The Lost Bayou Ramblers Have Found Kalenda
The maybe fight-dance, maybe risque-courting dance was rediscovered and recorded by the Cajun band dedicated to keeping the tradition alive.
This is going to sound corny, but fuck it, who cares man. One of the coolest things you can do in this world is preserve the past for future generations. Whether it's through photo albums or stories or songs whatever else you can think of, saving a snapshot of the past to give to the future is part of what helps us maintain our humanity during times of serious doubt about the state of the world. It's a reminder that we have been through this before, and that we will go through it again, and each time we will be ok somehow, because others were, and in the end we're not that different after all.
I was introduced to the Lost Bayou Ramblers through the American Epic series on PBS, where they recorded their version of the old cajun waltz "Jolie Blonde" on a lathe, a portable recording machine used in the 1920s to collect folks songs from communities located too far from studios, often in Appalachia or the South. As it turns out, this is kind of their thing: Finding and recording songs that were integral to Cajun culture, updating them a little bit, and releasing them to the general population for our personal listening pleasure.
Today, ahead of it's September 26 release, you can hear their latest album Kalenda, right below. The lore around Kalenda, sometimes spelled Calenda or Calinda, most likely originated from a form of stick fighting in Trinidad and Toabgo during the French occupation and enslavement of native people in the 1700s. From there it made its way to Louisiana and evolved into subject matter for a Cajun folk song depicting a woman doing a risqué dance (doesn't it always involve a woman doing a risqué dance?). Turn it on, and check out the interview with vocalist Louis Michot below, where he outlines the band's history, keeping the Cajun tradition alive, why he's dedicated his life to preserving it, and finding Kalenda.
Noisey: So I was wondering if you could start by telling me a little bit about this album and how you see it situating you know in the larger scale of your discography?
Louis Michot: It's our eighth full length album and it's our third self-released album, two albums ago on Vermillionaire we met Korey Richey [of LCD Soundsystem] at our local studio in Dockside he was the house engineer and then he ended up producing Mammoth Waltz and joined the band, and then ended up producing Kalenda. It's been amazing to work with him because he's someone who really understands bringing new elements and really experimenting with music. He also understands where our music's from and he's from South Louisiana.
Did he grow up listening to this and playing it too?
Yeah, well he grew up, like all of us from here, he grew up familiar, whether or not he played it, he grew up hearing it almost every day, and like a language you can't really know a language unless you've heard it a lot, you can't even learn it unless you know what it sounds like. This album is continuing to bring our traditional Cajun music to a sonic level that that keeps us happy with our progression and it keeps up artistically satisfied so to say and really comes off of a natural, kind of just a natural growth as we've been doing each album. Korey was a member of the band after Mammoth Waltz and he brought some of his production tools on tour with us. We were just experimenting with different drum pads on tour and that became kind of the basis for Kalenda— experimenting with not only more of a electronic drum sounds played organically live, no loops or nothing like that, but also experimenting with deeper rhythms that are in older forms of Cajun music that are less explored today and have been kind of forgotten. So it's taken these really really old Cajun rhythms and bringing them to life through very modern sounds and samples and such
How did you say you ended up meeting him?
Korey was the house engineer at Dockside Studios when we recorded Vermillionaire which was our first independent album in 2008.
What made you want to release independently?
Well, we had worked with a local very old school independent record label that's been around a long time, Swallow Records, and it was good working with them, but I think we wanted to take our time, get a little deeper into it, bring on some producers and people that can help us get really focused on the sonics of our music, because a typical Cajun record is made by going in the studio and playing the songs you know and calling it done. We wanted to get deeper and experiment more and really try to do it ourselves. I think in today's society there's a huge gap between being an independent artist and being on a major label so to say. A lot of artists are like "Well I might as well do it by myself if you're not getting a whole lot of help from a record label." But I think we wanted to experiment on how to get our music to our fans more directly, and we've been doing that since and we've been very happy with it. We're a very autonomous group as it is already. We've had a record label, we've had booking agents, we've had managers but we always end up doing everything ourselves and we like it like that, my brother and I. My brother and I run the band and it's kind of been part of a realization of an empowerment where we're completely capable of doing this, of setting up tours and of managing ourselves and such and we've been doing it for almost 20 years. It took a lot to realize that that's what's best for us at this stage in our careers.
Sometimes it just takes a little longer, right?
Exactly. I mean exactly you know and it's and the other thing about it is, we are a Cajun band, there's no doubt about that, but we're also a band that wants to be heard by the whole world. We love all music and we don't want to limit ourselves to venues in the Cajun genre, you know? That's the hardest thing for bookers to understand about us, is that we're not looking to play Cajun stuff, I mean we are a Cajun band and we play so many local gigs, that's not the problem. What we really want is to get out to the general public, and that's what we've been working on since the last 15 years we've played.
"We find these beautiful gems and we try to give them new life, and that's where Kalenda comes in."
You touched on this a little bit earlier, but one of the things I really liked about this album and your music in general is the way you adopt a modern sound, or ways of recording with these traditional songs. Do you ever worry that maybe it's going to be like you're moving too far away from traditional?
You know, that's not necessarily on our radar because I think that is something that's important for any traditional musician to ask themselves, "Am I just sticking so much to the tradition that I'm not making anything new? Or, on the other hand, if I'm making something new, does it fit in the tradition or am I trying to make it too poppy?" I would say I think we've somehow continued to keep a balance, I think it partially has to do with my brother and I our two personalities we keep each other balanced. He's an accordion builder, and he's an accordion player, he makes his own accordions and you know he's learned from some of the best traditional accordion players, our dad and this guy Ray Abshar, he's a legend. I think what keeps us balanced is that we write in the full traditional style and that's natural to us, we don't have to consciously make an effort to write a traditional song, that's something that comes naturally to us. I write all in French, I don't write in English and translate it, I write in Cajun French because I'm fluent in it and that's where I really found my musical voice was when I started singing in Cajun French.
Yeah! I used to sing in English in high school in rock and psychedelic bands but I was a horrible singer. As soon as I learned French for myself and started singing I really found my voice and that, the French and accordion and fiddle leading the band, is really what keeps it traditional. We can even use those elements and make something more progressive that resembles less of traditional Cajun music, but that's not why we do this. We do this because we love traditional Cajun music and we want to bring the other elements of music that we love into it as well, and I think the result is that people feel that that they love it for traditional Cajun music but they also love it because it's something new that they've never heard before.
Did you start learning French so that you could sing these Cajun songs?
Not necessarily. There's a big movement down here to really to hang onto the French here because a few generations go they were told that it meant that you were uneducated if you spoke French, and that you were going to remain poor. That stigma has still remained within the population of South Louisiana, but there's still so many that do speak French that the people don't realize how much there actually is. When I started learning French, I was part of one of the early parts of a movement that would go up to Nova Scotia to an immersion program. The cool thing about it is it's where the Cajuns came from when got expelled from Nova Scotia 250 years ago by the British—they call it the 'grand dérangement' or the deportation of the Acadians—it was a horrible, horrible event but after 10 years of wandering the Spanish government invited us to come settle the wild lands of Southwest Louisiana, which we gladly accepted. Now 250 years later, whole groups of people of all ages go up to Nova Scotia, where we came from, every year to learn French at University of St. Anne. I went there when I was 18, and I knew some French and I played Cajun music in my life a lot because I was part of a family band, but when I went and did the immersion program and learned how to speak French all the songs that I had been playing my whole life started coming back to me and I had to borrow my grandpa's fiddle and started learning that as well. The old melodies were coming back to me and I was learning the lyrics and I was using the music to help learn the languageI would say, overall, to try and answer your question without rambling too much.
"In Louisiana especially we're more threatened in a lot of ways, already we have to fight to learn and to retain our language and our knowledge. "
No it's okay, I'm learning a bunch, I love it
The music has been one of the largest vehicles that keeps the language alive because for one, a really rich product of the language is the music. It's something you can really put your finger on and say "This is why the language is important." A lot of people make their livings playing music here, there's so many professional musicians here in South Louisiana and another part of it is that the language, Cajun and Creole French are just so poetic, they have such an innate rhythm and that rhythm fits into the music like no other. When you sing it it's almost like, I call it lyrical poetry, it's a way of singing you learn. Once you learn how to do it you can pretty much sing any song, once you learn the lyric poetry of Cajun and Creole French you can sing hundreds of songs because it's all open to interpretation and it's very improvised
What are some of the standards in this kind of music that you do?
Well there's like 'Jolie Blonde' which means 'my pretty blond,' [and] was actually just featured on this American Epic documentary
That's actually how I found out about you guys.
Oh cool. I played it with the guy's grandson, the guy who originally wrote it. Harry Choates this amazing fiddle player who died at the age of 27 he took 'Jolie Blonde'' and brought it to number four on the national charts in the 30s or the 40s. And then you have like 'La porte d'en arriere' the back door, the 'Bosco stomp' there's so many but if you really look into it, a lot of times these songs have amazing beginnings, anywhere from old French ballads to American rock n' roll pop songs. The deeper you look, you find some amazing thing that you've never heard and that no one else has ever heard, rhythms that no one plays anymore, and these are all a part of South Louisiana repertoire that have kind of been in a way lost. That's what we try to do a lot of times is, we find these beautiful gems and we try to give them new life and that's where Kalenda comes in. Kalenda is an amazing story that began probably in Africa a long time ago and made itself to Congo Square in New Orleans, Congo Square being at the time the only place in America, or North America at all where slaves could actually sing and dance and have their own day to continue their traditions and customs on Sundays. Most places that was completely forbidden and in New Orleans, Congo Square was where it was, that's why they call it the birthplace of Jazz and that's where Louis Armstrong's house was moved. It started as this Congo Square dance, but no one remembers that, if you say Kalenda now, they say "Oh yeah I know that song it's about a girl, it's a Cajun rock n' roll song from the 50s about a girl named Kalenda who danced too close." If you look back, you see there was a risqué courting dance [with the same name] that became super popular. The French Creole and the Spanish Creole all adopted their own versions back in New Orleans.
I couldn't find anything about it when I was researching.
Yeah, there's different spellings, with a C, with a K, with an I, with an E, with an A and that's what I found in researching it was that every time you search it you get a different answer, every person you ask says a different thing. What really inspired us to make the Kalenda that we made was you have this Congo Square [dance] 250 years ago, and then you have this modern Cajun rock n' roll song from the 50s, but where's the middle? We found this field recording from a guy named William Owens, in Texas, and he had done these field recordings in Louisiana in the 30s. There's a version of this old Cajun man in Lafayette named Vavasseur Mouton, he was recorded saying, "This is an old folk song my grandma sang to put me to sleep many many years ago." He sings "danser Kalenda g'doun g'doun, danser Kalenda g'doun g'doun." It means dance the Kalenda and goudun goudun is the rhythm. I'm almost getting chills just saying it right now because if you say it in that rhythm over and over it takes you right back to Congo Square and you can hear the drums and you can see the people you know dancing and having their Sunday ritual. Somehow it made it from Congo Square to Vavasseur Mouton's grandma in Lafayette. It was the missing link between Congo Square and Rod Bernard who made the 1950s version of 'Allons danser Colinda' about a girl, so we found this missing link and it just blew my mind.
How did you get hooked up with the guy who had the recording?
A friend, Ryan, our first drummer whose name is Ryan Brasseaux is now a dean at Yale, him and his buddy had come across this this recording and sent it our way.
What made you want to preserve and adapt this kind of music?
I just find so much beauty in these old recordings, not only the old recordings but also the modern people that we listen to and that we play with. There's so much beauty and there's blues and there's love stories, a lot of love stories, a lot of heartbreak. It really just touches on our daily lives, and it's an expression that we almost need to fulfill, to fulfill ourselves. To me that's how it feels when I sing these songs. It makes complete sense at one time or another one song will just hit me in the heart. I think it's important for any culture to have that, to have that connection and to have that it's a storytelling device, it's a way to pass on history, pass on knowledge and you know it helps us to connect with our own people's histories. It's interesting to be American, but you know that the generations before you most of them spoke French, and now it's like it's kind of hidden. I was taught that I'm an English speaking American, but then the deeper I look everyone I knew, everyone that came before us spoke French, why don't we? When you get in touch with that, that's just kind of the gateway to a much deeper culture that's connected to the land and it's full of knowledge. I think the music is kind of the largest vehicle [for preserving the past] and I think the more we play it for, especially locally, they eventually feel that feeling and feel that connection too and want to dig in and learn more. I think that's very important as the world become more homogenized, for us to guard our individual cultures because they're connected to the land which we live on.
Yeah it's like you're erasing that part of history where people were told you have to speak English you have to line up with a specific sort of view of what an American is.
Yes, yeah no definitely that's exactly, that's exactly it. In Louisiana especially we're more threatened in a lot of ways, already we have to fight to learn and to retain our language and our knowledge. It's a very strong presence down here, so many people down here have so much knowledge and everyone's a great cook, they really just know the land and grow. There is so much self sufficiency right here, but at the same time we're also treated, as far as that goes because it's also the fastest disappearing land mass on the Earth, we're losing more land than anywhere in the world. So you have both of those things changing at once and, you know, I think once Katrina happened people once again realized how amazing New Orleans is and we really need to learn to hold onto what we've got, because it can leave us at any moment.