By Daniel Garrett
Cedric Watson and Bijou Creole, L’Esprit Creole
Produced by Joel Savoy
Valcour Records, 2009
Cedric Watson and Bijou Creole, Creole Moon
Produced by Mark Falgout
Live recording by Geoff Thistlewaite
Mastered by Tony Daigle
Valcour Records, 2010
The Creole zydeco music of the accordionist and fiddler Cedric Watson can be earthy and exultant or plaintive to the point of pain, and sometimes his sound contains an expanse that is otherworldly, transcendent; and his recording Creole Moon with his band Bijou Creole is documentation of his mastery and joy. It is a live recording of a performance at the Blue Moon Saloon held as part of Festival International, an annual event held in Lafayette, Louisiana, that had on its schedule Morikeba Kouyate, King Sunny Ade, Black Joe Lewis, Buckwheat Zydeco, Geno Delafose, Feufollet, Givers, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, Bassekou Kouyate, Sonny Landreth, Lil Band O’ Gold, Lunasa, Mucca Pazza, and Terrance Simien. It is a beloved event and CreoleMoon, which includes the participation of African kora-player Morikeba Kouyate, captures its spirit, and is a continuation of Cedric Watson’s project of connecting zydeco with its ancestral roots. Much of the culture of south Louisiana is focused on family, church, work, school, and sports; and one can imagine Cedric Watson’s music in concert halls, crop fields, house parties, or jazz clubs. Watson is taking a music born in a place in which the cultivation of sugar cane, beans, potatoes, rice, pecans, and pepper, and industries focused on fish, petroleum, and salt are dominant, and showing how cosmopolitan that music is. CreoleMoon is another significant recording from the legendary Valcour Records (and legendary very quickly as its roster has included some of the best emerging musicians: Givers, Christine Balfa, Bonsoir Catin, Feufollet, Linzay Young and Joel Savoy). However, months before CreoleMoon, Cedric Watson and Bijou Creole produced L’EspritCreole, an album of songs written by Watson.
The Creole culture of south Louisiana—African-American and French, Catholic, and often rural but sometimes city-living—is unique, and is expressed in old-fashion manners, rich food, folk and jazz music, festivals, and religious services; and its people are described frequently as decent, friendly, and fun-loving. There are many names associated with its zydeco music—Ardoin, Broussard, Chavis, Chenier, Delafose, and Ledet, among them—but, increasingly people talk about Cedric Watson, so gifted and promising the words seem inadequate. His band for L’Esprit Creole consists of the fiddler, guitarist, and pianist Chris Stafford, rub-board and bongo-player Mike Chiasson, bassist Blake Miller, and drummer Jermaine Prejean, the members of Bijou Creole. Writing in the album’s notes, the musician-host of a great jazz radio program on KRVS (University of Louisiana), D’Jalma Garnier, declared, “Bijou Creole is a group of Lafayette’s young but very capable, perceptive, and experienced musicians. This is a forward looking French Creole band bound to change what Louisiana French Creole music can be in the 21st century.” Cedric Watson and Bijou Creole’s L’Esprit Creole is proof, if any were needed, that folk music can possess vivacious variety.
The singer-songwriter Cedric Watson claims the region with his rhythms and song titles—including “Le Sud de la Louisiane,” “J’suis Parti au Texas,” “Lafayette La La,” and “J’suis gone a la Blue Moon.” The song that shares the band’s name, “Bijou Creole,” is rather spare—with accordion, fiddle, and a simple voice chant—but “Le Sud de la Louisiane” has a dense, low groove and blues twang, and the singer’s voice is very personable, conversational in its rising and falling but genuinely expressive, hearty. His voice is intimate and charming in “Mais La” and the rhythm that begins it would not be alien in rock music, though it is trailed by fast fiddling and rather crude percussion. “J’suis Parti Au Texas” does sound like fun, and “Zydeco Paradise” has—with the guitar sound, and Will Henderson’s saxophone—a Caribbean feel, as does “J’suis Gone a la Blue Moon.” I thought “C’est La Vie” sounded perfect; it has lovely percussion (bongo playing) and harmonies. I did feel a little sad listening to some of the songs, but as their rhythms were quick, I thought that might have more to do with my personal exhaustion and increasing sense that more people would benefit from knowing about this music.
The first Cedric Watson collection from Valcour Records bore his name only, and featured his original compositions with a few traditional songs and a song by Michael Doucet and one by Boozoo Chavis; and Watson received musical support from, among others, Jeffery Broussard and Corey Ledet, but he did not yet have a regular band. Cedric Watson did have one on the next album, L’Esprit Creole, in Bijou Creole. Creole Moon, the live album by Cedric Watson with Bijou Creole (Mike Chiasson, Chris Stafford, Blake Miller, and Jermaine Prejean), is both history and celebration of zydeco music, as it contains songs by some masters: “Afro Zydeco” (Watson), “Old Time Two-Step” (John Delafose), “The Corner Post” (Peter Schwartz), “Pa Janvier” (Dennis McGee), “Richard’s Two-Step” (John Delafose), “Musicien avec un Coeur Casse” (Ulysse Poirrier), “Canray’s Jig” (Canray Fontenot), “Jogue au Plombeau” (traditional, arranged by Watson), “I’m on the Wonder” (Clifton Chenier), “Zydeco Coteau” (Boozoo Chavis), and Jure (traditional, arranged by Watson).
Cedric Watson’s joy and pride in the music require no interpretation, as his wild exuberance and hard-charging French language course through the classic rhythm of his own “Afro Zydeco.” Watson mentions that the banjo and guitar have African roots. The unique accordion sound—an inspired mix of bagpipes, harmonica, and piano—is heard through “Old Time Two-Step,” a folk-country zydeco tune (a possibly redundant description; though this may be where Creole and Cajun music come together), and the song is punctuated by an almost incredibly fast rhythm. Rhythm has its own harmony in the elegant, timeless reel of “The Corner Post,” in which the guitar’s notes have the weight of the blues and the sensuality of funk music. Downbeat, wistful, the introduction of “Pa Janvier” sounds like the score for a western tale. Watson’s full-throated narrative voice phrasing is sad, and I do not know if anyone is playing a horn, but there is a tone like that of a horn. It is gorgeous music. Yet in the next song, “Richard’s Two-Step,” Watson’s voice does not sound special and it is a little mystifying to consider why it is pleasing; and then it occurs to me that his voice is suited to the atmosphere of a down-home party. The melancholy “Musicien avec un Coeur Casse” has a darkly bubbling bass. Before beginning “Canray’s Jig,” Watson says that the fiddle put the blues in French music, but the dense (focused, intense) rhythm he plays conjures a seriousness that brings joy; and it is greeted by the audience with shouts.
In the somber, French-language “Jogue au Plombeau,” Watson’s voice takes on an aged cadence, and the song reminds me of Irish music, and Watson calls it a waltz. “Does the moon look pretty shining down through the trees?” asks Watson in “I’m on the Wonder,” which is bluesy, with Dickie Landry on saxophone, though Morikeba Kouyate’s kora adds lightness as contrast (the kora, a string instrument, can sound like a harp or a xylophone). There are call-and-response chants in “Zydeco Coteau”; and Jermaine Prejean’s fast, intense drumrolls in “Jure,” offset by a delicate kora, and Watson’s enthusiastic singing, and the song evolves into something that could, by sound alone, describe an African plain—or paradise. It is, as Watson says, a spiritual thing.
Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Offscreen, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Garrett originated two internet logs: one focused on culture and social issues, “City and Country, Boy and Man,” and one focused on books, “The Garrett Reader.” He has been writing a novel, A Stranger on Earth.