Back on the Fourth of July, the New York Times ran a feature on Cajun musician Louis Michot. It wasn’t in the Arts section, though. It was in Home & Garden, of all places.
The story (read it here) was about the house singer-fiddler Michot had built five years ago outside the small town of Arnaudville, on the southwestern Louisiana prairies. Some of the house, in fact, was made from materials Michot took straight out of the bayous, particularly the 600 pounds of Spanish moss he hauled off the plentiful oak trees to mix with mud for one of the walls, a technique called bousillage that had largely been out of practice since the late 1800s. There was no one to teach him, he and some Cajun cohorts just figured it out, looking at the traditions. Not that he has any interest in living like his ancestors did.
“Their home is like a piece of folk art,” the Times story said, “that also happens to have air-conditioning and Wi-Fi.”
You could almost say the same about the music Michot’s been making with his band, the Lost Bayou Ramblers, on its recent album Mammoth Waltz, in music for the fantastical movie Beasts of the Southern Wild and in boisterously dynamic concerts — as will be seen and heard at the L.A. club the Mint on Monday, Dec. 3.
“Been an amazing journey,” he says. “In that article I’m talking about that stuff, the mixture of old and new, parallel creations. Best of the old and best of the new I could find, and make my own home and the band and all that. Really, Mammoth is a tangible representation of that. An amazing journey.”
On the moss-and-mud side of the equation, Mammoth has tunes and traditions going back as far as the building technique, learned at the feet of rural masters. Opening song “La Réveil de la Louisiane” goes back a couple of centuries and was learned from a local French-speaking Cajun. And a “La Jolie Fille N’En Veut Plus Moi” comes from the traditional Cajun repertoire.
On the wi-fi side, in both these and original tunes (plus a fantastic version of French-Canadian musician-producer Daniel Lanois’ “O Marie”), there is a stunningly imaginative, uh, re-imagination of these traditions. Oh, and there are a couple of decidedly non-traditional guest stars: Violent Femmes’ Gordon Gano (who throws in a little throat-singing) and, get this, actress-singer Scarlett Johansson. (See the "making of" video below.)
“She approached us,” he says. “I lie.”
The truth is that Johansson came to be on this via Korey Richey, the album’s visionary producer and, for a stretch, the band’s bassist. (The version currently touring is a compact, raucous four-piece.) He’d been the engineer on the actress’ sessions a few years ago when she took over Dockside Studios in Maurice, Louisiana to make her album of Tom Waits covers and asked her to help out on this, he and Michot flying to L.A. to record her.
All that only hints at the achievement of the album, though. It may not be the most startlingly and appealingly innovative album to come out of Louisiana this year — that honor goes to Dr. John’s Locked Down, with its Ethiopia-meets-New Orleans grooves under the production guidance of the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach. But it’s mighty close.
That opening song “La Réveil de la Louisiane” — which, for that matter, features Dr. John guesting on organ, plus vocals by French actress Nora Arnezeder — gets right to the old/new meld, reaching back even further than the house-building techniques.
“Buried in time,” Michot says of the song. “Learned it from a substitute teacher when my wife taught. Old man, spoke French, sang this song all the time. I went to his house, amazing. Came to find that it was written in New Orleans. I though it was written in France. Was right after the ‘Marseille,’ resulting from the Bastille. We didn’t know about that until later. But it relates to the Bastille and about that time. And about our modern time with the [Deep Water Horizon] oil spill. That song was about the Bastille and could have been about the oil spill.”
He translates a line from the song: “Miss your sunken land, Louisiana. Hold your proud head up.”
Right there it’s clear that this is a whole new approach to Cajun traditions, a step ahead/beyond from the various rock, Afro-Caribbean, jazz and other infusions that have brought the French Acadian descendants’ music into modern settings via BeauSoleil, Wayne Toups and a number of others through the last few decades. It’s a big advancement for the band as well, maybe along the lines of Los Lobos redefining its range with Kiko 20 years ago or, dare we say, U2 reaching for new sonic textures with The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree — which may be the bold point of doing the Lanois song, given that he co-produced those U2 sessions.
In any case, the Ramblers were already a great band, evolving from the resurgence of Cajun music among their region’s youth. But on their previous albums, 2005‘s Bayou Perdu 2007‘s live Á La Blue Moon (nominated for the Cajun-Zydeco Grammy Award) and 2008’s Vermillionaire, they played it relatively straight, Michot and his accordionist brother Andre leading the way through Cajun two-steps and waltzes.
But last year they showed their creative muscle with contributions to the Michot-produced En Français, a set of classic rock songs — sung, as the title implies, in Louisiana French, by various Cajun and Creole artists in ways far transcending gimmick or novelty. The Ramblers open it with a rousing take on, as it says on the cover, “Ma Génération.” (A Vol. 2, like the first done in conjunction with the the new Bayou Tech Biere brewery and the Lafayette Visitors Commission, has just been released.) And the band's contributions to the Beasts of the Southern Wild score fully match the unreality/hyperreality of the movie's story and visuals.
Even against that, the new album is a radical shift.
The Acadiana community, though, doesn’t seem the least bit fazed.
“Honestly, I’ve only had a couple of negative comments about the album, and they’ve come from elsewhere,” he says. “One hate mail said it’s a bunch of noise in a tomato can and he’d rather listen to his dog barking outside. Either from Quebec or Belgium, can’t figure it out. But the locals love it. We thought people would like it, but the wanted it, wanted something new, our the ordinary, the feeling. That’s why we made it for ourselves.”