In its 15th year, the Festival International de Louisiane in Lafayette, Louisiana, packs in nearly 200,000 people for five days of world music, offering a wonderful alternative to our own Beale Street Music Fest, or for that matter that other festival in New Orleans you've heard so much about. Actually, the Southern Arts Foundation claims Festival International "surpasses the New Orleans Jazz Festival in scope and variety of performance." A word of caution, however: Be ready for a major difference -- no drunks, no fights!
The Mouton sisters attribute the atmosphere to their culture. Cajun grannies from Lafayette, they have never missed a festival. We met them as we maneuvered through a sea of chairs for a front-row position for the Super Rail Band de Bamako from Mali, a group we would eagerly see again the next day. "We're such a friendly culture that nobody fights," they bragged.
We didn't argue the point, but in our combined years touring festivals, never have we witnessed a more amiable gathering. The police? They actually wave and ask if they can help. Lines for the porta-potty? Forget it. Beer lines? Be ready with your tickets before you get there. You prefer Tequila shots? No problem. The Continental flight attendants who volunteered to man (and woman) that booth (all drinks were donated by the distributors) were more than happy to help. One lime or two?
With a paid staff of only four, the festival relies on over 1,000 volunteers to keep the gathering free to the public. And this on a budget of $400,000. (The government of Quebec not only has a tourist booth, it's actually a contributing sponsor.)
Spread over a 12-square-block area in downtown Lafayette, the festival features five stages with nearly 500 musicians from 14 countries. And the food -- oh, the food. What do you follow your alligator kabob with? Crawfish maque choux or boudin? How about a bread pudding or freshly boiled crawfish? We sampled these and many more during our three-day stay. With prices ranging from $3 to $5, who could complain? And we've never experienced oyster po-boys quite like those we had at Chris' restaurant on Jefferson Street. Not overcooked, the oysters exploded in your mouth -- all 11 of them.
Mousta Largo's Mektoub Tour at the Lafayette Stage interrupted our eating. Based in Belgium, this astounding Moroccan group performed Maltian reggae, Moroccan salsa, and Argentinean flamenco. They even entertained the kids with tales of the Arabian nights the next day at La Place des Enfants, a stage reserved for the under-10 set.
When the schedule ends around 11 each night, anyone up for more music migrates to the Grant Street Dance Hall. Fortunately, we had enough energy left to go and be there the night when the best band in the world played (except for maybe the Rolling Stones). The festival program describes Suroit as "pure energy on stage," and we wouldn't argue that. For nearly three hours they performed what their manager labeled "traditionnelle Celtique de haute mer" (traditional Celtic of the high sea).
The group hails from Iles de la Madeleine, a small island group off the coast of Nova Scotia. "We are Cajuns just like you," the accordionist said while introducing a song that could have migrated with the 18th-century Acadians to Louisiana. Their mix of fiddle, accordion, bagpipes, and mandolin, backed by drums and guitar, made for quite a show. After securing a promise from the manager that he would try to book them into the Hi-Tone in the near future, it was back to our motel for a few hours' sleep.
When in Lafayette we usually reserve our Saturday morning for a pilgrimage to Mamou, just northwest of the city. Fred's Lounge is the place to hear authentic Cajun music broadcast live on a local AM station. The small bar recently celebrated its 50th anniversary and on any given Saturday you might sip your Bloody Mary next to a biker from California, a student from Australia, or a Fontenot from Eunice.
The festival tries to bring in new groups each year, consistent with its mission to introduce world music to Louisiana. Although there are mostly groups from French-speaking nations (the festival bills itself as the largest Francophone event in the country), there are occasionally others. The Puerto Rican salsa band Jimmy Bosch and the hard rock of the Native-American band Indigenous are two examples.
Of the nearly 100 performances over the weekend, about 40 percent are regional Cajun groups. At Stage Louisiane you could attend a workshop in traditional Acadian music or marvel at master fiddler Rodney Fontenot. Undoubtedly, the surprise of the festival was the French band Les Yeux Noirs (the Black Eyes). The group was concerned that their music might not be appreciated in Cajun country; they shouldn't have worried.
"The French know the music of Eastern Europe, but what about America?" asked Eric Flabiak, the lead fiddler. The members' ethnic mix includes Russian, Polish, and Romanian. Previously known as the Black-eyed Gypsy Soul Sensation, their passionate songs, some in Yiddish, soon had the audience roaring its approval, forcing two encores.
By the time Sunday rolled around we were drinking nothing but bottled water. Unfortunately, one of the few cancellations of the festival was the Mahotella Queens from South Africa, who in the early 1960s experimented with traditional African music, rhythm and blues, soul, marabi (South African Jazz), and American gospel. Their music became the anthem of the resistance to apartheid.
Suroit (did we say they were the best band in the world?) played again that afternoon, and after Zachary Richard finished his set at 4 p.m. we were ready to face the trek back to Memphis. We were home before midnight carrying some of the best musical memories of our lives.
To access the festival's Web site, go to www.festivalinternational.com. For more information on world-music festivals see Peter Gabriel's womad (world of music, arts, and dance) site at www.womad.org.