For Southern California-based fiddler-singer-songwriter Lisa Haley, playing Cajun music is a means to an end. The tunes with their deep Louisiana rhythms are merely vehicles through which she reaches an audience and shares in their joy.
"You have to love people," Haley said of her line of work. "I love meeting new people and I love making people happy.”
Haley and her band the Zydecats will have ample opportunity to do just that August 16 as they come north to perform at the 17th annual Fremont Cajun Zydeco Music Festival. The event is set for Ardenwood Historic Farm and will feature Southern and Cajun cuisine, crafts, specialty vendors and children’s activities in addition to a musical lineup that includes T’ Monde, the Zydeco Flames, and Andre Thierry and Zydeco Magic.
Haley’s connections to Cajun culture are at once both tenuous and intriguing. Though born in Delaware and raised in California, she is truly a daughter of the South.
“My family is all from the South – Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas," she told me in an interview a few years back. "We are the only branch of the family west of the Mississippi."
The Haleys came to California because her mother's health required a drier climate. As a result, Haley's early life was marked by a dichotomy as she bounced between Southern (including frequent trips back to see the relatives) and Southern California culture (a Hollywood
neighbor, TV producer Bob Holoboff, even offered to make her a Mousketeer).
That division was present, too, in Haley's initial forays into music. While she was excited by the vintage Cajun music her father listened to in the garage, her mother insisted she study classical.
"My mom was very adamant that she wanted us kids to take a step up in the world ... be more respectable," Haley said. "But I eventually just decided that I wasn't cut out for life as a classical
musician, too wild and free. So I started playing the music that my father had been playing in the garage."
Haley began performing Cajun and zydeco music wherever she could in Southern California, even turning down a college scholarship in order to further her real-life studies. The diligence paid off when the call came asking Haley whether she'd like to tour Europe with zydeco star Queen Ida.
"Queen Ida is just a wonderful, wonderful performer," Haley said. "I learned a lot about stage presence and how to direct an audience.”
That internship – Haley was then in her early 20s – led to tours with Al Rapone (the musicians visited the Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe), Cajun accordionist Joe Simien (whom Haley describes as her adopted father) and Rockin' Sydney (composer of the zydeco anthem "Don't Mess with My Toot-Toot"). It was only then that Haley's parents let her in on a family secret – that she was a fourth-generation fiddler.
Further inspired, Haley joined with other young Southern California musicians in the late '80s to form the Zydeco Party Band. After three albums, she put together her own group in 1995; with the Zydecats, Haley has released a series of discs, the latest being “Joy Ride” (2012).
The band's sound, Haley noted, consciously blends Louisiana traditions with a more contemporary sound.
"You have to face facts: Who are you writing this song for? Who are you trying to move? Who do you aim at?
"I aim at the kids. I didn't really grow up with a traditional zydeco feel – I did grow up with rock 'n' roll. So I took some of the Cajun sound and some of the zydeco feel and mixed it with rock 'n' roll."
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