For a week this year in Lafayette’s Vermilionville Living History & Folklife Park, the sounds and sights of historic Acadiana will come back to life — the chatter of French as several friends talk in the yard while nearby a ragtag gang gathers on a front porch, playing the fiddle, accordion, washboard or any other instrument they can get their hands on.
And while the band plays, spectators watch or join in — soaking up the knowledge of how to play this song or that one.
So goes Louisiana Folk Roots’ annual Dewey Balfa Cajun and Creole Heritage Week, a culturally immersive, week long camp that kicked off its first full day Sunday of teaching participants traditional Cajun and Creole music, dances and dishes. The event, which was first held in 2001 in Lake Fausse Pointe State Park before moving to Chicot State Park and then to Vermilionville in 2014, will continue until Thursday.
The purpose of the event, founded by Christine Balfa, the daughter of Louisiana fiddler Dewey Balfa (the event’s namesake who helped bring popularity to Cajun music), is to bring together people from all over, both instructors and those wishing to learn, for an interactive learning experience reminiscent of old times.
“In the modern world, we’re able to make things a little easier and bring all these artists together and bring all these learners,” said Todd Mouton, Louisiana Folk Roots executive director, “and we’re able to not only put the fiddle players, accordion players, guitar players and instructors together but the culinary instructors, the dance instructors, the vocal instructors, and what you get is kind of a structured program for a very unstructured culture.”
Mouton mentioned the old way for Cajuns to learn — sitting “knee to knee” with someone while they would watch and repeat what the teacher would play or do — is made easier with modern technology and an event like Balfa Week where everyone can gather in one area.
The event brought people from around the world, including China, England, Alaska and Hawaii, to learn from local greats like Sam Broussard, Preston Frank, Steve Riley, Ed Poullard and David Greely, offering beginner, intermediate and advanced lessons on the accordion, fiddle and guitar.
Vermilionville director David Cheramie said events like Balfa Week as well as living history museums like Vermilionville help keep the Cajun and Creole culture alive.
“Technology and life has changed so much over the years — nobody’s learning the two-step at grandma’s kitchen table anymore because grandma’s out somewhere at the casino or maybe jetting off to Las Vegas or who knows where — but we still try to keep our traditions alive here,” Cheramie said.
Local restaurants also will teach classes throughout the week on how to cook local favorites like king cake, barbecue shrimp and rice and gravy. And later in the week, classes will be held on both zydeco and Cajun dancing.
Mouton said the event sees people from all across the spectrum, from those who are just learning about Cajun and Creole culture to locals both young and old. The biggest goal of the event, he said, is to be a connection for all of these people to come together and learn from one another.
“It’s really designed to be a connection point for everybody no matter where you started, where you’re headed, where you are in your journey, and I think the thing that we see the most is that there are some lasting truths at the bottom of these cultural expressions, and that’s what people want to connect to and experience,” Mouton said.