Fifty years ago, Louisiana’s mainstream music scene was exploding with jazz, classical, Delta blues and swing.
But in Lafayette, a young Michael Doucet grew up with a different sound. He lived in an isolated Acadian community, descended from the 17th-century French colonists who settled in Acadia—a colony located in what is now Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward.
They became known as the Cajuns. They had their own lifestyle and their own language. They had their own music. And by the 1960s, Western pop-radio waves were washing away its traditional roots.
Mr. Doucet saw what was happening. He decided to put a stop to it.
“I was really fortunate because some of the great masters who were originally recording Cajun music in the late ’20s, early ’30s were still alive,” the musician said last week during a telephone interview from his home in Louisiana. “I had the chance to knock on their door and ask about the music and learn their tunes. That’s the music that interested me. All the influence I needed was all there in Louisiana. I didn’t have to go anyplace else.”
The fiddler and front man formed BeauSoleil avec Michael Doucet—a six-piece Cajun-style band, with a twist—and revitalized the traditional music. Tapping into musical resources all around him, he took the band on the road 37 years ago.
Twenty-five studio albums and two Grammy Awards later—the first, in 1998, to ever go to a Cajun band—BeauSoleil shows no signs of hanging up its instruments. From two-steps, waltzes and contra to Caribbean music, gospel and jazz, the band members haven’t crafted a set list in 35 years.
“Whatever you want, we’ll do it,” Mr. Doucet laughed. “In our own way, of course.”
BeauSoleil avec Michael Doucet will return to the East End on Friday, September 27, to headline the third annual Sag Harbor American Music Festival, a day-long concert series featuring more than 20 free live performances at various locations in the village, preceded by a kickoff concert at Old Whalers’ Church in Sag Harbor. New this year is the Off-Main Stage—an outdoor venue next to the American Hotel that will feature performances by the HooDoo Loungers, Soul/Jazz Train Express with Randy Brecker and Gene Casey & the Lone Sharks.
“Every half hour, something new is starting,” festival founder Kelly Connaughton explained last week during a telephone interview. “If you wanted, you could catch a half hour of almost every single thing that is happening. We’d like to expand someday, but for now, we’re keeping it simple with that one day of free music. It’s great to see the streets packed with people and smiles. We’re celebrating the community. And we’re celebrating music.”
At 11 a.m. sharp, Escola de Samba BOOM will flood downtown Sag Harbor on Saturday with its 30-piece percussion band by the Windmill—the official kick-off to the festival since year one.
“It’s a really great call to action,” Ms. Connaughton said. “If you’re not aware the American Music Fest is happening at that point, it wakes you up and lets you know, ‘Come down to the village.’”
Every half hour going forward, a new genre of music will hit Main Street and beyond—whether it’s rock, reggae, ska, African, cabaret, jazz, folk, classical, singer/songwriter, Latin fusion, country or the blues, brought to GeekHampton at 5 p.m. by East Hampton High School alum Jake Lear, who recently moved back into town after stints in Binghamton, New York; Austin, Texas; and Memphis, Tennessee.
Because his band is still based in Memphis, Mr. Lear will be playing a solo show, primarily converting tracks off his newest record, “Diamonds & Stones,” into a one-man acoustic and electric guitar set.
“I’ve always been drawn to blues music,” Mr. Lear said last week during a telephone interview. “Growing up in Vermont, both my parents had a pretty extensive collection of records, so I listened to a lot of that. Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf. I pretty much started playing it from the beginning. It’s all I’ve ever played.”
As a young musician, Mr. Doucet knew only what surrounded him, as well. Everyone spoke French and everyone played Cajun music, he said, and by age 12, he was proficient on banjo, guitar and fiddle.
It wasn’t until he graduated from high school in the late 1960s that he realized his culture was disappearing—taking the music and stories he held dear with it.
“That’s the thing that really, I guess, turned me around,” he said. “When one of the elder generations passed away, so did everything they knew. It was more than music. It was a way of life. I took it for granted, as always being there.”
One year before BeauSoleil was founded, Mr. Doucet played a French music festival in 1974. When he boarded the plane, he never expected to stay across the Atlantic for six months.
His interest in Cajun music was personal, he said. But when he saw the folk revival with his own eyes in France, he realized it was broader than he imagined. Upon returning to America, he decided to take his ancestors’ music across the country—but on his own terms.
This was not country-western music or California-influenced Cajun. They were the first band to perform in all 50 states in a foreign language and convince people they were listening to American music, he said.
“We were in Louisiana before Louisiana became a state,” he said. “That’s pretty Americana, if you ask me.”
The third annual Sag Harbor American Music Festival will kick off with a performance by BeauSoleil avec Michael Doucet on Friday, September 27, at 8 p.m. at Old Whalers’ Church in Sag Harbor. Tickets are $25. A free, day-long concert series, featuring more than 20 acts, will be held on Saturday, September 28, from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. at various locations in the village. In the event of rain, alternative locations will be available for all outdoor performances. A $10 ticket buys admission to Saturday night’s after-party, featuring Joe Delia & Thieves and the Dan Bailey Tribe, from 9 to 11 p.m. at Bay Street Theatre. For more information, visit sagharbormusic.org.