Lafayette, La.-based folklorist Moriah Istre’s ambitious eight-year documentary project, First Cousins: Cajun and Creole Music in South Louisiana, is almost finished.
The 51-minute film only needs final editing, promotion and distribution, the costs for which will be sought via a GoFundMe campaign commencing shortly. Meanwhile, Istre is holding a “FUNdraiser/Unveiling” Aug. 4—appropriately at Lafayette’s 23-acre Vermilionville museum/folklife park, which showcases the regional Acadian, Native American and Creole culture of 1765-1890.
The First Cousins movie trailer and its forthcoming DVD cover artwork will be shown for the first time at the Vermilionville event.
“We’re really excited about the First Cousins Film FUNdraiser and Unveiling, because the audience there will be the very first to view the trailer, watch artist Tony Bernard unveil his DVD cover artwork, and enjoy music by [Zydeco great] Geno Delafose and French Rockin’ Boogie–with special guest Goldman Thibodeaux,” says Istre, who directed and produced the film with her sister Elista Istre acting as assistant director and historian. The sisters both earned doctorates in Arkansas State University’s Heritage Studies Ph.D. Program in Jonesboro, during which they were heavily involved in the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home restoration project in the nearby farm community of Dyess.
“In a time of national crisis where cities are being torn apart by violence, we are fortunate to be in a place where we can stand together and celebrate our similarities instead of criticizing our differences,” notes Elista, who like her sister hails from Lafayette. “As Cajuns and Creoles, we are family. We stand united as family in celebration of the rich cultural heritage we share. Regardless of how we came to Louisiana, whether through the historical [Cajun] Acadian Exile or the [Creole] African Diaspora, we are here now. We made the best of what we had to work with and we have thrived for the last three centuries. We are, in fact, ‘First Cousins.’”
First Cousins: Cajun and Creole Music in South Louisiana, then, explores the rich, interrelated musical traditions of the region’s French-speaking peoples, which traces back to Africa, Europe and French Canada over the past 300 years.
“A little too distant for siblings, these communities and their music are surely related enough to be considered first cousins,” explains Moriah, echoing her sister. “Our Cajun and Creole ancestors did not choose Louisiana. Forced here by tragedy, either through the Acadian Exile or the African Diaspora, they made this place home: They made the best of what they had, and here we are today because of them–and very proud of who we are.”
Adds Elista: “We are all part of the same family tree. Many of us are Cajuns or Creoles or a mixture of both, and our music reflects our shared heritage.”
The featured musicians in First Cousins are Delafose, Jeffery Broussard, Rockin’ Dopsie, Jr., Thomas “Big Hat” Fields, Terry Huval, D.L. Menard, Steve Riley, Wayne Toups, Cedric Watson, Lil’ Nathan Williams, Nathan Williams, Sr. and Creole accordion player Goldman Thibodeaux—Moriah’s “adopted papaw [grandfather],” who turns 84 on Aug. 5, the day after the Vermilionville event.
“He’s the most gentle soul you’ll ever meet, and I’m in constant communication with him,” says Moriah, “and he’s the last living legend playing ‘La La music’–the roots of modern day Zydeco. I’d visit him all the time in Lawtell—where he lives—and one day he told me, ‘Cajun and Creole music are cousins,’ and I said, ‘Well, Papaw, you just named the film!’”
Thibodeaux was actually the reason Moriah pursued her doctorate, in addition to being the inspiration for the documentary.
“He told stories about when he was a kid and seeing Amadie Ardoin play at house parties—and it blew my mind!” she continues, invoking the pioneering Creole accordionist, who recorded in the 1920s and ‘30s. “I felt I’d be selfish if I kept it all to myself, because he’s the only one around who remembers it—and there aren’t many living legends left.”
But First Cousins, Moriah adds, “turns into something a lot bigger.”
“My initial goal was to get Papaw’s stories on film. Using a tape recorder is one thing, but film reaches a bigger audience. It grew into a really cool film that not only describes the history of Cajun and Creole music, but provides the context for both music genres in a different way than other films: We really wanted to address not just the Acadian story but the African Diaspora.”
And again echoing Elista, Moriah observes that First Cousins is “being released at a time when the country is being torn apart by violence and racial animosity. With the film title and the fundraiser, we’ll definitely be celebrating our similarities and not criticizing our differences!”
The Vermilionville event was chosen specifically to coincide with Thibodeaux’s birthday, and will also involve merchandise for sale, a silent auction and sponsorshiop opportunities. It will be followed by the First Cousins premiere on Oct. 13 at Angelle Hall on the University of Louisiana campus in Lafayette.