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Lafayette, Lúnasa or Bust.

Posted by Sharon Armstrong on Sat, 05/01/2010 - 19:14

The first concrete indications that tell you that you have you are leaving Creole Louisiana and entering Cajun Country Louisiana, apart for the miles and miles of flowering swamp and verdant bayou flying beneath your wheels under the elevated freeway of I-10 West, are the first large road-side signs on either side of the Interstate that read ‘Drive though boudin, and pork cracklings – Exit here.’ Hmmm boudin and pork cracklings…yummy!

It was kind of a driech morning - unusually cloudy and chilly for late April in Louisiana - when I started the two hour drive towards Lafayette. The outskirts of New Orleans end abruptly - one minute you are driving through suburbia, the next you are ten feet above what looks like miles and miles of water. Broken trees line the I-10 on either side, still scarred and broken by Katrina. The Interstate is no longer a road really; it is more like a long, off-white concrete bridge across the waters of Lake Ponchartrain, and onwards towards the Bonne Carré Spillway, past Dalrymple, Whiskey Bay and the Atchafalaya Basin towards Lafayette.

It’s an easy drive though, a nice, pretty, drive, just like Lafayette is a nice, pretty little town. But it is a pretty little town which each year hosts a pretty, big festival - one that is getting bigger every year.

I arrived in Lafayette before the crowds started to gather for the day, but the streets smelled amazing. A mixture of jasmine, and shrimp, crawfish, Cajun pork, tacos, and coffee all served to make me hungry, even though I had eaten on the road just before I arrived.

Every year the Festival International de Louisiane practically takes over the whole of downtown Lafayette. Music, vendors, food and performance art from over 33 countries fill the streets. Thousands of people, many with chairs and coolers in tow, arrive in this lovely part of Cajun Louisiana to enjoy music from all over the world, and sample the local cuisine. And the best bit? Admission is free, the beer is cheap, and the musicians are world class. And it is a quirky little street fais do do too. When I picked my press pass, I was tickled to find a beer coosie – a kind of sleeve that you can put around your beer bottle to keep the beer cold – inside the little bag, nestling up against a map of Lafayette, and a packed music schedule. The Cajuns sure have their priorities straight! This is where you are, this is what you can hear, and while you are here, this will keep your beer cold. Have at!

At the Festival International, peckish visitors and locals alike can find crawfish pistolettes, shrimp cerviche, duck fat fries with aoli, snowballs, pizza, roasted corn grits, alligator bites (real alligator!) fried pickles, jambalaya, gumbo, ice-cream, catfish and boudin ball, to name just a few of the food available. You can find beer, daiquiris, cocktails, wine, and coffee, Bloody Marys, Pina Coladas and Margaritas. You can also find a public fountain in the Parc Sans Souci that throws water skywards from the sidewalk every 15 minute much to the delight of crowds of children and more than a few adults, and a temporary village of vendors selling everything from metal work, jewelry and recycled lighting, to candles, glass work and folk art.
I came to Lafayette organized - kinda sorta… At least I had a list, and first on my list was Lúnasa, who were making their debut at the Festival, followed closely by De Temps Antan and David Greely, Ugandan fusion band Kinobe, the International Fiddle Summit, and Black Joe and the Honeybears.

The music stages, called Scènes rather than stages- a reminder that Lafayette is in a region of the United States where French is sometimes spoken as a first language, a fact that was further reinforced when all the bands were introduced first in Cajun French, and then in English - were scattered around downtown, set up on corners and in parking lots, and everywhere was packed with people.

On my way to the Scène Chevron I was waylaid by an unusual booth on the corner of Jefferson Street. A white tent lined with hundreds of multicolored Dream Catchers of all sizes, had caught my eye, and a very large Native American called Kola, explained to me, as he tuned what looked like a ukulele, what these lovely little contraptions were.

“The Dream Catcher was created by a medicine man who was having bad dreams. Nightmares,” he told me, handing me one made of turquoise blue beads.

“He had a vision that came from the creator and he was shown in a dream how to make this, and how to bless it. My grandmother taught me, and I have had mine passed down from generation to generation, from my great grandmother.”

Where you should hang them, I wondered, thinking that this one would look good in my car.

“The thing that a lot of people do is they hang them in their car,” he replied. “They hang them on the wall. But you are supposed to put it above your bed where you sleep. Because when you dream, your dreams come from the Creator, they come from the sky. And if that is over you then your dreams pass through, and your bad dreams get trapped.”

This year was Kola’s second year at the International Festival, but it was his group’s first year actually performing at it.

“We do traditional dances, like you would see in pow-wow. Have you ever been to a pow-wow?” he asked.

“That is where we compete, so the dances are more spontaneous. We are from Albuquerque New Mexico, and we are Onodaga, Seneca, Navajo, Apache and Inca. Our great grandfather, who came from the south, was an Inca. The dances that I do are more traditional, like I said. There the Sneak Up, there’s the Duck and Dive. There is one that we do that is kinda of like what you do before you go off to war, and you will be looking on the ground for your enemy’s tracks, and stuff like that. We want to share these dances, we want to share our culture, you know?”

Having promised to come back and watch the dances, I followed my ears to the Scene Chevron, where Des Temps Antan and David Greely were mixing the music of Quebec and Louisiana much to the delight of the crowd. People of all ages were dancing old-time dance steps, and I wondered as always why they were all so good at it? Following Des Temps, local Celtic/Cajun/fusion band Celjun were performing with Lúnasa. Irish Pub Stories and Songs, read the schedule; they are running a bit late, said the announcer.

Tony Davoren, founding member of Celjun and former Riverdance performer, is an old friend of all the Lúnasa lads and of piper Cillian Vallely in particular. One of his stories that raised a laugh involved bend out sessioning Cillian Vallely, whose complains of a sore arm were roundly ignored by all, only to find out later that the piper had been taken into hospital with a blood clot.

“We all had a good laugh about it later,” said Tony.

And the Cajuns did too.

More about Festival International coming soon.