In South Louisiana, a great deal of formalized effort goes into the preservation and celebration of the state's Francophone culture; food, music, other crafts and folkways, and particularly language. In 1968, the state legislature established an agency called the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL), tasked with revitalizing the use of Louisiana French variants after a multi-decade push for Americanization, which required public schools teach in English, resulting in decreased fluency and the legitimate threat of cultural loss.
Brothers Andre and Louis Michot, who grew up playing with their fathers and uncles in the Cajun family band Les Freres Michot, have done much to keep the culture alive, mining the region's musical traditions with the Lost Bayou Ramblers, a group they formed in 1999. In 2007, the Ramblers earned a Best Album nomination in the (short-lived) Cajun and zydeco Grammy category for their album Live a la Blue Moon; more recently, they appeared on PBS's documentary American Epic, narrating and appearing in a section of Cajun music. (Louis, who sings and plays fiddle, was also featured in a 2012 New York Times Home and Garden article on his Arnaudville, La. house, which he built in part with an old Acadian technique called bousillage: mostly Spanish moss and mud.)
But preserving something is different than keeping it truly alive, and the Ramblers' sound shows a keen understanding of the difference. They work with largely traditional instrumentation, leading with accordion and fiddle, and sing waltzes and dancehall stomps in Louisiana French, but they also flirt with noise, psychedelic textures, weird electronics and wild electric guitars. In recent years, they've collaborated with other artists who inhabit the same space between roots tradition and innovation, working with The Pogues' Spider Stacy, Dr. John, Rickie Lee Jones, and Leyla McCalla, a recent New Orleans transplant whose latest album reimagined Haitian folk songs.
"Kalenda," the title track on the Lost Bayou Ramblers' latest album, is an ambient tone poem that touches on both personal and cultural history. The popular Cajun tune "Allons Danser Colinda" was first recorded in the 1940s, and swamp-pop rocker Rod Bernard had a particularly successful version of it in the early '60s; historians have also traced it, in various spellings, to descriptions of an 18th-century folk dance and a martial art using sticks, both rooted in the Caribbean, as well as a dance performed by enslaved people of West African origin in New Orleans' Congo Square.
The tune that the Ramblers chose for the album is borrowed from a rare '30s field recording of a man named Vavasseur Mouton, whose voice opens the track; the band and Kevin Fontenot, the historian friend who dug it up for them, agreed that Mouton's melody sounded like a missing link between the Afro-Caribbean sounds of Place Congo and the later, familiar musical Calindas of Acadiana. It closes, on the album, with a full ninety seconds of susurrating swamp sounds recorded at Louis Michot's backyard pond.
Spider Stacy (tin whistle), Leyla McCalla (cello) and the saxophonist and visual artist Dickie Landry — a native of Cecilia, La., who was also a founding member of the Philip Glass Ensemble and worked with, among others, David Byrne, Laurie Anderson, Chuck Close and Robert Rauschenberg – all appear on the track. Landry's horn experiments wind under Michot's incantatory, repetitive vocals, while New Orleans R&B guitarist Jimmy Horn rattles found-object percussion. All together, it's a spooky, compelling collage of sound that evokes something deep, atavistic and swampy. And indeed, if it sounds ancient, it is: Kalenda (or kalinda, or calinda) with its long African and Caribbean roots, is literally the prehistory of American music, reimagined and revived once again.
Kalenda comes out Sept. 29 via Bandcamp.