Acadiana, like most of Louisiana south of I-10, is a mix of the ancient and the brand-new. And while the march of time, and the disappearing coast, threaten to change everything, some young people are using music and food to keep traditions alive.
The Blackpot Music Festival and Gumbo Cookoff has quietly built up a national and international reputation as a must-see stop on the circuit of traditional music festivals, and now draws over two thousand people to the Acadian Village each year.
The village, a replica of a late-19th Century Cajun town, is located in a still-rural section of Lafayette, but just minutes from the Acadiana Mall and downtown. It’s the perfect setting for a musical and culinary experience that could only happen in Louisiana, with hundreds of people crammed into a dance floor moving to an accordion two-step on one side, and hundreds more lined up for free samples from a dozen bubbling pots of gumbo on the other.
As the reputation of the festival has grown, the breadth of the attendees has as well — they’re not just local people in the know, but young musicians from all over, drawn to the experience of camping out in tents for two nights so they can jam together, swap traditional songs, and knock back a few before the next set.
Time and again, the people at the Blackpot, young and old, mentioned that it’s the scene that’s most important to them — the subculture of worldwide traditional music festivals, most just under the mainstream radar, that reward a kind of pedantic music nerditry, and that accept just about anyone willing to put in some effort.
“All the other festivals that encompass string bands are very welcoming,” says Laura, a fiddle player from Austin. “It’s all about the community instead of the music.”
Laura, at the Blackpot for the first time, says there are string groups that break out all over Austin that support the same kind of idea, but there’s something special about this particular festival.
“I’m classically-trained violin, and so getting into this scene was really different. It’s a total mind change, and community change as well.”
But, she says, the music is the community.
“Especially this type of music, bluegrass and old-time music, is very traditional,” she says. “They welcome anyone to come sit in and play. And that’s what the whole festival is about.”
At it’s core, the Blackpot is still a Lafayette experience, a testament to the cultural revival scene typified by organizations like CODOFIL, and populated by young people inspired to preserve and maintain their cultural traditions.
People like Blake Thibodaux and Justin Leget, of Church Point, La., about twenty miles to the northwest of Lafayette. The two were holding court at a campsite off to the side of a great field of tents, passing around drinks and food and serenading their friends with traditional Cajun songs played on accordion and fiddle. Leget says they grew up playing the music, but put it down for a few years.
“As an adult, you realize how great it is, this discernable identity, this face,” Leget says. “You travel around and you lose it, and you grow up and you look back and you realize how good it felt, and we keep playing.”
“Yes sir, no doubt about it,” agrees Thibodaux, who grew up listening to traditional music in his grandmother’s house every weekend. “Join the movement, you know? Justin, he’s the man with the plan right here. We try to preserve the culture. Without him and other folks, local folks, just keeping even the language alive — letting everyone know who we are and where we’re from.”
The Red Stick Ramblers — a traditional Cajun, jazz and Western Swing band — started the festival on a dare from Jay Ungar, says fiddle player and festival organizer Daniel Coolik. There are hundreds of festivals in Louisiana, for everything from Shrimp and Petroleum to Frogs to Rice, but there wasn’t anything for the Blackpot, the traditional cast-iron cooking vessel central to the Acadian experience, used to cook just about anything and everything.
“So, why not have a black pot festival and cookoff?” Coolik says. “And then we’ll have music, too, and have the cookoff, and people jamming and stuff, too.”
Coolik says camping and cooking and music playing are what many people in Lafayette are doing on the weekend anyway, and putting it in the context of a festival keeps it family-oriented while allowing for the communal visitor experience at the same time. Having young people from all over playing music was new, however.
“The Red Stick Ramblers go to a lot of fiddlers’ conventions, and there’s a tradition of these fiddlers’ conventions in North Carolina and Virginia and stuff like that, where people just kind of go and camp, and they hand out and play tunes and trade tunes,” he says. “I don’t think there was really that tradition in this area in Louisiana. It’s mostly a camping festival, and so there’s a lot of people in their tents and their campgrounds, and people just kind of jam and play tunes and play old-time music, play country music, play Cajun music… play whatever and kind of meet new friends and play tunes.”
And cook plenty of food. Blake Thibodaux and Justin Leget had a black pot going the whole weekend, but they didn’t join in the contest — over a dozen entrants doling out free gumbo and red beans in order to capture the best gumbo title.
“Food and music goes together in our culture, obviously,” says Joe Vidrine, a regular Blackpot contestant who also happens to be a traditional Cajun musician. “You know, you tell a joke or you sing a song, or you play music for the cook. Or you give him a kiss, you know; that works too.”
Vidrine says he was just there cooking with some friends of his, who just happened to be gathered in a large group behind his pots, singing and playing to the crowd.
“It’s a cookoff, so everybody is doing something different, but they’re all essentially Cajun dishes,” he says. “I’m cooking something really simple, really cheap, that you would eat at home. I just love to do that for the people I love, to feed them and stuff. It’s great.”
Vidrine says the Blackpot is like other festivals, but it’s special because it’s the only thing like it in Lafayette.
“You get to camp out, you get to jam all night long, you get to dance most of the night — and then after that you go back to the tents and the camps and party,” he says. “And then the cookoff is amazing, too, because everybody gets together… It’s friendly competition. There’s a little bit of trash-talking and stuff, but it’s all good, you know? It’s great.”