L AFAYETTE — Festivals Acadiens et Créoles is only days away, and it’s shaping up to be a year not to miss.
The festival is celebrating a slew of anniversaries this year: the 80th anniversary of folklorists Alan and John Lomax visiting south Louisiana to record area artists, the 50th anniversary of Cajun music stepping on to the national stage the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island and the 40th anniversary of Festivals itself.
“It’s a symbol for the renaissance of pride in Cajun culture,” said Mark DeWitt, music professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. “It’s not the only one, but it’s an important one. It’s contributed to the continuation of French being heard in public.”
The three-day festival, which begins Friday, spreads out on stages and in tents at Girard Park, which will be packed with music, food, jam sessions and crafts.
The first festival performance kicks off after an official “cutting of the boudin” at 5 p.m. Friday, followed by a tribute to the legendary Cajun family band the Balfa Brothers.
But before the festival officially begins, there will be a daylong symposium Thursday in the Hamilton Hall Auditorium on the UL-Lafayette campus.
Tulane University professor and host of NPR’s “American Routes” Nick Spitzer will deliver the morning keynote address.
“He’s been involved with Louisiana culture for a long time,” DeWitt said. “He’s seen this festival grow over the years, so he’s going to talk about that.”
UL-Lafayette professor and Festivals co-founder Barry Jean Ancelet will deliver a Thursday afternoon talk of the history of the event.
Other panels are scheduled throughout the day, which closes with an evening performance featuring Beausoleil avec Michael Doucet, Kristi Guillory, Jeffrey Broussard and others at the Angelle Hall Auditorium on campus.
Doors open at 6 p.m., and the show is set to start at 7:30 p.m.
All the musicians have performed music drawn from the songs collected by John Lomax and his son Alan Lomax in their historic 1934 recording trip through Acadiana.
UL-Lafayette’s Center for Louisiana Studies has recently produced a commemorative CD of local folk songs recorded by the Lomaxes, paired with contemporary versions of those songs performed at Festivals in recent years.
Festivalgoers also can stop by an ongoing Festivals exhibit — “Visions of Tradition” — at the A. Hays Town Building at the Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum on campus.
“The exhibit is a visual portrayal of the festival, not only with photographs, but with posters, artwork — everything,” said photographer Philip Gould, who curated the exhibit.
Gould contacted area photographers and sifted through their work for the best of the best, creating a photo history of Festivals worthy of being called art.
From photos of a raised-fist Zachary Richard and a crown-clad Clifton Chenier to Dewey Balfa’s daughter Christine whispering in his ear and a young Steve Riley listening intently in the crowd, the exhibit is a must-see for any Cajun music fan.
“I hope people get to see the exhibit and get a sense of the festival over the years,” he said. “The thing I like about photography is that it always has a present-tense quality to it. You go through these photographs and these moments will always be there.”
Gould’s photography, as well as the work of other area photographers and artists, will be on display in the building until Sunday.
Ancelet, along with Dewey Balfa, created the Tribute to Cajun Music in 1974, the year Ancelet graduated from UL-Lafayette with a bachelor’s degree in French.
Lafayette’s festival had its roots in a trip by Dewey Balfa and other Cajun artists to perform in 1964 at the Newport Folk Festival, where Cajun music received such a warm reception that it inspired Balfa to “bring home the echo of the standing ovation” he received at the Rhode Island festival.
The exhibit, symposium and other special events for this year’s festival are meant to draw attention to a critical event for the local culture, DeWitt said.
“The purpose of these events is to make people more aware of the festival and how long it’s been going on,” he said. “We want to create some extra publicity around it for people who have not heard of the festival, so they’ll be interested in it for the next 40 years.”