Paul “Bird” Edwards, who is pictured playing the scrubboard, leads a major jam session with fellow musicians and students during one of his percussion classes during Dewey Balfa Cajun and Creole Heritage Week at Chicot State Park. The Cajun French musician was one of several instructors for the week long camp where people from all over the world traveled to for the purpose of getting up close and personal with this Louisiana genre of music. (Gazette photo by Elizabeth West)
Fiddlin’ around Chicot
For the last week, people from all over the world have gathered at Chicot State Park to experience Le Grand Hoorah. The event showcases the sounds of French music while the aroma of Cajun cooking lingers in the air.
People from places such as New Zealand, London, Canada and France also voyaged to the park to get up close and personal with Cajun music as students of Balfa Week - coordinated in conjunction with Le Grand Hoorah.
The camp is one that Gilbert “Winky” Aucoin, with Prairie Heritage, Inc., said “can’t be described. It is something you have to experience yourself to understand just how amazing the camp is and why people from all over keep coming back.”
During the camp, students are able to sit with some of the best Cajun musicians today, including Dennis Stroughmatt, Chris Miller and Paul “Bird” Edwards for one-on-one or group lessons. With different instructors, students for the past week have been able to learn how to play a variety of Cajun French music on instruments such as the fiddle, accordion, guitar and triangle.
These music classes, which take place at the secluded group cabin at Chicot State Park all day long, provide students with the opportunity to watch Cajun musicians play and interact with instructors. Students can also play along with their teachers creating major jam sessions that could consist of 15 people or more.
A musician visiting Bird’s class would experience a lesson in percussion. The self taught musician first began to learn how to play music on a five-gallon drum with pecan tree branches. After growing up around Zydeco, later in life Bird asked his musician friend Geno Delafose to show him how to play rubboard (scrubboard).
At the music camp, Bird brings the skill he taught himself and what he learned from his buddy to students who are eager to learn Louisiana’s treasured music.
Bird, who is a seasoned instructor, says he keeps coming back to the camp to teach because of his desire to share this beloved genre of music with people from all over.
“I’ve been comin’ to this for quite a while,” said Bird. “And, I keep comin’ back ‘cause its all about helpin’ people learn our culture and music. And right here is the best place to learn our music. Ain’t no better place than home.”
Just like Bird, who continues to come back as an instructor for the camp, there are also students who can’t stay away.
Miriam Hogan, who is from London, traveled to Louisiana this year for her second Dewey Balfa Week experience. This was however the first time Hogan took part in the camp at Chicot State Park. Hogan, who learned about the camp from her father, said she came back to the camp for a second time because she “loves the music, and because you get to play, learn, jam and dance.”
Hogan said, “Everything you need is right here and you get to meet fellow enthusiasts. It’s all here for you.”
For every seasoned student however, there are those who are first timers like Fliss Premru, who experienced her first Dewey Balfa Week this year with her daughter.
Premru, who is also from London where she plays in an all female British Cajun band, first discovered Cajun French music in the late 80’s or early 90’s when a few Cajun bands voyaged across the Atlantic to share their unique music.
Premru said, “When those bands came over they inspired people with their music because people had never heard that before. After that, slowly you started to see Cajun bands pop up in different areas.”
According to the London native, her first trip to Louisiana and the Dewey Balfa Cajun and Creole Heritage Week has “been amazing.”
“Along with the music,” Premru said, “the plethora (large or excessive amount) of wildlife and the friendliness of the people has also made this experience unforgettable.”
As the week long camp neared its end, Premru, who plays fiddle, said, “The camp has been really enjoyable and I would love to get to do it again one day.”
To close out the camp, the instructors and students formed several bands. Each band, which came up with its own name like Les Betailles de Chicot (The Chicot Bugs), took to the main stage on Thursday where they showcased what they learned during Dewey Balfa Week.
This is one of Chris Miller’s favorite parts about the camp because you are able to end the camp witnessing the Cajun French culture spread and thrive.
Miller said, “The thing I like about the bands is that after camp is over everybody takes what they’ve learned back to their own communities all over the world and they’ve learned it from the source. That’s how a culture spreads and thrives.”