Lafayette fundraiser set to complete ambitious ‘First Cousins’ Cajun/Creole music docu

Moriah
Courtesy of First Cousins Film

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.”

MoriahDL
D.L. Menard (Photo courtesy of First Cousins Film)

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.

MoriahLakeMartin
Lake Martin (Photo: Ezra Istre)

The truth behind my Top 10

I first heard Rosanne Cash’s magnificent The River & The Thread over a year ago, and if I remember correctly, immediately tweeted that even though 2014 was still a ways away, I already had my No. 1 Album of the Year. That it didn’t turn out that way says less about The River & The Thread than it does about my admittedly bogus methodology in choosing Top 10 Albums of the Year.

But really, what does it mean, Album of the Year? The best album of the year? Who’s to say? By what criteria? Or put it this way: Does the Grammy Award for Album of the Year mean that the award winner actually was the best album of the year?

I’ll let you answer that. As for me, and probably others who put these inane lists together, they’re a combination of favorite albums and those by artists that need a break to get heard in the morass of commercially-released and corporate-supported music. In my case, in general, both are the same, with Cash’s being one of the few that has major distribution.

Back when I was at Billboard, we actually included singles, videos, concerts and events in our Top 10 lists, and often went with ties to squeeze in more than 10. Purists would surely call it a cop-out, but I think my late pal, Billboard editor-in-chief Tim White, once crammed in 12 or 13 titles one year.

This year I was tempted to go the tie route more than once, especially because of Rosanne, and particularly because of Carlene Carter.

How ironic that Carlene, who grew up with Rosanne’s father Johnny Cash after he married her mother June Carter, would come out with her own career album just a few months after Rosanne—with Carter Girl kind of being her The List. This presented a huge problem for me in that I wrote the Carter Girl liner notes for my old and dear friend Carlene—but my old and dear friend Rosanne had thanked me a few years ago on a CD compilation. I’m sure they’d both hate me if I copped out and tied them at No. 1, and I was tempted to go the alphabetical route and put Carlene ahead of Rosanne, except that Rosanne’s album was entirely original, while Carlene’s had several beautifully done covers.

Luckily, NRBQ’s Brass Tacks came out, offering me my own plausible out of the sticky situation. Here’s where the wanting to give deserving artists a break part comes in: NRBQ remains perhaps the greatest under-appreciated band in rock ‘n’ roll history. Founded in the late 1960s, it’s still led by Terry Adams, who’s overcome throat cancer and band personnel changes and needs and deserves the recognition that Rosanne and Carlene already have.

But then came Jimmy Liban. A dear friend from Milwaukee, Jimmy is one of the all-time great blues harmonica players/singers/songwriters, but you probably only know that if you’re a blues fan. He was one of the artists I wrote about the most when I started writing in Madison, Wis. in the late ’70s; that he never achieved household name status remains one of my biggest career regrets. When I listened to I Say What I Mean, his first album in decades, produced and recorded by his former guitarist Joel Paterson, it was clear that this had to be my No. 1.

But it could easily have been Cajun country star Jo-El Sonnier’s The Legacy, or Doug Kershaw & Steve Riley’s Face to Face, both magnificent returns to traditional Cajun music form by two of the most important artists in the genre–and my career: I actually became a writer in order to meet Doug at a rock festival in Oshkosh, Wis., having just met Jo-El on my first trip to Nashville. Doug’s then latest album featured Jo-El’s “Cajun Born.” I was a huge fan of both.

That leaves Maura Moynihan’s Bombay Superstar—a Bollywood inspired pop/dance/techno delight; Lake Street Dive’s Bad Self Portraits, which was even better than its auspicious 2010 self-titled debut; and Thompson’s Family, Teddy Thompson’s perfectly realized compilation of new songs and performances by his esteemed family members. Any and all of these Top Nine albums could just as credibly been No. 1 in any other year.

My No. 10, AC/DC’s Rock or Bust, would seem to be the only filler title here, though it’s a most excellent album. But I probably would have replaced it with one of several albums I discovered after making this list originally for the Village Voice, then making another of strictly country/Americana/folk/bluegrass titles for Nashville Scene.

I really hadn’t received or listened to a lot of country-related albums this year, due to having fallen off so many lists in the time since I was with Billboard. Thankfully, the Scene sends along several lists of relevant titles that are eligible for consideration, and I was able to stream Laura Cantrell’s No Way From Here, The Isaacs’ The Living Years, Nickel Creek’s A Dotted Line, Jim Lauderdale’s Patchwork River and Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives’ Saturday Night/Sunday Morning—all superb.

At least Joel Paterson was pleased by Rock or Bust.

“Thanks so much, Jim,” he messaged. “And an honor to be on a list with AC/DC!”