Young musicians cling to Cajun, zydeco traditions

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Members of the Cajun band T'Monde are young, but they like their music old. The band of 20-somethings opened the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival Friday with century-old, fiddle-heavy Cajun tunes. "Je vais faire accoire, que tu m'aimes toujours," sang Drew Simon, while playing the accordion to lyrics from an old Cajun song that loosely translated means "I'm going to make believe that you still love me." T'Monde, in Cajun French can mean "little world" or "little people."

The group based in Lafayette, La., opened one of the festival's 12 stages Friday as music fans carrying folding chairs and umbrellas filed through the gates of the Fair Grounds horse racing track. Jazz Fest spans two weekends.

It continues through Sunday and then resumes May 2-5. Couples danced in the grass as T'Monde played on the Fais Do-Do stage, where Cajun and zydeco music would be performed throughout the festival. Simon, who at 29 is the eldest of the T'Monde trio, said he studied old recordings of Cajun music dating back to the early 1900s.

The music was common at Cajun parties known as a "fais do do," where couples would two-step to music played with just a handful of instruments, usually a fiddle or guitar and an accordion.

Jazz Fest producer Quint Davis said Cajun and zydeco music are as important to the festival as jazz. "There are certain aspects of culture that only exist here," Davis said. "We're the birthright of jazz, everybody knows that, second-line music, the Mardi Gras Indians go along with that.

The other wonderful culture in southwest Louisiana is the French-speaking people that are Cajun and zydeco in terms of music." Davis said about 25 Cajun bands and 25 zydeco bands will perform at this year's festival. "The younger generations are really keen on the music and keeping it alive, so there's traditional Cajun music, which is dance hall music, and then there's zydeco, which is like French rock 'n' roll," Davis said.

Corey Ledet, another opening day act, said he can't remember a time when zydeco music wasn't a part of his life. Ledet's great-grandfather played an upright bass, while his grandfather, father and uncle are drummers. He said his grandfather often played with Grammy-winning Creole and zydeco legend Clifton Chenier of Opelousas, La.

"It's in my family, all around me and it fell on me like a ton of bricks," said Ledet, of Parks, La. He said he's been playing both the accordion and drums for 22 of his 31 years. He said he feels obligated to do his part in keeping alive the musical traditions he's learned from elders in his family. "I would like to see the tradition survive," he said. "I'd hate for ours to be the only one that dies off." A Jazz Fest veteran, Ledet said he looks forward to the performance every year. "The fans are just always fired up and ready to party. Rain or shine, it's one big, endless party," he said.

That party atmosphere fits right in with his genre of music, Ledet said. "Creole and zydeco are basically happy music," he said. "It makes me feel good no matter what's going on in my life. And, it's very addictive. Once it gets in your blood, it's hard to get out." Ledet said the festival also boosts his band's exposure. They've played Paris twice and have had gigs in Germany, Amsterdam, Malaysia, Hawaii and Alaska. In all, hundreds of acts will perform over the next two festival weekends, covering genres such as Cajun, zydeco, jazz, blues, rock, hip-hop and gospel.

Louisiana artists will perform among national headliners including Billy Joel, Hall and Oates, Kem, Maroon 5 and Fleetwood Mac. On Friday, Dr. John, blues guitarist Gary Clark Jr., John Mayer, George Benson and Wayne Toups and his ZeDeCajun band were all scheduled to perform.