restricted access Coda: Higher Ground
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Coda: Higher Ground september 2005 We’ve finished the sound check—finally. “Let’s go,” I say, after an impatient glance around the room. I kick off the first set with “Lacassine Special” and then move on quickly to “Quoi Faire.” I don’t say much in between, either to the rest of the band or to the small crowd starting to fill the bar. I just play my new red accordion—and sing. If I play hard and fast enough, if I try to pierce the darkness with my voice, then perhaps my spirits will be lifted. “Quoi faire, quoi faire t’es comme ça? Quoi faire, quoi faire tu m’as quitté?” Why, why, are you like that? Why have you left me? The French words sound plaintive, a counterpoint to the lively, pulsing rhythms of the music. Abandonment by your lover—the eternal story, it seems, in Cajun and Creole music. But the underlying themes are deep and wide: love, desire, abandonment—and the wish for connection , for restoration of something lost. Even though I haven’t lost my lover—Steve is at my side, fiddle in hand—the song matches my mood tonight. The music has changed for me over the years. When I first fell in love with Cajun music, the songs painted pictures in my mind: imagined scenes from times past in Louisiana, exotic stories from other people’s lives. But now the music reminds me of people and places in my own life, and it helps me tell my own stories. I study the unfolding scene around me. Sauce Piquante is playing at a little place called McGrath’s Irish Pub, in Alameda, just across the bridge from Oakland, not far from the shipyards. The once-shabby mariner’s bar was transformed a couple of years ago into a music club by the new owner, a guitar-playing Englishman who happens to love Cajun music. His blonde Finnish girlfriend sits on a stool, listening , while the Persian bartender breaks into a quick little boogie as he crosses the room, preparing to serve the gumbo he’s cooked up for the occasion. Improbable scenes like this charm me, even after eight years in 241 242 Coda: Higher Ground the Bay Area. Normally, I’d smile, but tonight I’m not in the right frame of mind. We are playing for a hurricane fundraiser, originally billed as a Katrina benefit. But the Gulf Coast has just suffered another devastating blow, a one-two punch, Katrina followed by Rita. After Katrina, people kept approaching me with expressions of sympathy, as though I had suffered a death in the family. They assumed I must have friends who had fallen victim to the storm. I thanked them and said I felt grateful because the people I knew personally had been out of harm’s way. I explained—patiently, as always—that New Orleans isn’t really home to my music. It’s country music, from the French-speaking communities, Cajun and Creole, black and white, to the southwest: the swamps and bayous, the small towns, and especially the prairies. But then my thoughts turned immediately to all the people who weren’t so lucky, in New Orleans and close by in Mississippi. It was like some terrible dream, to see the city under water, and all those people suffering, displaced. And it did feel personal, because New Orleans had played such a pivotal role in my life. Fifteen years ago, during my first visit to that strange and beautiful city, I discovered Cajun music. The encounter sent me off on a life-altering journey. But now, with Rita, the second hurricane, I have been touched in a different way. The eye of the storm passed over Beaumont, Texas, the home of two of my musician friends. Ed and Jude. Creole and Cajun. Friends and musical partners. They call each other brother. I can picture them, sitting in their living rooms, working in their shops, playing music, building accordions. Steve and I visited them both in the spring, after our first trip to New Orleans since moving to California. Ed Poullard lives in the countryside outside Beaumont. With the passing of some of the older musicians, he is now the most prominent living Creole fiddler, a link to times past. He is also a gifted accordionist—like his older brother Danny, my friend and mentor . Danny was the guiding spirit of the Bay Area’s vibrant Louisiana French...


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