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Gambit Weekly Sour Notes

By Michael Tisserand

NOVEMBER 10, 1997: 

"Tous les jours sont pas les memes choses. Mais tous les jours sont les memes merdes." ("Every day is not the same thing. But every day is the same shit.") -- Spoken one evening at Slim's Y-Ki-Ki in Opelousas

One summer afternoon at an outdoor fais do-do, I was reminded of just how socially complicated a Louisiana dance floor can be. The band was playing Nathan Abshire's "Pine Grove Blues," one of the bluesiest and most popular tunes in the Cajun repertoire -- and one that clearly reflects Abshire's influences from Amede Ardoin and other black Creoles. After the winded dancers cleared the floor, an older Cajun man was left standing next to me.

"Let the good times roll!" he exclaimed. "That's what it's all about!" I grinned back at him. Then he grabbed my hand and finished his thought: "And no-o-o niggers!"

Of course, racism exists in myriad forms throughout the nation. But on that day, it had offered me -- a white Northerner by birth, then living in Louisiana -- a handshake and a genial smile. Unfortunately, my experience is frequently shared by music fans who visit Louisiana. And in recent years, as "cultural tourism" becomes a buzzword in the travel industry, these incidents are increasing, occasionally resulting in major news stories.

I was reminded of my experience last September after learning of rumors flying around during Lafayette's Festivals Acadiens. Out-of-town fans were excited to hear that Geno Delafose would be appearing at a new club called the Sunset Saloon. His performance during the first day of the festival was widely considered the day's highlight, so anticipation was high. But word was circulating that the club was threatened by the Ku Klux Klan, and the gig was canceled.

Actually, no organized Klan threat had been made against the Sunset Saloon, and although Delafose was planning to perform four shows in the new club, nothing had ever been finalized. In fact, the Klan -- with its anti-Catholic views -- has historically had a limited appeal among Cajuns in Southwest Louisiana. But if overt Klan threats were never made, the facts of the story are no less unsettling.

"I don't take threats, I don't care who they come from," says Sunset Saloon owner Benny Bruno, speaking by phone from his bar. "If I would have received a threat, I would have filed a complaint, and it would be public knowledge at the courthouse, I promise you."

Bruno, a white native of New Orleans, acknowledges that he heard disturbing remarks following the September opening of the Sunset Saloon, which featured musician Zydeco Joe, but he is quick to downplay them.

"There was a comment made about white hoods, yes," he says, calling to mind traditional Klan clothing. "They did not use the words KKK, but they were referring to it. I felt like they suggested that they may have some dealings, or knew somebody that may have, or knew somebody that knew somebody."

Bruno adds that these were not people who claimed to be active Klan members. "They were young boys who were just probably talking out of their butt," he says. "It's stupid white folk, you understand? Ignorant people."

The building at the center of this story is a modest cinderblock structure that in its lifetime has served as a grocery store, a church and a health club. It sits beside the popular Rowena's meat market and grocer just outside the city limits of Sunset, a small town between Lafayette and Opelousas with a predominantly black population and a predominantly white government. Bruno opened the club last September with two partners, who have since left the business. He's staying on, but he admits that the location presents unique challenges.

"It's quite obvious that Sunset and [nearby] Grand Coteau have somewhat of a racial problem," he says. "There is a problem with blacks and whites in the same club. That's all there is to it."

Frances Haymark, a local white zydeco fan who had been looking forward to the Sunset Saloon's opening, had volunteered her services to Bruno as a contact for zydeco bands. She says that she first knew there were problems at the club when the opening night performer, Zydeco Joe, wasn't billed on the outside marquee, even though the next night's Cajun band was listed.

"They started having a problem with the word 'zydeco,'" she says, "because in Sunset, zydeco means black." Haymark had been encouraging Bruno to book zydeco bands at the Sunset Saloon, because Lafayette -- unlike New Orleans and Houston -- does not have a zydeco club that attracts a predominantly white clientele. "In Louisiana, there are white clubs and there are black clubs," she says. "And there aren't any white zydeco clubs. Well, we thought Sunset Saloon would be it."

If the racial dynamics of this situation are complicated, the history of Cajun and zydeco music is even more so. For the past century, black Creoles and white Cajuns have frequently performed side-by-side in the same bands, and the modern Cajun and zydeco styles have much in common, including the popular accordion and a repertoire of many shared songs. Yet dances remained segregated, both between blacks and whites and between dark- and light-skinned blacks.

Many older Creole musicians explain those days in a story about a musician who was hired to play a house dance. When he arrived, the owners were shocked to see that he was black -- or, in some versions of the tale, just how black he was. So he was told to put on white gloves, stand outside the house and play the accordion through the window. The moral of the story: they wanted his music, but they didn't want him.

Decades later, the enormous popularity of Clifton Chenier would have an enormous impact on the Louisiana and Texas music scene. Early in his career, Chenier played in segregated clubs, performing for whites in one room of the club one Saturday, then returning the following week to play on the other side for blacks. In the 1970s, he started performing for young white college students at Jay's Lounge in the town of Cankton, and he was a favorite among older whites at Cajun clubs such as the Sparkle Paradise in Bridge City, Texas.

"When [whites] first started going to the Sparkle Paradise, they didn't care for blacks too much," recalls Mabel Chenier, widow of scrubboard player Cleveland Chenier. "But Clifton said, 'If you want to hear me play, our women have to come in there."

The Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits places of public accommodation from discriminating against customers because of race, but some white dance clubs continued to find ways around the law. In 1994, the famed Breaux Bridge Cajun club La Poussiere made national headlines when it allegedly refused entrance to a black patron. According to case documents, a club employee reportedly told a black tourist that the Saturday night dance was a private party and turned her away.

The tourist, Zaldwaynaka Scott, was a federal prosecutor from Chicago. The FBI sent in black and white agents to pose as potential patrons, and the controversy was extensively covered by The New York Times and National Public Radio. It was quietly settled when the owners of La Poussiere signed a consent decree that included the posting of a sign stating that the club welcomes all visitors.

The events at La Poussiere were not isolated. A year later, a traditional Mardi Gras run in Eunice was charged with racism when a black tourist from Kentucky was reportedly told that "they hadn't had coloreds running Mardi Gras before, and they weren't about to start now."

Writer and radio deejay Herman Fuselier, who covers the Louisiana music scene in his "Bayou Boogie" column in the Opelousas newspaper The Daily World, first reported the story about the Mardi Gras incident.

"Eunice has always billed itself as a family-oriented event with everyone welcome," he says. "But all of a sudden, everyone showed up, and they didn't know what to do." In time, an apology was issued, and blacks have been encouraged to attend the event.

In Louisiana as elsewhere, de facto segregation often occurs when blacks and whites have differing music tastes, but it's an imperfect system. As a journalist who writes about both Cajun and zydeco, Fuselier is one of the few black Creoles he knows who is actively interested in visiting traditional Cajun clubs. He acknowledges that he has many Cajun friends, but he recalls a situation that developed after he met a musician during a jam session at a local music store. When Fuselier said he'd like to hear him play a club, he was advised against it.

"He was saying, 'I'd invite you to come with me, but the manager doesn't like blacks there, and some of the people would get mad about it,'" Fuselier says. "And you know, I didn't make anything of it. I said, 'Yeah, I understand.' But it always hurts. The Cajun myth has always been the joie de vivre, but certain events like the Eunice Mardi Gras and La Poussiere and some of my experiences show that racism is also part of the reality."

Given the growing popularity of zydeco, it's a reality that will likely continue to be tested in dance clubs and in small towns throughout Southwest Louisiana. In the early 1980s, oil prices plummeted just as national interest in rural Louisiana culture soared, and the local economy began turning more and more to what writer Octavio Paz calls "the industry without smokestacks." Music plays a central role in that industry, and a current ad campaign promises that "you can fais do-do to zydeco in Cajun Country." But when black and white visitors to Southwest Louisiana venture outside theme restaurants and living history museums, they may continue to unwittingly stumble across racial lines established by years of custom and once again confront the limits of "laissez les bons temps roulez."

In Sunset, Benny Bruno admits that he is concerned about the stories that have been circulating about his Sunset Saloon, and he wants to set the record straight.

"[Jay's Lounge] did have a reputation, and it was a good reputation," he says. "I would like this club just to build its own. I know it's going to take time. I would be lying to you if I said I didn't feel nervous about the situation around here myself.

"I don't like it, and I am concerned about it. But I don't think it's anything that we can't overcome, that's for sure. All walks of life are welcome here, and it's going to stay that way. I am going to have a honky-tonk that features a variety of music, including zydeco."

Indeed, that would be a new page in the history of this diverse culture.

Michael Tisserand, a former associate editor at Gambit Weekly, currently lives in Madison, Wis. His book The Kingdom of Zydeco will be published next spring by Arcade Publishing.

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