap, funk and R&B to the mix, as well as heavily distorted electric guitars and effects borrowed from electronic dance music. This is experimental Cajun music aimed at younger, more adventurous listeners. Michot spoke about his plans for The Melody Makers from his home in rural Louisiana.
Why has Cajun music remained relatively unknown, even in a climate where people are constantly searching for the forgotten roots of American music?
Cajun music’s been a niche market for 20 years, because there hasn’t been an artist that’s broken into pop culture for a while. Unlike Latin and Reggae, there’s not a large population that relates with the language, or accordion dance music. There was a push to get a Cajun/Zydeco Grammy category, but there weren’t enough entries. The same artists were getting nominations every year.
The last time Cajun music was mainstream was when Doug Kershaw was a guest on the first Johnny Cash TV show. He really brought Cajun music into the limelight. I think a lot of traditional bands saw an upswing from his national exposure. Before that, it was Harry Choates, who brought “Jole Blon” to #4 on the national charts in 1947, possibly the only time a song in Cajun French has ever been so popular. Even Zydeco [the music of African American Cajuns and Creoles], which is now sung primarily in English, hasn’t reached mainstream popularity, with some exceptions – Buckwheat Zydeco’s big hit with “Don’t Mess with My Toot Toot.”
Cajun and Zydeco bands are completely happy, as long as the Cajuns and Creoles like their music, which is why it’s managed to stay so vital and prolific for over 100 years. We play for our own people and don’t seek mainstream acceptance, although I also love playing for audiences that aren’t familiar with our music. In the end, there’s nothing better than a crowd who understands what you’re singing about, and feels the rhythm in their blood and bones.
What can you do with the Melody Makers that you can’t do with The Lost Bayou Ramblers?
The Melody Makers is a fiddle band. There’s almost no accordion, which has a limited amount of notes, and has led the repertoire over the last 100 years. That resulted in us forgetting an older, more complex fiddle based repertoire. Fiddles can play every note in the scale, and then some. This band has been a chance for me to try new tunes, and old ones I’ve always wanted to try, on the spot, with no rehearsal or pressure for us to be “on” 100% of the time, as with The Ramblers. It’s more experimental and, as a smaller band, there’s a different set of dynamics. I can let the band jam around me, while I mess with new fiddle tunings and try wild ideas that won’t be an energy drop, as they would with The Ramblers, who have a repertoire that people want to hear. Of course, now that we’ve released our first album, we have a point of reference, but we’re trying to not let that inhibit our experimental nature.
How did you go about making this recording?
Blood Moon was an amazing experience. As artists, we always hope for the most direct experience when creating new pieces. Inspiration is always best at the moment of creation, and the more we to go back and re-create that same moment, the further we get from the original feeling. (Producer) Korey Richey helped us keep the creative process immediate, by limiting us to tracking everything in 36 hours. It really worked. We always found a way to get our idea out within a few takes, and perform it all together, rather than put our trust in the ability to come back at a later date and do overdubs. What I love about the recordings from 1920s through 1960s, is that you know they had one shot to get their best performance out, and you can feel it in the recordings. Blood Moon is that for me – capturing the performance in one big movement, and I can hear it in the record.
Howdid Korey Richard help? He produced a recent album for the progressive, post-punk dance band LCD Soundsystem. Did you want him to push you into new territory?
Korey and I have been working together since we first met at Dockside (Recording Studio) in 2007. He’s been a huge part of my creative process over the years, because he understands and respects the roots of Cajun music. He knows how to bring in new energy and ideas, without abandoning the authentic beauty that originally drew us in to this music. He is an amazing engineer and producer, and has worked in many genres with huge acts, but he’s also a country boy from Acadia Parish. He brings it all together with us.
How did you pick the cover tunes you play?
There are many amazing old Cajun tunes that have never been covered, and many that have fallen almost completely off the map, because they can’t be played on the accordion. We picked some of the tunes from our live sets that worked the best with this band, and also represent another style of Cajun music which has been forgotten in the modern accordion based repertoire.
Did you consciously write in a traditional style on the originals?
I naturally write in the traditional style, as it’s the language I speak musically. I write in Cajun French, as the rhythm of the language is what gives the music its feel. It’s an improvised lyric poetry that allows the singer to tell his own version of the story, while still holding true to the song.
How did the arrangements evolve?
I let the song guide the arrangement. In the traditional, yet experimental nature of the band, I make room for rhythmic elements to bring ambience and dynamics to the song. Mark Bingham’s guitar style really helps broaden the soundscape as well. He has no pre-conceived notions of what the songs are supposed to sound like, as he’s not a “Cajun” musician. He’s worked with everybody under the sun in his 50 years in music, and brings a fresh interpretation and feel to the songs.
What originally made you want to be a musician?
I think it came naturally. I was raised in a musical family. In fact, our great-great grandmother was an accordion player, and her son, Louis J. Michot Sr. played with his cousins and in-laws, as well as his son Louis J. Michot Jr. My dad and his five brothers started Les Freres Michot in the 1980s. When I was 18, I told myself I didn’t want to play for money, because it would change my relationship with music, but as soon as I started traveling and hitchhiking, it became the one thing that allowed me to entertain myself and learn fiddle, by playing on the streets. It also allowed me to keep traveling and not have to seek other work. And, of course, it’s allowed me to keep doing what I love, and even raise my family with three young boys, and continue to expand my art.
Did you ever play in rock bands? Why did you stick with Cajun music?
I had quite a few psychedelic rock bands through high school. One of them became quite serious. I was also playing standup bass with Les Freres Michot at the same time, but never tried to cross the two. When I turned 18, I really began to appreciate and have a passion for Cajun music. I realized how special our language and music are, and have been practicing both ever since.
How has your playing evolved over the years?
When I started playing Cajun fiddle, I was 18, and was learning Cajun French at the same time. I had to start at the bottom, and it took me years to really learn the standard repertoire, while becoming fully fluent in the language. After about 10 years, I finally felt ready to allow myself to bring other influences I loved into the music, without worrying that it would depart from what I love about the music. It’s an old form that takes years of apprenticing before one can start to make a contribution to the art. As important as it is to respect the roots and honor the heritage, it’s just as important to evolve the language and culture with the times. If it stays stagnant, new generations won’t want be able to appreciate its beauty and won’t be inspired to learn for themselves. It’s a delicate balance, but if it can’t breathe, it won’t last. It’s amazing that the Cajun and Creole music and language has lasted this long in homogenized America, and it continues thrive in our little corner of the country.