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

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.”

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.

Lake Martin (Photo: Ezra Istre)

Jillian Johnson: An appreciation

No sooner had President Obama told the BBC that his failure to pass “common sense gun safety laws” has been the greatest frustration of his presidency, the TV news outlets were stuck on the latest episode of what is so wrongly called “senseless” gun violence. After all, when anybody can get a gun, it makes all the sense in the world that sickos will use them indiscriminately, if not with discrimination.

“If you look at the number of Americans killed since 9/11 by terrorism, it’s less than 100. If you look at the number that have been killed by gun violence, it’s in the tens of thousands,” Obama said, before he had the chance to add two more victims to the tally. Of course, with those numbers and the every week if not every day frequency, it’s only a matter of time before a gun killing episode would hit close to home, if not home itself.

I knew it was my time as soon as I saw that last night’s killings took place in Lafayette, Louisiana, the heart of Acadiana–Cajun country. I used to go there once a year on my way to Eunice, to enjoy the gracious Cajun hospitality and traditions of dear friends Marc and Ann Savoy and their equally wonderful and talented children Sarah, Joel, Wilson and Gabrielle. Lafayette’s the biggest town in Acadiana, but small enough for anyone to know at least someone I know. In the case of Jillian Johnson, sadly, it was many.

“It’s sad that we have to lose someone and after they’re gone, we tell them how amazing and inspiring they were to us, words that they’ll never see or hear,” wrote Wilson Savoy on Facebook, about his friend Jillian, one of the two shot to death by the hate-filled lunatic at Lafayette’s Grand 16 movie theater. She was 33.

“I met Jillian in 2003 and she changed my life forever,” continued Wilson, a Cajun accordion whiz like his father, and a Grammy winner, with Wayne Toups and Steve Riley, for the album The Band Courtbouillon, which was released by his older brother Joel in 2011 on his Valcour Records label. “She inspired me more than anyone else in my younger years, and I wish I had told her what an amazing person she was before it was too late. Before her show last Saturday, before she jumped on stage with The Figs, we stood together on the side of the stage at Blue Moon and chatted all about the past and the future, about her grand plans for projects, renovations, exciting new stuff. Never a dull moment with Jillian. I never said it in the past, but I’ll say it now. Thank You Jillian. I love you.”

His mom Ann, a Cajun music historian and Grammy-nominated artist who performs with numerous bands and artists including Linda Rondstadt, the Magnolia Sisters, the Savoy Doucet Cajun Band and the Savoy Family Band, echoed him: “Yes if only I had seen her recently or if only I had told her more about how amazing she was, everyday…but she knew how we felt, I’m sadder without her existence…Wilson, that was so well said….” Later, on a burgeoning Remembering Jillian Johnson Facebook page, she added: “Of all the people in the world, why did this one truly astonishing young woman have to go? Brilliant photographer, artist, designer…fun and funny person…gorgeous…I love her so much…goodbye, young friend….”

Sister Sarah Dover Savoy Gonzales, a musician and cookbook author, now living in France, wrote, “Jillian? Don’t be hurt too badly. Please don’t be dead. I just woke up to this news. You’re the closest female friend I ever had.” Speaking to Wilson, she later posted: “We used to joke that she’d marry you…and we’d all live on a farm together.”

Brother Joel, who has also played in numerous bands including the Red Stick Ramblers, wrote: “Makes me think about the early days of the Red Stick Ramblers at LSU. How many times did we stand in front of Jillian Johnson’s camera playing music or goofing off. Her being gone now makes me realize how all those moments she captured are also long gone–the band, that goofy light-hearted easy friendship, busking on campus…. What Id give to stand in front of that camera again and pose for my friendly nemesis. Rest in Peace J”

And from Joel’s wife Kelli Jones-Savoy, currently on the road with the acclaimed progressive Cajun band Feufollet: “So sad and heartbroken to hear about the awful happenings in a city I love so much, and heartbroken to hear our loss of such an amazing woman. Jillian Johnson was an inspiration and a beautiful person. Sending love to everyone and wishing I wasn’t so far from home right now.”

According to New Orleans’ OffBeat Magazine, Jillian had come to Lafayette from Tennessee and embedded herself in the local music scene. She did promotional work for bands including the Red Sticks, documented Acadiana’s music and formed a wonderful old-timey, all-female string band, The Figs–which I’m sure I saw. She was a big supporter of leauxcal music and businesses and owned two of them, the design and apparel stores Parish Ink and The Red Arrow Workshop. Her motto was “Be nice, do good work, try hard, listen, love.”

On Facebook, director/writer Tom Krueger, who made the 2007 Red Stick Ramblers “Made in the Shade” video, wrote: “So random, senseless, and devastating. What a huge loss. One of our dearest and brightest. Jillian was a huge part of why I moved to Lafayette. I’ll never forget the moment I met her, at Festivals Acadiens, just so full of life, joy, and style. Then, this person I hardly knew, jumped head first into the making of the Red Stick Ramblers video, organizing all the costumes and extras and so much more. I thought, if this community is filled with people like her, I want to live here. So, I did. Since that time I would come to know one of the most creative and interesting forces in Lafayette, not to mention our extended community, around the country and beyond. What an amazing and beautiful woman. She will be greatly missed.”

Krueger concluded: “It makes you realize the need to reach out to those we love and show them so, and reach out to those who are so full of hate and just try to show them another way…Every day. Every moment. We will love you always and miss you so much, Jillian. xoxox”