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French Connection

[whitespace] Beausoleil
Rick Olivier

Born on the Bayou: Beausoleil sparks Sunday's Fat Fry with a tasty mix of Cajun, zydeco, blues and country-tinged music.

Beausoleil infuses this summer's Fat Fry with a heavy dose of Cajun roots

By Andrew Gilbert

THINK FOLK MUSIC IS about a calm, acoustic, tradition-bound sound? Well, it's time to discover Beausoleil, the Louisiana sextet that dishes out an irresistibly tangy gumbo that blends Cajun and zydeco music with blues, country, jazz, Caribbean and Tex-Mex influences. Founded in the mid-'70s by violinist Michael Doucet, Beausoleil sparked a resurgence of Cajun music and culture in the '70s, just at a time when it was on the verge of disappearing. In more than two decades of relentless touring, Beausoleil has helped create an international audience for a musical style defined by its fierce, ecstatic energy and terpsichorean rhythms. Among Beausoleil's die-hard fans are Keith Richards, Mary-Chapin Carpenter and Richard Thompson, all of whom have recorded with Doucet or the group.

Though Beausoleil is grounded in Cajun culture, it is not a traditionalist group. The band--featuring Doucet on fiddle and lead vocals, his brother David Doucet on guitar, Jimmy Breaux on Acadian accordion, Al Tharp on bass and banjo, Billy Ware on percussion, and Tommy Alesi on drums--sees Cajun culture as a living, evolving force. Its repertoire ranges from centuries-old traditional pieces, passed down over the generations from France, to contemporary tunes often written by Michael Doucet, a composer with a gift for creating soaring melodic lines.

The name Beausoleil comes from the Acadians' term for a region of their long-lost homeland. Descendants of French settlers evicted from Nova Scotia in 1755 by the British, the Acadians trekked across North America, many settling in southwest Louisiana. "It's a spiritual term that gives us an idea of hope of the way things should be," Doucet says in the liner notes of the dazzling Bayou Deluxe anthology on Rhino Records. "It reinforces the bond of positive understanding that if you continue to believe, something good is always around the bend."

That sense of high-spirited optimism, tinged with the Acadian people's diaspora-imposed longing and the culture's earthy sensuality, pervades Beausoleil's music. But there was a time, about three decades ago, when the celebratory heart of Cajun culture was in danger of evaporating. When Doucet was growing up, many young Acadians were indifferent to or ashamed of their culture. Doucet started his career as a musician playing in rock bands, but in the mid-'70s he began exploring French music with a loose, improvisational band called Coteau, a group dubbed the Cajun Grateful Dead that eventually evolved into Beausoleil.

Doucet got much deeper into the music when, with the support of a NEA grant, he began scouring the Louisiana countryside looking for the surviving musicians who first documented Cajun music on record in the '20s and '30s. (Check out Les Blank's wonderful documentary I Went to the Dance for a closer look.)

Eventually he apprenticed under such leading Cajun musicians as Hector Duhon, Will and Dewey Balfa, Dennis McGee and Canray Fontenot and helped reinvigorate their legacy with Beausoleil's music. Over the years, the group has evolved into a fantastically cohesive unit, capable of turning even the most mild- mannered assembly into a stomping, thigh-slapping, gyrating party. In short, when Beausoleil comes to town, you better not leave your dancing shoes at home.

Beausoleil performs at Sunday's Fat Fry at the Aptos Village Park. For more info, call 831/427-5300.

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From the July 23-29, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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