The Music Box Village is an unlikely habitat for a Cajun band. The surreal shantytown, with structures built from salvaged materials that function as improvised instruments, is the ultimate manifestation of Bywater’s outsider arts community.
But the Lost Bayou Ramblers are not their grandfathers’ — or even their fathers' — Cajun band.
Led by 38-year-old fiddler Louis Michot and his accordionist brother, Andre, the Ramblers are rooted in tradition but progressive by nature. As evidenced by their current, eighth album, “Kalenda,” with its electronic percussion and other contemporary flourishes, they are unafraid of innovation.
“We’re born and bred in the tradition,” Louis Michot said recently. “But over the years we’ve gotten comfortable enough, and accomplished enough in the tradition, to start experimenting.”
Case in point: Their relationship with the Music Box Village dates to its temporary location in City Park. A year ago, they staged the show “The Birth of Cajun” in the permanent Village at 4557 N. Rampart St., tucked alongside the Industrial Canal and the approach to the St. Claude Avenue bridge. They took full advantage of the Music Box’s sonic possibilities.
“We love to collaborate, try new things and work with different elements,” Michot said. “The Music Box is the perfect venue for us.”
They return for two shows this weekend based on “Kalenda,” which is nominated for a Grammy Award as best regional roots music album. The performances, originally scheduled for Friday, have been rescheduled for Saturday (Dec. 9).
The roster of guest musicians is indicative of their open-minded approach: Spider Stacy of the Pogues, Haitian-American cellist Leyla McCalla, Jimmy Horn of garage R&B band King James & the Special Men, southwest Louisiana saxophonist Dickie Landry and Jim Sclavunos of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds.
Show times are 6:30 and 8:30 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are $20 in advance, $25 at the door.
Louis and Andre Michot are the only Ramblers who don’t reside in New Orleans full time. Michot lives in Arnaudville, a one-stoplight town along Bayou Teche northeast of Lafayette. He built his house himself, a process chronicled by a 2012 New York Times story. Soon to be a father for the third time, he’s unlikely to uproot his family any time soon.
But he’s often in New Orleans, on tour, or seeking fresh inspiration in the hidden corners of Acadiana. Early field recordings, old records and oral histories have led him to long-forgotten Cajun rhythms beyond the familiar two-steps and waltzes. He's “learned from a lot of different sources.”
Fiddle, accordion and French lyrics are still the foundation of the Ramblers’ music. “We’re definitely a Cajun band. You can’t argue with that.”
But to Michot and his bandmates, traditional music is about “being in a genre that is specific, but collaborating with people outside the genre, and playing to markets outside the genre.”
They still perform at Cajun music festivals in Louisiana, but are often the only Cajun band on the bill at festivals and clubs elsewhere. Michot even logged a residency at The Stone, a performance space in New York’s East Village founded by avant-garde composer John Zorn.
“I’m pretty sure I was the first Cajun artist to do that,” Michot said. “People appreciate us for the music we play, not the genre we play in. We allow ourselves to bring in new elements without censoring ourselves. That’s how traditions grow. The people that made our traditions were innovators, not imitators.”
One catalyst for the Ramblers’ experimentation is producer Korey Richey, a native of tiny Egan who cut his teeth at Dockside Studio in Maurice. More recently, he’s engineered Arcade Fire albums, and is a touring member of LCD Soundsystem.
Richey produced the Ramblers’ 2012 album “Mammoth Waltz” as well as “Kalenda,” introducing drum pads and other electronic elements not typical to Cajun music.
“It’s organic, because it came from Korey performing with us,” Michot said. Like the Ramblers, “he’s from south Louisiana, Cajun by nature, but also turned on to all kinds of music.”
“Mammoth Waltz” resulted from a long, complex recording process. “Kalenda” was more streamlined: a writing session in New York, followed by two brief recording sessions in southwest Louisiana.
The process was simple, but the music isn’t.
“All the cultures that come together to make us who we are — that’s what ‘Kalenda’ celebrates,” Michot said. “The complexity of Louisiana culture.”
The terms “Cajun” and “Creole” have come to mean “white” and “black,” respectively, but as Michot makes clear, the Louisiana melting pot is far more intermingled than such oversimplified labels suggest.
“We’re a Cajun band, but we’re not all that Cajun in the strictest aspect of the word. ‘Michot’ is a Creole name.
“That’s the beauty of being from Louisiana. There’s so much depth. You can dig and dig and still not get to the bottom. And we love to dig.”
Note: This story has been updated to reflect a change in the date for the performances at the Music Box Village.