Louisiana music may be under threat but Louis Michot and Nouveau Electric Records are fighting back.
Rick Bayles, editor of Cajun Corner, writes: Something very special for Cajun Corner this time round. Interviews editor, Martin Johnson, has been kind enough to pass across his recent interview with Louis Michot, with Louis talking about one of the great musical discoveries of recent years. Thanks, Martin – it’s a real privilege to be hosting this in Cajun Corner.
One of the greatest pleasures of being a music fan is discovering great music that is new to you as a listener, imagine the pleasure then of discovering music that is over eighty years old that is also new to everybody, and that also sheds new light on a whole genre of music. This is what happened to Louisiana musician Louis Michot of The Lost Bayou Ramblers and Artistic Director of Nouveau Electric Records when he met and recorded Creole fiddler Willie Durisseau. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson met up with Louis Michot at his Louisiana home over Zoom to discuss the historical significance of the new Willie Durisseau recordings, the challenges Louisiana music is facing due to COVID and recent environmental events and how he is fighting back through his own music and that of other like-minded artists with Nouveau Electric Records. Michot also shares a deep dive discussion on the meaning of the cultural terms Cajun and Creole and what this also means musically, which brings a new understanding, and insight, to Louisiana culture and music. If you enjoyed the late great Charlie Gillett’s compilation ‘Another Saturday Night’ in the ‘70s all the way through the music of Clifton Chenier, Bobby Charles, The Lost Bayou Ramblers and modern-day Louisiana musicians Corey Ledet and Dwayne Dopsie, among others, you owe it to yourself to read on. If Louisiana music is new to you, then Louis Michot provides an excellent overview and introduction to a whole genre.
How are things in Louisiana after the recent flooding?
There has been a lot of water recently and there is a lot of work to do in Louisiana. We haven’t been able to play much music recently, but we had our first gig in four months last weekend, and we have another this weekend. That is nice.
Some people see Cajun, Creole and even Zydeco as interchangeable terms, while others recognise that Cajun is predominantly white and Creole is largely black. How do locals see the definitions and historical influences?
Unfortunately, it has become more of an ethically based definition. Historically, Louisiana has been such a culturally diverse society and originally everybody in Louisiana was Creole, it didn’t matter whether you were French, or African, or Spanish, though obviously if you were indigenous, you weren’t Creole. Originally Creole was used to simply signify that you were born in the New World, as opposed to the Old World because back then that made a difference. When the Acadians arrived in the mid to late 1700s their culture, and name, morphed into Cajun which became a bit of a mother culture. French Creole, African Creole, Spanish Creole, the Arcadians, and the indigenous populations have been so tied together in so many ways, and so many communities throughout the centuries in Louisiana.
Of course, being part of the Deep South and part of the slave culture there has obviously been a lot of disparity on racial lines, but there is so much more inter-weaving of cultures to the extent that the Louisiana we know today wouldn’t exist without African contributions, without French contributions, without Native contributions, and the terms Cajun and Creole have only become more racialised since the ‘60s. My great-grandma referred to us as Creole and scoffed at the word Cajun because it meant something else. Since her time, it has become more of people wanting to define themselves a certain way, and it is true all Cajuns are white, are of European descent. There is no black Arcadian history, and Creole has now become a term where cultures mix whether it is indigenous, and French, and African, and different things, whereas Cajun has become white French Louisiana culture. I do know people of African American descent that refer to themselves as Cajun because it means something different to other people, just as the word Creole has a lot of meanings.
I still refer to myself as French Creole. Most of my lineage is on the French and Spanish Creole side, my Cajun descent is like so minuscule in my bloodline but being raised as a Cajun musician I can also identify as Cajun. This then leads you to the question of what makes a Cajun or Creole different from an American? The answer is the shared culture that Cajun and Creole have, it is much more of a shared culture between Cajun and Creole than Cajun is one thing and Creole is another thing. It is different for everybody, everybody has a different recipe, everyone speaks a different dialect. There are white people who speak like Kouri-Vini like the African French dialect, there are people of African American descent who speak more of the white French. The way I like to characterise it is we can look at it as black and white, but we are all in the grey, there is no black and white it is just shades of brown, haha. I’m not saying white people can identify as people of colour, but in the sense that there is so much more behind Cajun and Creole culture. We call our music now Louisiana French Music, because why say Cajun or Creole now if people are going to try and figure out what you are. That is a huge question, I don’t want to come off wrong on it, I’m just trying to give a sense of the history and mix of cultures.
You’ve explained the richness of Louisiana culture and how local it is which then raises the question of how it has managed to last as long, and how it is going to resist the forces of Americanisation?
That is a great question because it is trying times for sure. As we saw with Hurricane Katrina, and now of course Hurricane Ida, we have always lived on the fringe, and it has always been that struggle to survive that has kept Louisiana people “resilient”. If you can make it through these struggles, and keep your community and culture intact, that is how people have remained independent enough to keep language and culture alive, and not allow themselves to fully subscribe to the American Dream. It is becoming harder and harder because a hundred years ago it was outlawed to speak French in schools and that right there was one way that it kind of disconnected generations within the culture. I will take Willie Durisseau as an example, he was of French Creole and African American heritage and his father and grandmother were from Quebec, he is the epitome of Creole if you will. You can’t say black or white, of course, his family associates with African American culture, but they are Creole. The difference is that they are from Quebec, they are French Creole, they are African Creole, they are all that put together, and when I interviewed them his wife, Miss Irma who is still with us, she said growing up it was not about the racial differences, they were a cohesive community in Lebeau, Louisiana, and they all came from multiple backgrounds, but it wasn’t something they worried about back in the day, it was just the way people were.
A lot of people associate the accordion with Cajun and Louisiana music in general, but that is not necessarily true, is it?
Not at all. The accordion is relatively new, and it was just getting popular when French was outlawed. So, you have to think if people had kept their French for the last hundred years through Americanisation there was a whole other era of music that was not recorded and did not have the accordion. The fiddle was the main instrument and Willie Durisseau, and his brother Jimmy, played fiddle and guitar and they played with another set of brothers on fiddle and guitar, and I asked if there were any accordions and was told no, there were never any accordions in house bands, and this is Creole music. It is just like the question of what is Cajun and Creole, it is so much more than we can put a finger on because if you ask anyone today what is Creole music, they will say Creole music is zydeco, Creole music is accordion and fiddle, what is Cajun music, Cajun music is accordion and fiddle, it always has the accordion, but it wasn’t always that way. Just like Cajun and Creole culture changes with the times and adapts itself, Willie Durisseau really drove that point home to me. The main example we have of fiddle music that is pre-accordion music is Dennis McGee, and what was Dennis McGee, we call him Cajun, but he was Native American, Scots Irish and French, is that Cajun or Creole, haha? It is really a tricky thing, and he was also playing with the grandfather of zydeco Amede Ardoin and at the same time, as he was playing triple fiddle music, he was playing music that became zydeco. So, you had a white fiddle player and a black accordion player, playing together in what is a perfect example of Louisiana. Do you think either of them associated as Cajun or Creole, or not at all? It could be not at all, it is hard to say, and we can’t ask them, and I think these are constructs we put on the music ourselves to try and understand it and put it into a genre, but I think it is so much deeper than that. The music is our cultural manifestation, you look at zydeco and there is so much R&B, Ray Charles, and popular music of the time, the same with Cajun music, there is so much popular music influence, but it is its ability to keep relevant and to keep true to the ones on route that has allowed the Louisiana French culture to continue to survive.
How were the Willie Durisseau tracks recorded, how easy was it?
It was very easy actually. I got called by a friend, Robin Miller, and Mr J B Adams, and it was Mr J B Adams who kind of realised that Willie Durisseau still existed, and he has been playing some fiddle in his late ‘90s, and no one realised apart from his close family. I think someone got him a fiddle just in the last few years and they invited me to go because I speak French and I play fiddle, and they thought I would be able to communicate and we would enjoy each other’s company, and maybe I could learn something. They also brought Joe Vidrine, a photographer and videographer. So, Joe brought his camera, I brought my little H4 Zoom Recorder and I just set it up and we just hung out and let things happen. It was super easy, really natural, and at 101 years old Willie could only play the fiddle for literally like a minute at a time, and after a minute it was like “My arm, my arm’s hurting.”. I can’t even imagine what it is like to play at a 101, I’m only in my early ‘40s and I struggle. He would play a little bit, which is why I was able to squish an album’s worth of material onto a 45 record, haha. One thing that really opened him up was that I had to bring my son, Marius, who at the time was 1 year old because they called me away when I was watching him, my wife is a French teacher at a local high school, and Willie really enjoyed Marius’s presence. Obviously, he is a family man, and he loves babies, and he and Marius got along great. Marius wanted to play my fiddle, so I kind of let him hold it under his neck and helped him do his bow and he started doing it, and that is when Mr Willie Durisseau really started playing. It wasn’t to entertain us, or to make a record, it was to play with my 1 year old, haha. I have a recording of them playing ‘Hey Mom’ with Marcus stroking the bow and Willie playing the tune. So, a 1-year-old and a 101-year-old playing together, haha, it blew my mind.
From what you have said, what you heard Willie Durisseau playing was largely music from pre-recorded music times. What did you learn from the experience?
Oh yes, when I was first aware of Mr Willie’s existence was when J B Adams told Herman Fuselier, “Hey, you might want to go check this man out.”. He went to a family reunion or something, and Herman Fuselier filmed him on his phone, and I saw it on the news, and I said this melody that this 100-year-old, at the time, fiddle player is playing I’ve never quite heard before. It has been my life’s work to study Louisiana French music, and this melody sounded a little like some songs, and a little bit like other songs, but no it was its own thing. It really struck me, and when I got the call months later, I knew exactly who they were talking about and I said I will be right down, bringing my baby with me if I have to, haha, because Mr Willie Durisseau was playing a music I had never really heard. There are some recordings of stuff that sounds similar, some of these recordings from the ‘30s and such, but he was playing in the late ‘30s and put down the fiddle for most of his life after World War II and picked it back up so late in his life that he was still playing the same melodies and he hadn’t updated his repertoire. This was amazing because his memory of these songs was clear and his ability to play them was also amazing for his age, and when he struck up with these melodies it was like being a hundred years in the past. He was playing a music, a specific melody and type of Creole fiddle music I had never heard and maybe had never been recorded. Of course, he was also of the era of recorded music, so he had heard ‘Hey Mom’ which is a Mayuse Lafleur tune from Ville Platte, I’m sure he had heard many songs and knew a lot of these songs, but he was playing what they played at these house dances in the late 1930s.
That must have been a pretty amazing experience, to hear something ancient but new.
It completely was and I found myself to be so fortunate to be in that situation and to have recorded it. I was like this has to be pressed, not just for his family, but for Louisiana and the rest of the world to hear, and if I don’t do it, it will never be heard. In fact, I received an email recently from one of Willie’s granddaughters, and she had come across the project because, of course, he passed away in late December 2019, and I recorded him in April 2019, and COVID hit right after that and I never got to play the record for his wife, and I talked to her about a month ago to just check-in and let her know I had got together an old schoolhouse record player that teachers used to use, and I got a new needle and I had the recorded queued up so that whenever she is ready I can go play it to her, though with things as they are, I don’t expect that to be soon. His granddaughter said that she missed her grandpa so much and she thanked me so much for recording him. She said if I hadn’t done that, his songs wouldn’t live and it gives all his family a memory of him. That meant so much to me because that is what it is about, we all wish we had recorded our grandparents speaking, or playing music or whatever they do.
You released it on your own Nouveau Electric Records, didn’t you?
Yes, and it is the second part of a four-record set that is coming out year by year, and it is all Louisiana Creole music. The first one was Soul Creole which is Corey Ledet, myself, my wife Ashlee Michot who is a triangle player and singer, and we have had this band Soul Creole for almost ten years now. It is also a great representation of Louisiana culture because you have Corey Ledet a zydeco accordion master, you have me who is a fiddle player and singer, mostly in French, you have Kory Richey who is trying to learn his family’s French Kouri-Vini, and I’ve produced his last two albums and we have been really working on getting it all in French. My wife put out a book three years ago ‘Ô Malheureuse’ which is a first of its kind and is a collection of women’s Louisiana French writing, and she collected all these poems and writings from Louisiana women in French and released it on UL Press. Soul Creole is like we all identify with Creole, and that is just a perfect example, it is all colours, all the music is zydeco, and it is not cajun, it is Creole. That is one thing I guess I could say to your first question on what Creole is, Creole is a meeting point, Creole is where things come together. Obviously, it no longer means created in the New World, but it is where things come together because a Cajun band always has accordion, fiddle and triangle, a zydeco band is accordion and washboard, what is a Creole band, well it is accordion, fiddle and washboard. Soul Creole was the first release, Willie Durisseau is the second release on this 45 series, the third release is actually going to be a Louisiana Creole reggae artist that I happened to come across, and the fourth one is an amazing collaboration between the larger kind of new Creole world with old Creole field recordings put together, so that is a surprise.
The reason I started Nouveau Electric Records was to give a voice to musics that couldn’t have that voice in the commercial music world. I feel we are missing out on so much music because it is not commercially viable, because there is no young band that can afford to go out and tour the music that can’t find a release. That just doesn’t make sense to me, so I created Nouveau Electric Records to give a voice to music that I want people to hear that may not have had a voice. The first release was a remix of a Lost Bayou Ramblers song by a local artist, and for me, it was wow, nobody would hear this if I didn’t put it out.
How is Nouveau Electric Records funded? You said it releases non-commercial music.
Haha, it started by just taking the money I had made playing gigs, and I started it with practically nothing, I started it digitally only which requires no investment for pressing and such. Being a full-time musician, a father of three and my wife luckily is a teacher so with a little more stable income, haha. I started with nothing and I’ve kind of grown it, and I’ve been able to use the resources I have as an established musician working with different engineers, graphic artists, publicists, and such, so I put together a team I thought would do a good job, and they all agreed to go into this with me on sharing what comes in. I have never had to have a big chequebook because other people who have had labels have asked me are you profitable and I’m like yeah, not very profitable but we are not losing money or spending outrageous amounts of money to try and grow this thing. I am just doing it organically from the ground, and I’ve been lucky enough to have this amazing team on the backend, you know. It is the same with the artists as well, the artists and the team who make it all happen, we all work under the same agreement and it works out for everybody because the artists I’m going for are not the artists who already have big record label deals who are getting advances, getting tour promotion. I’m working with artists that would have never had a team to push their stuff because I’ve been there so many times that I know how hard it is. The other reason I started the label is to use the school of hard knocks I have been through so many times over the last couple of decades and to bring that experience to other artists in the same situation. Being from a Louisiana French band and one that has neither embraced the local Cajun music scene nor the national or international indie rock pop music scene, we are just kind of stuck in our own niche and we have never had a booker or a manager who can do half the job we can do representing ourselves. I’ve noticed so many more artists in that same situation, that is why I created the label, it is to try and help artists that would never have a large voice, or who maybe one day would if they could get started and get out there, and for it not to cost a fortune. We know the music industry is changing every year, and if you put everything into one thing, it might move to another. Everything has to be balanced in the whole approach.
Where are you with your own musical career?
That is a good question as well because I’ve definitely spent a lot of time on this label, but I’ve been fortunate to be able to continue to keep creating my music. I play in five bands pretty regularly in normal times, The Lost Bayou Ramblers, The Michot’s Melody Makers which is a fiddle based band and accordion, Soul Creole and we get quite busy when things are right, Les Freres Michot my family band, and I play with Goldman Thibodeaux And The Lawtell Playboys, there are a few other little projects, but that is enough, haha. That is another thing the label has allowed me to do, to take the stuff I’m working on and put it out without a huge deal because I’ve created this small, very humble label. I’ve sent my numbers to larger labels to see about distribution and they are kinda like that’s what you are doing, OK, haha.
I think anything good takes time to develop and I’m not trying to rush it or anything. For example this Saturday we are putting out a video EP with Michot’s Melody Makers featuring Leyla McCalla, and this is a set we recorded back in March for a virtual performance with Ned Sublette’s Postmambo, and we had the date and I said how about we do this, I have a little pond at my house that we dug the dirt out to make the road, and I left the island in the middle of the pond. It is like one of my favourite places on my land because I love nature, I love seclusion, and I live way far from anybody, and this island is even more secluded, haha. I was like let’s record it on my island at night, and everyone was like OK but how do we do it, and I was we’ll just bring lights and light it up nicely, it will be all acoustic but we will have one extension cord running from the house. We did that and I’m calling it ‘Tiny Island’ and it is out Saturday, and the beauty for me is I’m not trying to make it a giant release that we will be touring, but this is music that deserves a place out there, at least in the digital music world. We are playing a release show this Saturday and we will screen the video EP, and play the music from it and it will be available on video and digital streaming. That is part of the beauty of having a small label. The hardest thing about being a musician and putting out records is getting in the studio, and having time to write when you are busy trying to make a living by performing, that is truly the struggle. Three or four gigs a week, when does someone have time to go to the studio, and how can they afford it because it is expensive. I guess over the years I’ve just tried to make it more cohesive, so where we are performing this just let’s try and record it and capture what we are live. That is another thing, a lot of my creation as a writer happens live, a lot happens on stage. I definitely write songs on my own when something hits, I’ll write it down or record it to get the idea down, and sometimes I have the chance to go and get really deep into it in the studio, but a lot of times it happens live and if you don’t catch it you might never catch it. That is the perfect example of the benefits of my own label being a creative musician, and also being able to get that work out to the world.
Streaming has obviously helped you get the music out, but how do you make any money out of it?
That is a great question, streaming is skewed against the artists and it has definitely changed the market because people sell less physical merch, but platforms such as Bandcamp which was specially created for artists because the founder created it for a friend who couldn’t get a record deal, and he couldn’t figure out how to get any streaming because where do you start as an artist. So Bandcamp was created to give his friend a platform to stream his music that wouldn’t get lost in the millions of releases out there on Spotify. Bandcamp has become hugely beneficial for artists because the artist gets a large chunk of the revenues, which is the opposite of the other streaming services where we get a fraction of a penny. You can get a million streams and make $1,000, what does that mean, haha? It certainly won’t pay your studio bill. Bandcamp have also been really good during the pandemic with their Free Fridays once a month where the artist gets 100%, and they have also given to worthy causes. We have our own website, Nouveau Electric Records, which has been great because people want to come directly, and it has grown over the releases. Our physical distribution is limited to Lafayette and New Orleans, but that has not been a problem because we are not trying to press a million copies, and we have enough of a local following, personally and between the bands and musicians I am working with. It is completely a Louisiana grassroots record label, and no one is getting rich, including me, haha. I’ve put some money into it but I think it has just about evened out, and to me, it is important to get the music out there. I do the streaming because I want people to hear the music, in the beginning, I had to make that decision on whether I want people to stream it and possibly take away from the ability to make a return, you just have to do everything that is out there, try every medium possible. The vinyl thing has definitely been good, it is a risky investment but at the same time people want something tangible and it has worked out OK. I can’t make that investment on every project, and I have to be selective.
At Americana UK we like to ask people what are their current top three artists, tracks or albums that they are listening to?
Our next vinyl release that I am super excited about and it is from a band that has only played one gig, and it is called ‘Shakespeare And The Blues ’and it is an amazing collaboration between a Haitian American woman, she is American but from a Haitian family and born and raised in Brooklyn, Cassandra Watson Francillon. She is a harp player with Bryan Webre from two of my bands on bass and samples and Cam Smith, who is a New Orleans drummer. It is this collaboration that they did live at a jazz bar in New Orleans that is very known for jazz improvs and various collaborations. They went and recorded themselves at Mark Bingham’s studio in Henderson, Louisiana, self-engineered and self-produced and I heard it and loved it, and I want everyone to hear it so I’m pressing it to vinyl. It was meant to be out but Hurricane Ida closed down the vinyl press for a few weeks, haha. It is out now on 21st October, and the track ‘Blinders’ is available now.
I think Willie Durisseau ‘Blues a Durisseau’ is this quintessential, early 20th century Creole fiddle music that I didn’t know existed until I heard Willie. Now that I have heard it live and played it with him a few times, I have heard a few recordings from the ‘30s and I’m like I see a little bit of resemblance, and on one of them I’m like that is pretty close, but it is completely its own thing, and for me, that is just a mind-blowing track because it is coming from someone who is playing the same music they were eighty years prior. To me that is beautiful.
My musical taste is across the globe, I listen to all kinds of stuff. The bounce music in New Orleans has been amazing and one artist I’ve really been getting into, and The Lost Bayou Ramblers did some collaborations with, is Katey Red, and Katey Red’s music has been blowing my mind because it is just amazing what seemingly normal people, that may not even consider themselves musicians, can make.
Is there anything you want to say to the UK readers?
I think it is a very significant and critical time in Louisiana music history, and music in general, because we are losing so many of our musical elders due to COVID and time, and at the same time we are dealing with a lot of natural disasters and the pandemic which is not allowing Louisiana musicians to continue to perform and collaborate as much as possible. I think this is a key time, and an important time, to keep the music going as much as possible, whether it be through recorded music or through live performances. We all forget how important music is until we don’t have it for a few months. Recently I played music with Michot’s Melody Makers in Terrebonne Parish which got hit with 150 mph winds, and we were playing music to people who were literally living in tarp houses, with no beds, so what significance has music and why should we feel like we are playing music when these people need so much more, but it brought so much joy and a break from the suffering and struggling and stressing of what tomorrow’s going to bring. Music is more important than we can ever quantify, so I find myself very lucky to be able to bring it to people.