Be warned, Cajun music enthusiasts: If you live in Colorado, you're not hearing the genuine item.
At least that's the contention of Maryland-born Linda Keydash Cart and her husband, Louis, a native Cajun reared in the tiny bayou town of Iota, Louisiana. The two are musicians, amateur historians, members of the Louisiana-based Cajun French Music Association (CFMA) and lovers of all things Cajun. The Carts feel strongly that much of the work labeled as Cajun quite simply isn't, and they're focusing their frustrations over this state of affairs on a most unlikely target: the Swallow Hill Music Association.
Swallow Hill is widely seen as among the most politically correct aggregations in Colorado--but not by Linda Cart, who's spearheading a letter-writing campaign that takes the organization's officials to task. "They're not inviting authentic Cajun acts to play, they're not hiring Cajuns to teach about the music and dancing when there are many of them in the area who'd love to do so, and they're not accurately representing the culture," she charges. "And I'm not sure they have the commitment to learning more about it."
The Carts weren't always on the outs with Swallow Hill. Both were members of the band Bayou Teche and the Colorado Cajun Orchestra, a collective co-founded by Linda Cart and musician Hugh Robertson that frequently played dates at the Swallow Hill Music Hall. But Linda, a vocalist, rhythm guitarist and French accordion player, and Louis, who sings and plays the triangle (known by the Cajun term tee-fer, meaning "little iron"), left Bayou Teche when Robertson decided to move the orchestra in a more modern direction. "We wanted to emphasize authentic Cajun music instead of rock and roll and the contemporary sound," Louis says. (Robertson's combo is now called the Colorado Cajun Dance Band; it appears frequently at Swallow Hill events.)
Linda and Louis subsequently formed their own group, Le Quatre Coin Cajun Band ("We play weddings and we're very inexpensive," Louis reveals). They also maintained their membership at Swallow Hill--but as time wore on, they became increasingly distressed by descriptions of allegedly Cajun shows listed in the Swallow Hill catalogue. "They would say that groups played traditional Cajun music when they didn't," Linda claims. "And they implied that Cajun music is like a big party. They would put on a fais do-do and call it a Cajun dance party, whereas a fais do-do really is a gathering where the community and neighbors meet at someone's house and bring their families to socialize and dance. It's a family event, much like a picnic or barbecue, rather than a wild party."
As a result, Linda wrote a letter of complaint to Swallow Hill in March. And when she did not receive an immediate reply (director Seth Weisberg sent correspondence to the Carts in early June), she broadened her focus. She and Louis composed a form letter in which they suggested that Swallow Hill was not booking enough traditional Cajun bands, then sent it to more than a hundred acquaintances in Colorado, Louisiana and elsewhere. Recipients were urged to mail their "Vote for Traditional Cajun Music" to Swallow Hill. One person who got such a missive was Dave Soileau, the president of the CFMA, which has approximately 10,000 members linked to eight chapters in Louisiana and Texas. Since the CFMA's goal is to preserve Cajun music, culture and heritage, Soileau says he was sympathetic to the Carts' gripes, but he "was sort of at a loss over what they wanted me to do about them. I just figured they had a preference for traditional Cajun music, which is nice. But I don't think I sent in my vote."
Others did. According to Swallow Hill concert director Meredith Carson, "We may have gotten a dozen or less responses. And most of them seemed to be based on what Louis and Linda had written--they didn't seem to have any specific knowledge about Swallow Hill at all. But I read all of them and I...put them in a file."
Still, Carson insists that she agrees with many of the Carts' opinions. She notes that Swallow Hill goes to great pains to promote and ballyhoo multicultural sounds that range across the broad spectrum of folk music--from primitive Delta blues to pristine Celtic melodists and back again. The association also sponsors classes, workshops and lectures intended to educate the public about the roots and traditions of musical genres that are in danger of fading away. Moreover, Carson is herself a Cajun-music aficionado. "I've been to a number of traditional music festivals in Louisiana, and I own over fifty books on Cajun history and music," she says. "I'm fascinated not only by the history of the music but by the people." After Carson came aboard as Swallow Hill's concert director, the number of so-called Cajun events the organization booked jumped measurably.
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Carson concedes that Linda and Louis "were absolutely right to take us to task for some of the copy in our newsletter, and we've corrected them. We thought they were small errors--although they've turned into large errors now, haven't they?" She says she would love to bring traditional Cajun music to Swallow Hill, and claims that she would like to meet with the Carts to see if they might consent to teaching a class or giving a lecture about the roots of Cajun culture.
Executive director Weisberg also sounds conciliatory. "It's difficult to get traditional Cajun bands to come to Colorado, because not many of them tour, but we would love to do so," he says. "It's right in line with the kinds of things we do. And we think a lot of Linda. We probably give her name out weekly to people looking for a musician or teacher, and I would love to have both her and Louis involved with us again."
The Carts like the sound of that, but they fear that these offers are mere lip service, since they've not been called by either Carson or Weisberg since their Cajun mission began. "And I don't believe what they're saying about it being hard to contact traditional Cajun bands that tour," Linda states. "We've offered them phone numbers and demo tapes, and they haven't responded.
"With all things Cajun being trendy right now, restaurants and music organizations are trying to capitalize on it," she adds. "But a lot of what's called Cajun jambalaya around here is terrible, and a lot of what's called Cajun music isn't Cajun at all. So we want to do all we can to spark an interest in the real thing.