The Heart of Our Culture: Cajun Music of BeauSoleil avec Michael Doucet
“To me, Cajun music really is the heart of our culture.”
Cajun music is rooted in the songs and fiddle tunes of the Acadians—French speakers who migrated from France to Canada in the seventeenth century, and from Canada to Louisiana in the eighteenth century. It combines Acadian, German, Native American, and African American elements, along with influences from country and western, blues, and pop to create a uniquely American regional musical tradition.
The acclaimed Cajun band BeauSoleil led by Michael Doucet has been captivating listeners with their spirited and soulful sound for more than four decades. In 1998, they were the first Cajun band to win a GRAMMY Award, and added a second in 2008. In 2011 they were inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame.
BeauSoleil’s distinctive style—grounded in tradition, yet open to innovative new sounds—stems from the vision of Doucet, a virtuosic fiddler, singer, and composer, and a dedicated ambassador for Cajun culture. Doucet grew up in Lafayette, Louisiana, surrounded by “old-timers”—the musicians from the older generation who played more traditional French music and sang older ballads and songs. In 1975, he received an apprenticeship grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to study with and document the master fiddlers of his region.
“Lucky me to have been born when I was,” Doucet writes. “Being able to sit, visit, learn, and perform with the great Cajun/zydeco masters Dennis McGee, Dewey and Will Balfa, Canray Fontentot, et al was quite a gift. My own music continues to reflect the magic moments of sound that were passed on by these and other master musicians.”
Doucet went on to form BeauSoleil, which to this day performs traditional Cajun music for enthusiastic audiences across the country and around the world. They recorded several albums with Arhoolie Records, which was acquired by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings in 2016.
“My music has a lot of functions,” Doucet explains about the role of music in Southwest Louisiana. “It’s a social function. It’s a community function. The music seems to always have carried the history and the soul of our culture.”
Doucet and BeauSoleil first arrived on the Smithsonian Folklife Festival scene in 1982, paying tribute to legendary Cajun fiddler Dewey Balfa when he was awarded the prestigious NEA National Heritage Fellowship, the nation’s highest award for excellence in the folk and traditional arts.
“Dewey Balfa and his brothers Rodney and Will brought back the acoustic lonesome sound of Cajun fiddling and song,” Doucet says. “Dewey was an eloquent and sincere salesman for Cajun culture and music who never tired of sharing his heartfelt feelings toward our French tradition.”
Inspired by his mentors, Michael Doucet continued this critical cultural work, and he himself was awarded a NEA National Heritage Fellowship in 2005 for his tireless efforts to keep Cajun music alive and dynamic.
“It’s a national award but it really comes down to your community and what you do for your community,” Doucet says. “I was very fortunate to be around when a lot of people born before 1900 were still alive. I think that’s where most of my inspiration comes from. It’s really a process of a continuation. I wouldn’t be getting this award if it wasn’t for people who came before me.”
We are excited to have Michael Doucet and the BeauSoleil Quartet with us for the Ralph Rinzler Memorial Concert to kick off the 50th anniversary of the Festival, and to honor them for their extraordinary contributions to Cajun culture. Read more about the concert and then join us on the National Mall!Marjorie Hunt is a folklorist and curator at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and co-curated the 2017 Ralph Rinzler Memorial Concert along with program specialist Arlene Reiniger.