Why language and culture enhance the authenticity of music.
Corey Ledet is one of the leading Creole and zydeco musicians of his generation, with a Grammy nomination to prove it, and an Americana UK favourite. With his new album, ‘Médikamen’, he takes a deeper dive into his Louisiana Creole culture by writing the songs in the Kouri-Vini Creole language which currently has less the 10,000 speakers. Americana UK caught up with Corey Ledet at home in Louisiana via Zoom to discuss ‘Médikamen’ and why he felt the need to try to preserve Kouri-Vini. While the language brings another dimension to the music, and an added authenticity, the musicianship remains of the highest order as Corey Ledet lists the musicians on the album. He also explains how his good friend, producer, musician and label owner Louis Michot showed him a book that confirmed that his great-grandfather had played with New Orleans great Bunk Johnson, and how his family’s musical heritage is part of the reason he feels the need to preserve as much of Creole culture as he can. While he may be a loyal son of Louisiana, he also shares his love of the UK, particularly our weather which offered a respite from the excessive heat of Louisiana this summer when he played The North Shropshire Big Weekend Festival in August. Finally, he admits to having a very eclectic musical taste and sheepishly admits to looking forward to listening to some Christmas music in the coming weeks.
You are really digging deep into Creole culture recording a whole album in the Kouri-Vini dialect.
The reason I wanted to do that is for a few different reasons. One is that I’ve been trying to study the language, and my dad speaks it of course, and it is a Louisiana Creole dialect we call Kouri-Vini, and it is a different kind of slang, a different cadence, from the regular Louisiana French, and it’s what they speak in St. Martin Parish where my family’s from. So, it’s not a completely foreign language to my ear, I’ve heard it all my life and I understand a good bit of it, but I was part of the generation where the adults didn’t want the kids to know everything they were saying. We lost the language a little bit there, and the generation after me has lost it as well, but I’ve always wanted to be able to speak it fluently like my family. Life does its thing, and the reason I wanted to do this whole album in that language is because it is going to help me learn. As I go forward from here I plan to write all my songs in this language to help me to learn, and force me to learn. I have a cousin, Herbert Wilks, who is a native speaker and he also reads and writes it, so he is helping me read and write it at the same time that I’m learning it. For me, that really helps out because not only can I hear it and speak it, but I can see it as well, so I’m getting different aspects of learning it
The second reason I’m interested in doing it like this is because most people don’t speak this language as much as they did in the past, I’m guessing here but there are probably less than 10,000 people who speak that language today, versus when my dad was a little boy, and that world has pretty much completely gone now with all the older people. I think it is important to preserve this language, and this is just my part of doing it.
What did the use of Kouri-Vini mean for the music on ‘Médikamen’ and what does the title mean?
The title translates to medication, and the reason I chose that title is because I believe music is medication and can soothe the soul, and that’s why I came up with the title. As far as writing in this language, it does pose a little bit of a challenge because the cadence of Kouri-Vini and English is obviously different, so to make the words match the beat, go with the rhythms you know, you have to figure a way of how to say things, or a way to play things differently than if you were singing in English to make it fit.
Does that make the music more authentic or is it just different?
I would say more authentic because at one time most people spoke this language. It was like a native tongue to my dad, my grandparents and my great-grandparents, so I think that makes it a little bit more authentic to be able to play Creole music or zydeco and to be able to sing in the language that goes along with it.
Who did you record with, and what did they make of the language?
The guitar player is Julian Primeau, the bass player is Lee Allen Zeno, the drummer is Je’an-Paul Jolivette, the keyboard player is Cecil Greene, and we had a couple of special guests like Grant Dermody on harmonica, we also had Kermit Ruffins out of New Orleans on trumpet, and we also had Anders Osbourne on a guitar track for one of the songs. They enjoyed it, and it’s funny because when we play live now they are learning Kouri-Vini and they don’t even know it. If I’m on stage and I say, “We are going to play ‘Kofè t’fé ça’ then they have to know which song that is. It’s kind of cool and funny at the same time because they are kind of learning it without even trying.
What has the audience response been like?
It is kind of funny, we played a little show last night and we played a lot of songs from ‘Médikamen’ which they haven’t even heard yet because they’ve only been playing a couple of songs on the radio for the last couple of weeks, so we were playing some new music that they had never heard before and they seemed to like it because they were all dancing to it. The other thing is I’m getting a lot of questions, which is good, and everybody is asking about the title and nobody can pronounce it so it sparks up a conversation piece, if you know what I mean.
Do you think you will get another Grammy nomination for this, I suspect you might?
This is what I’ve been telling everybody, every musician wants at least one Grammy award, that’s all you need, just one Grammy award. However, nobody can predict the future and you never know how things will fall. So, I don’t know but if it doesn’t I will say this, this project right here is my very first project where I will be proud enough and happy enough even if it doesn’t do anything because I’ve put my heart into it. It wasn’t just to make a CD, it was something special for me to be able to write in this language that my family speaks. The more I learn the closer I feel to my ancestors and the closer I get to my ancestors. Whether it makes it or not, I’m going to be 275% happy with this project and I will be still smiling. It is more about art rather than making a CD to win a Grammy.
Why are your ancestry and roots so important to you?
For me, it’s because I’m one of the last people in our family, I’m the youngest, and all my ancestors who played music were way older than me, like my great-grandfather and my grandfather, and I never got a chance to meet my grandfather because he died in 1978 and I was born in 1981, and of course, I never met my great-grandfather because he died in 1939, or something like that. Hearing all the stories about our musical background and legacy when I was being brought up, and our family is really nonchalant, they would be like, our cousin played with Louis Armstrong and it’s no big deal, Louis Armstrong came by the house and picked him up, no big deal. I was like, what do you mean, no big deal, Louis Armstrong coming by our house to pick our cousin up to go do a show is a big deal. I think hearing about these stories growing up, and learning about how my family has played music since the late 1800s, from all sorts of styles of music, not just zydeco. We played jazz, we played bebop music, we played ragtime, we played rock & roll, funk, soul, gospel, and all across the board, we have some relative who has played something with somebody. We had a cousin who played drums with Ike & Tina Turner, we had a cousin who played drums with Bobby “Blue” Bland, we had a cousin who played keyboards with B.B. King, my great-grandfather played with Bunk Johnson, I mean, the least just keeps going.
The fact I never got to meet these people or hear them play or watch them play because we don’t have any video or audio of them performing music at all, it is just the stories passed down to me. I think that is what is really important to me, and that is why music is so strong in me. I come from a musical background and I have all these musical icons and legends who have done things that I will never see until I go to heaven, and I’m not ready to go there yet. Like I said before, that whole world has pretty much gone now, those old people have gone and it is almost like a forgotten history. That’s why I think it is important for me to share my stories with everybody because these are great stories.
That Bunk Johnson connection is something special and is something to be proud of.
Definitely, and I found that out through a book. My friend Louis Michot found a book that was written about Bunk Johnson, and he showed it to me because he recognised some of the names in there and he asked me about it and it was my great-grandfather and some of my cousins in there. I read it, and it said my great-grandfather did shows with Bunk Johnson, and I was thinking are they serious?
Are you getting any help with the funding for the album?
Yeah, I had a little help with the ArtSpark grant, as well as the National Performance Network which also contributed to making this album a success, and I just want to send special thanks to both of those organisations.
What is Louisiana like post-pandemic and Hurricane Ida?
Well, right now we are struggling with the heat. The heat has been record-breaking this summer to the point that it has been cracking the cement in places, so it has been pretty tough. Other than that, as far as the pandemic goes the music scene is opening up but it is nowhere near where it was pre-COVID-19, but it is getting there at a snail’s pace, really really slowly, We just have to roll with it at the moment because that is the best we can do. We are still in there doing our thing, we are still playing our music and trying to get out there and spread our culture all over the world.
Any plans to come to the UK?
I was just over there in North Shropshire in August we played The Big Weekend Festival, and the weather was so great, just to get away from the Louisiana heat was so fantastic I didn’t want to leave but we had to get back. Hopefully, I’ll be able to get back soon enough again because it is now a home away from home.
It may be niche, but there has always been an interest in Louisiana music in the UK.
Yeah, definitely, that’s why it’s home away from home for me from now on.
Have you got any firm plans to continue exploring your own roots?
I really just want to continue to write music in this language because it is one of those things, even though it is not a foreign language to me, that if I don’t use it I will forget it. I want to do that, and hopefully, I will inspire other Creoles to learn their language as well, because a lot of Creoles today do not speak their native tongue, and I think that is an important factor in what we do. I really hope what we do will encourage people to jump on board and learn their native tongue.
A language can die out fairly quickly.
Right now, it is pretty much wiped out. As far as Kouri-Vini there are probably less than 10,000 people who can speak it, and probably even less than that for Creole French and Louisiana French. As generations keep popping off it will get more and more lost.
At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which artists, albums or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?
Well, I’m really into jazz, I mean, I’ve always liked jazz, but now I love it because I know my family had a hand moulding that at the turn of the century in the 1800s and 1900s. I listen to a lot of early jazz, ragtime, and stuff like that. I really like all kinds of music, I listen to a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Of course, we are getting close to the end of the year, so don’t laugh, but I will be listening to my Christmas music soon. Yeah, that’s pretty much what I’m jamming to these days.
Just an idea because I know you are busy, but have you thought about putting for family’s story down in a book, particularly as you are the repository of that history?
Yeah, a good idea and I thought about that in the past, but I’ve never acted on it. I think when we get to the new year I probably will, even though I don’t know how I will do it or what the vision will be right now, but I will document it as it relates to my family.
Finally, do you want to say anything to our readers?
I hope everybody enjoys the album, and that it brings joy to your soul because it is ‘Médikamen’, medication for the soul. I love the UK and don’t be surprised if I buy a place over there and move.
You could always open a Creole restaurant.
Yeah, you never know, you never know.