I can think of no better way to mark the holidays -- particularly given this cold snap of late -- than with a bit of Southern seasonal sunshine. It comes courtesy of Michael Doucet and his acclaimed band BeauSoleil, who perform Cajun Christmas music December 15 at Yoshi's in Oakland.
It happened to be December when I interviewed Doucet a few years back. The BeauSoleil founder-fiddler was off the road and preparing for the holidays at his home just south of Lafayette, La.
"It's kind of a lazy day," he told me.
Which made it ideal for a rambling interview, one touching not only on BeauSoleil's music but the Cajun culture it represents. For instance, I asked, how do they celebrate the holidays in Lafayette Parish?
"Well, for my generation, we don't have any gifts or anything like that (on Christmas). That happens on New Year's Eve," Doucet said. "It's essentially a time for people to get together as they would anywhere. It's another excuse to eat."
Which reminded Doucet he needed to get down to Hebert's Meat Market next to the Wal-Mart and order his turducken. Turducken is a favorite down there -- a turkey stuffed with a duckling stuffed with a chicken. Spice to taste and cook for 13 hours at 190 degrees.
"It's amazing," he said. "This guy down here kind of invented this thing and he can't even keep them in stock. There are incredible cooks down here. That's one of the things we have."
Doucet unraveled the mysteries of turducken with the measured patience of a man accustomed to explaining Cajun culture to curious outsiders. It's a mission he took up 40 years ago, at a time when Cajun music and its African-American offshoot, zydeco, had
few followers outside Louisiana.
Even within the bayou state, Cajun was hardly a household word. Doucet said he rarely heard the term growing up in Scott, a small town just west of Lafayette, and noted it was only through the cultural-identity movements of the 1960s and '70s that Louisiana's Cajun population began fighting to preserve its French-Canadian traditions.
The adolescent Doucet also was influenced by a wide range of music in that period -- "we grew up with rock, with jazz, with blues, with swing" -- but none truly captivated him. He eventually found fulfillment in those turbulent times by embracing the traditional past. Doucet realized his native culture and music were more "real" to him than anything contemporary America had to offer.
"Basically, I just looked at my background," he said. "We had unsung heroes who had perpetuated our culture. It was just a real thing and that made sense for me."
It would take an early '70s trip to France, where he heard French musicians performing traditional Cajun tunes, before Doucet understood the music's heritage and fully committed himself. He returned to Louisiana, ditched plans to earn a graduate degree in English Romantic poetry, and sought out Cajun music legends such as Dewey Balfa and Canray Fontenot.
"I got to sit side by side with some incredible musicians," Doucet said. "There's a sort of energy I obtained from that to continue this music."
Doucet played in Coteau, which blended rock with Cajun in the mid-'70s, before forming BeauSoleil. While critics hail it as "the world's greatest Cajun band," there was little acclaim and scant interest in the group's 1977 debut album, "The Spirit of Cajun Music."
"We were selling it just to people in Louisiana," Doucet said. "I put my home address and phone number on it. You knew everybody you sold the record to."
Dozens of albums later, BeauSoleil has played all over the world and collaborated with dobro ace Jerry Douglas and English rocker Richard Thompson. The group has appeared on "A Prairie Home Companion," has received multiple Grammy nominations and backed Mary-Chapin Carpenter, both in the studio and at the Super Bowl, on her hit, "Down at the Twist and Shout."
It's a long and impressive career but at this point Doucet appears unlikely to look back.
"I don't know what that's all about," Doucet said. "We have plenty of stuff to do. It's just trying to find the right avenue."
In the meantime, there is a healthy back catalog for the Cajun curious to sample, to say nothing of turducken.
"It's a lot of meat. So it is a very festive thing," Doucet said of the dish. "You'll love it."
Want to keep up with the best in Bay Area jazz and blues?
Subscribe to us: Have our jazz and blues Examiner columns sent to your inbox. Click the SUBSCRIBE button on this page. It's free. (And we won't spam you or give out your information.) Bookmark us: http://www.examiner.com/jazz-music-in-oakland/brian-mccoy. CONTACT ME FOR YOUR JAZZ AND ARTS GRANT WRITING NEEDS