I grew up in Cajun country. The sounds of my youth were very different from the sounds heard by others my age living in a different part of the United States. Cajuns are descendants of the exiled Acadians from Canada. Because they were exiled and living in a foreign land with a foreign language, the Acadians formed a tight knit family community. For many decades, they held onto their French language and much of their culture.
I heard Cajun French being spoken quite regularly while growing up. My father’s parents spoke Cajun French and very little English. We visited them every Sunday and my parents sat down with them for about an hour speaking a language that I was never taught. My father as a child began school knowing only Cajun French. He was admonished for speaking this language. He was taught that the proper language was English. Cajun French was looked upon as the language of the illiterate. My mother’s parents also spoke Cajun French, but also spoke English. She grew up knowing both languages; but like my dad, she also grew up realizing the stigma over the use of Cajun French.
The generation of my parents did not teach their children Cajun French. It was a language that I was very familiar with; but could not translate. It was often spoken by the grown-ups when they did not want the children to understand the conversation. It seemed to me like a secret code for adults. I knew that an adult would speak to me in English; but get a few of them around speaking to each other – and the conversation would go from English to Cajun French and back and forth!
The music I heard as a child was mostly a mix of Country music and Cajun music. Cajun music began with ballads of the French speaking Acadians in the 18th century in south Louisiana. Sounds of the accordion, fiddle, and strong Cajun- accent singing was the norm when Daddy turned on his radio. At the time I thought everyone heard this music. I did not appreciate the cultural differences of this unique genre of music.
It is only now that I can appreciate the depths of the culture that I grew up in but not really apart of. Of course I picked up on some French words and terms. There are some Cajun classics that I love, such as Louisiana Aces, “The Back Door”. But now many of the sounds of my youth are gone.
My grandparents have long ago passed away. My Dad said the other day that he has not spoken French in such a long time, that he has forgotten many of the words. Cajun French is just not heard in normal every day life anymore. The music has changed and grown. The pioneers of this new Cajun music were Beausoleil and Zachary Richard. Contemporary Cajun music is played by Wayne Toups and others. But there is hope…
I recently discovered a Cajun group – L’Angelus. This group is comprised of one Louisiana family, the Rees family. The four oldest children are expert musicians and are producing music that pays homage to the Cajun fiddle tunes, the swamp-pop, as well as some New Orleans R&B. I recommend their CD, CA C’EST BON. Everything I’ve heard from this family, I really like. They have such a great vocal harmony.
So, I am currently learning to speak Cajun French. I am researching these wonderful Cajun ancestors. I want to be able to teach my grandchildren about the culture of a people who in the face of the worst adversity, held onto their faith, their family, and their traditions. I need to pass on the sounds of my youth…..the sound of Cajun!