Reinventing Cajun Traditions: With Louis Michot You Never Know What To Expect

Categories: Offbeat

By Mark Guarino

September 27, 2023

In the days when Covid-19 was raging, Louis Michot often woke up before dawn and walked the land surrounding his home in Prairie Des Femmes, outside Arnaudville, just north of Lafayette. That’s when the songs came calling.

“It felt like Groundhog Day where every day you’re waking up to the same reality and there’s no change,” he says. “So, I spent a long time in this repetitive cycle—no work, no gigs, no tour. But as much of it was challenging for a working musician, it also gave me time to focus on my own creative thoughts.”

Three years later comes Rêve du Troubadour, the first album released under the Lost Bayou Ramblers auteur’s name. “Born of endless days and hours in my own space,” Michot explains, the album is not one you’d necessarily play for two-stepping on a Saturday night. Instead, it evokes the natural world of Michot’s native Louisiana. In it are field recordings of birds and other nighttime creatures and the dreamy pulse of fife bands, African guitars, a single dancing fiddle, tape loops, a moaning saxophone, and thumping electronic beats. Singing in French, Michot’s yowling vocals add to the ethereal world he has created—they are widely expressive, sounding as if echoing from the past.

The entire record, in fact, sounds like a field recording with a modern filter, which makes sense considering it was largely recorded just steps from Michot’s front door and away from the 24-hour grind of a professional recording studio. Once he started playing demos to others, even he noticed the difference. “I never had a reason to want to do things under my name,” he says. “But maybe I wasn’t ready. This material is undeniably mine. Now’s the time.”

Judging from Michot’s prodigious output since 2001, it is easy to understand the need for reassessment. Besides the Lost Bayou Ramblers, a Grammy-winning Cajun band that is expanding the boundaries of the genre, there’s also Michot Melody Makers, a fiddle-based band that uses electronics and rock instrumentation to reinterpret traditional Cajun songs. The restless spirit needed to keep all the plates spinning at once is, by now, just the way Michot works. Collaborators refer to him as a force of nature who works with determination and efficiency to follow his instincts.

“He’s one of the hardest working musicians in Louisiana and I would say possibly the world,” said Kirkland Caffery, the Lost Bayou Ramblers drummer who also played on, engineered, and mixed, Rêve du Troubadour. “His nature is to follow what he loves.”

“A big part of playing with Louis is you have to work really quickly. Even in a live environment. We would play three hour sets with no setlists with Louis calling every song. He would just challenge us in that way.”

According to Webre, who has collaborated with Michot since 2016, working with Michot means “you never know what to expect.”

“So that keeps it kind of fun. You’re always on your toes doing something new. I like to play things differently every time,” he said because of the thrill of “not knowing what you’ll play next.”

The album evolved organically in 2020 when Michot would find himself most early mornings in a boat docked on the prairie of his eight-acre property that he was outfitting as a personal studio. He had installed a four-track recording rig and another four-track reel-to-reel, a plywood interior, and even air conditioning that made it comfortable enough to spend his days recording material, even though it followed no deadline or plan. He heard birds outside responding to the music he was creating, so he positioned stereo microphones on the front deck pointed toward the prairie to bring them into the recording too. “I don’t know if it was just me or they were actually doing it,” he said. Nevertheless, the crows, mockingbirds, cardinals, and the rare painted bunting and indigo bunting—they all joined the chorus of Michot’s new songs and can be heard on many of the tracks on Rêve du Troubadour.

“They are one of my favorite parts of the album, a connection to the land here and the passing of the time and the changing of the seasons,” he said.

One song, “Boscoyo Fleaux,” even features a bird from early last century—an ivory billed woodpecker sampled from a 1935 field recording—that Michot adds to a percussive bed. The bird is a mystery unto itself as some consider it extinct if not critically endangered. On record, its call adds to the polyrhythmic interplay that Michot raps over while saxophone Dickie Landry squawks notes in the highest registers and runs through furious-sounding fills. Despite its sounds are rooted in a very physical environment—it came to him while exploring a swamp across the road from his house—the song could also double as a soundtrack to the singer’s internal world.

“I was hearing the beat as I was walking,” he says. “It’s about my experience being alone in nature, being hidden, and being kind of alone in one’s own inner world.”

After almost a year of recording, he took the tracks to Nina Highway, a more professional recording studio. But he didn’t have to walk far: The studio, owned by Mark Bingham, an official Michot Melody Maker, is located next door to Michot’s property. That’s where, in 2022, work on Rêve du Troubadour began in earnest.

“I had no idea what we were making,” said bassist and guitarist Bryan Webre who plays in both Lost Bayou Ramblers and Michot’s Melody Makers. “We did one session trying to hear all the new tunes for the first time.” But there were challenges because the pandemic had made the direction of the songs hazy and Michot wasn’t sure “what they were,” Webre said. Caffery said by the second session the group discussed the new music and it became apparent Michot was apprehensive about calling it a solo project: “He was conflicted about how to take it. It took us as a band to say, ‘it’s cool, go ahead, be Louis Michot. It’s already your thing. Let’s do it’. Once we established that, it was off the races.”

ventually, the sessions included guests that Michot wanted to add new dynamics to the songs. Some were remote—recording singer Leyla McCalla in her Bywater home or receiving tracks by Sharde Thomas and the Rising Stars Fife and Drum Band from Memphis. Nigerien Tuareg guitarist Bombino and his band recorded at Nina Highway in between their sets at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and Festival International de Louisiane in 2002. Michot had accompanied them by setting up trailers on his property, so they too became part of the record’s strong sense of place. “Completely a dream come true,” Michot said. The range of other guests—electro-rock experimentalist Quintron, singer-songwriter Langhorne Slim, zydeco accordionist Corey Ledet, for example—reflect the effort to stand the record up as its own genre.

In the fall, Michot, Webre, and Caffery will confront the challenge of reproducing the record in a live setting. With each musician playing multiple instruments—sometimes within a single song—and the heavy reliance on samples and synthesizers, the band is forced do something they haven’t been used to in the Ramblers: Rehearse. Besides creating a new structure to their live show, they’ll also be in settings that are also slightly different: Listening rooms, not necessarily dancehalls or clubs. “It’s a huge learning curve and a bit of a shock,” said Caffery. “We’ve never played to quiet audiences.”

This latest chapter in Louis Michot’s music continues his determined effort to expand the music he was born into and played as a teenager as a member of Les Frères Michot, a local group led by his father and his uncles. Anyone following the Lost Bayou Ramblers recognizes that creative spirit in the band’s incorporation of early hip-hop and psychedelic rock. While he acknowledges that playing Cajun standards in their original style is important because it’s the best way to keep those songs alive, concentrating solely on the past can also stall the momentum of making the music accessible to new generations. A Cajun standard may reference people, places, or even scenarios that are unfamiliar to the modern singer. Michot has come to recognize that while the music is the best way to preserve the expansiveness of the Cajun French language, it’s essential to apply it to new compositions that tell stories in the modern day.

“Traditional music is obviously the biggest vehicle for the language, but it is also a limiting factor for the language because the subject matter in the songs is limited considering how complex and huge the Louisiana French people are,” he says.

“If the language is only living through the [old songs], we’re only getting part of the language. And that’s great, but there’s so much more being lost and it’s not in the music,” he says. “This album is really my attempt to introduce a vocabulary and expressions that aren’t typically found in [Cajun] music.”

Rêve du Troubadour is part of his ongoing interest in redefining the definition of Cajun music, so it doesn’t solely serve to reference people with Canadian ancestry but incorporates ancestries in Southwest Louisiana tied directly to the Native Americans as well as people from other places like Italy, France, Spain, Scotland, Cuba, and Haiti. His own ancestors, for example, include Sicilians, Haitians, and Spaniards; the earliest Michot to Louisiana originated from Haiti by way of Cuba in the early 1800s. “Cajun music became known as the Acadians. But you have whole swaths of people living here with no Acadian roots at all,” he said. “I wanted to make this album as diverse as my own ancestry.”

Besides the language, the modern recording techniques, and instruments, Louis Michot said he also felt freed to break the traditional song structure; instead of four verses, in some songs he included a bridge or even pushed the song to have as many verses as 11 or 12.

More than anything from his past, Rêve du Troubadour is a pivotal moment for Michot; without a full band to disappear into, he is showing what an experimentalist sounds like when rooted in one of the oldest cultures of the country. Somewhere in the middle is what the future sounds like. “It’s a necessary part of any tradition to try to reinvent itself with the times so it doesn’t become obscure.”

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