Musicians — who depend on live audiences as much as they do — have been especially hard hit by the pandemic. Perhaps nowhere has this been felt more acutely than in South Louisiana, where music lies at the heart of Cajun culture.
They still gather on Saturday mornings at Marc Savoy’s music store in the town of Eunice amid the rice fields and crawfish farms in what’s called Cajun prairie country. Musicians pull chairs into a circle — outside now because of the virus — to play the Acadian French ballads they learned from their grandparents.
But the jam sessions have been diminished since four aged musicians — two fiddlers, a guitarist and a harmonica player — succumbed to COVID-19.
“I was almost on the verge of canceling the jam session because it’s not the same ambience, it’s not the same spirit anymore since these old-timers are gone,” says Savoy, one of the patriarchs of Cajun music. At 80 years old, he is still building accordions, playing them and hosting the jams.
“Cajun people have had to endure lots, and this is something that we’re enduring,” he says, standing next to the song circle behind the building where he makes his legendary Acadian accordions. “I think it’s in our blood to endure whatever falls upon us.”
Cajun music comes from the Acadians, who were brutally expelled by the British from Canada more than 250 years ago.
Today, the lilting fiddle-, accordion- and triangle-based music is enjoyed by fans around the world. But since the pandemic struck, the vast majority of live music venues in Cajun country have fallen silent — just as they have all over the nation. And hundreds of musicians who play Cajun, and its bluesy black cousin, zydeco, are hurting.
Joel Savoy, Marc’s 40-year-old son and an accomplished fiddle player and producer, says festivals are the mainstay of Cajun musicians. But when the virus hit in the spring, every single festival in Louisiana and most of the world was canceled.
“So all of our income for this year was disappearing very quickly,” he says. “And then, as this has developed, because it’s so uncertain, our entire next year is already devoid of any kind of gigs other than virtual festivals and online things.”
Joel Savoy says virtual festivals and streamed performances that depend on tickets and tips pay a fraction of what a real show pays. He has been reluctantly selling off instruments and amplifiers to pay for living expenses. “But it’s hard to sell them to other musicians because they don’t have any money right now either,” he says. “It’s a vicious cycle.”
Nine months ago, Zoom shows had lots of paying listeners. But the enthusiasm has slacked off, says Joel Savoy’s musical partner, fiddler Kelli Jones.
“I think people are sick of it,” Jones says. “Sitting at home and watching something on your computer is only so entertaining for months and months and months.”
But it’s all there is these days. So Jones and Savoy set up for a show in the kitchen of her house down the road in Lafayette. They were featured performers at a virtual Cajun & Creole music festival out of the New York City borough of Brooklyn, called Swamp in the City.
“Hi, everybody! Thanks for being here with us,” Savoy says to his laptop, tuning his fiddle. “This is my first live Zoom concert ever; we hope you can hear us.”
For professional musicians, it’s a point of pride to make their living solely from music. To take a day job is a capitulation, of sorts. But that’s what is happening. Fiddler Jones is bartending in a restaurant to supplement her income. Her friend, Corey Ledet, a 39-year-old accordion player from St. Martin Parish, was leading a popular zydeco band. Now he’s considering sidelining as a truck driver like many of his musician friends are doing, even though he’d rather play 41 keys than drive 18 wheels.
“I can only hold out for so long,” he says. “If I end up having to have to get a real job and not play music, I’m probably going to be a very bitter person because my passion has been taken away from me. And this is the first time I’m telling anybody this. I’ve actually developed a mild depression over this because my music has always been my go-to, and I have nowhere to go.”
Before the pandemic, Ledet was playing all over Louisiana and at blues festivals in Europe. Meanwhile, the Mamou Playboys were one of the hardest working Cajun bands in the country. They were featured at an NPR Tiny Desk Concert in 2011.
Today, Steve Riley, the Playboys’ 51-year old leader, seldom leaves his house. His wife, Katie, is immune compromised. He and their boys, Burke, 11, and Dolsy, 8, are protective of her so they limit their exposure to people.
Coronavirus has squeezed the Riley family. With little income and no idea when gigs will return, Riley is selling his new Toyota Highlander to generate some cash. Despite the hardships, the family has made the most of its time at home. They’ve built a playhouse and a chicken coop and put in a garden.
Sitting in his backyard, Riley says the lack of music is famishing Cajun culture, which is all about people coming together.
“This music that we play is played at weddings, at funerals, at dance halls on the weekends. I mean, we are a people who like to be together. And I miss seeing those couples waltzing, jitterbugging around the dance floor. It’s a beautiful thing that you can’t see anywhere else. And I tell you, sometimes it gets to me, man, it’s hard,” he says, choking up.
With the Mamou Playboys out of action, Riley and his sons have formed the Riley Family Band. They play every Sunday afternoon on Facebook Live.
“The response at the beginning was just incredible,” he says. “The fact that we could reach not only our neighbors and our family, but people around the country and around the world were tuning in.”
Music — like seafood and family — is the nucleus of Cajun culture. It’s not going away. It’s just gone virtual.