Chances are, you haven’t heard anything like this. The Cajun musicians who star in Roots of Fire play accordions and fiddles, electric guitars, keyboards and yes, chest-mounted washboards, while singing their hearts out in a brand of French with a decided Southern accent. It’s music that dates back more than a century, and it’s worth a listen.
Abby Berendt Lavoi and Jeremey Lavoi direct and produce the documentary, part of a series they plan on what they describe as “Louisiana roots music,” this being the second after a shorter work that zeroed in on accordion prodigy Andre Thierry called California Creole. The feature-length Roots of Fire follows five contemporary Cajun artists who are honoring the classics and putting their own spin on them, plus it includes the mandatory context: a colonial history of a group of Catholics exiled from Canada who settled in along the Gulf of Mexico and further inland, then intermingled with Spanish and Indigenous people already there.
The Cajun identity developed apart from the binary system of Black vs. white that came to dominate the American class structure. Sound familiar? This theme, along with the major artery of language lost to educational institutions that pushed English and punished others, is likely to resonate with local audiences.
Directors also take viewers inside the rural dance halls, but there’s a dire warning when looking closely at the dancers. These musicians, who might strike some as Cajun hipsters, are playing for a fanbase in its senior years—their bands kept alive by inner drive and travel gigs.
Jourdan Thibodeaux from Cypress Island sings with a nasal and gravel tone that sometimes seems discordant. He admonishes other Cajuns to pick up the mantle. “If you are not living your culture,” he screams into a mic at the Scène Ma Louisiane festival, “you are killing your culture, and there is no in-between.”
+Long stretches of experiencing music
-Too much time devoted to rural Mardi Gras
Roots of Fire
Directed by Berendt Lavoi and Lavoi
Scottish Rite Center, NR, 85 min.