monthly report 2003


Zach chillin' - thinking about his monthly reports

December 3, 2003

To you and to your families, I wish you a very safe and happy holiday season. May all your festivities be filled with joy. The coming new year is an opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to promoting peace in the world, for all of mankind, all of animal kind and for our Mother Earth. Spread the love. Zachary Richard




November 5, 2003

Lots to report this month. First of all on the Canadian prairies, farmers are organizing to resist the imposition of genetically modified wheat (Monsanto Round-up ready wheat). A heated conflict is brewing. The multi-national chemical giant hopes to commercialize its OGM to go along with its herbicide. As soon as one field is planted in “Round-up ready wheat”, the entire Canadian prairie will be exposed as the pollen is carried by the wind. Canadian farmers have already witnessed the collapse of their market for canola. They fear, with reason, that the same thing will happen to their market for wheat. The Canadian government is caught in the middle. It has already permitted experiments by Montsanto with OGM wheat at its agricultural facility. These tests were done in secret but were halted when a scientist blew the whistle on what could have been a disaster for the seed stock of Canadian red wheat. The tests could have polluted the source of Canadian seed through cross pollination. The Canadian farmers are against the introduction of OGM wheat by an overwhelming majority. They are hardly what could be called hard core environmentalists of the José Bové stripe. They are however convinced that the introduction of OGM wheat could mean the end of the Canadian wheat industry. France, Germany and Japan refuse categorically the importation of any genetically modified agricultural product. In contrast to the questionable policies of the U.S. and Canada, those countries will allow their citizens to make the choice as to whether they wish to consume genetically modified food products. The governments of both the U.S. and Canada do not require any product labeling of genetically modified foods, and thus prevent their citizens from obtaining any knowledge of whether the food stuffs they consume has been genetically modified or not. The recent rash of problems (allergic reactions varying from the mild to life threatening) with “Star-Corn” and OGM canola have not altered the policy. The introduction of OGM wheat in Canada would result in the loss to Canadian farmers of their primary markets and perhaps the end of the family farm. This would not be contrary to the interests of Monsanto since its products are adapted to industrial agriculture. The family farmer is largely unable to afford the products which, in the case of “Round-up ready wheat” would quadruple the per acre cost of cultivation. It remains to be seen whether the government of Canada will defend the interests of its citizens or cave in to the pressure of a multi-national giant.

While the farmers of the western prairie were organizing to resist Monsanto, in Québec, the new Liberal government of Jean Charest was in the process of redefining the relationship between Québec and the Canadian confederation and thus redefining the Canadian confederation itself in the process. The government of Jean Charest proposes ceding significant provincial control in exchange of a larger share to the federal pie. This political horse trade would include areas of municipal control, here to fore the province of the provinces. Québec would lose its exceptional status within the Canadian confederation, no longer to be considered a “distinct society”. In exchange of which, the federal government would increase its subsidy. My question is whether the political privilege which Québec would relinquish in the deal would be returned if ever the Canadian government decided to reduce the subsidy in the future?

While these developments were developing, I joined the Michot Brothers (Les Frères Michot) for their first Québecois tour. I had the pleasure of producing their first album (Élevés à Pillette) ten years ago and I was very happy to join the band (playing triangle) for a few days. They played at St. Romuald near Québec City and then farther up the Saint Laurence at Tadoussac. While on the North Shore, we were able to get in an afternoon of whale watching. At this time of the year, the whales are migrating south. At a spot where the waters of the Saguenay enter the Saint Laurence, a whirlpool of currents keeps crustaceans and small fish trapped. It was there that we were able to spot a herd of Minke Whales, rolling in the waves, the sound of their spouts squealing in the chilly air.

The Michot Brothers are fairly representative of the linguistic reality of the Cajun community. Rick and Tommy, the oldest brothers, in spite of an ability to communicate in French, are none the less primarily anglophone. Their grasp of French is conversational and with a little practice could become very polished. The lack of practice, however, restrains their ability to be at ease with the language and although our conversations would often begin in French, there came a point at which the inability to communicate nuance would deroute the conversation and at that point we would begin speaking in English. The youngest brother, David, was even more awkward in his attempts to speak French although his pleasure in making the effort was apparent. The two other members of the band are Tommy’s sons, Louis and André, both in their twenties. Of all of the Frères Michot, Louis is the most fluent in French, thanks to his Québécoise wife. During our few days together, I did not hear André speak French. The language question aside, we had a great time, reminiscing about the old days, as old friends tend to do. The pleasure that I had in their company had a surprising effect on me. It may seem very obvious, but in the context of my never ending search for the essence of my anglo-franco-american-Cadien identity, the fact that I identified more strongly with the primarily English speaking Cajuns (the Michots) while being smack dab in the middle of a monolingual French speakers (les Québécois) with whom I feel great solidarity, brought home to me the fact that language is only one (although the most important) element of the composition of ethnic identity. Of my generation of Cajuns, the French language is spoken only by a select few. For the majority of my Cajun peers, the French language has become an element of folklore. Our sharing of culture does not rely on language, but on common experience and a wealth of reference which goes beyond language. By the same token, even though I would associate the notion of “Cadien-Cajun” with fluency in French, I am certainly closer to the Cajuns of my generation (primarily anglophone), than to the Cajuns of the previous generations (primarily francophone). Belonging to the same generation would therefore seem more important than speaking the same language when it comes to defining the group with whom one shares a notion of group identity........ Interesting.

While I was pondering the depths of my identity alongside the Frères Michot (accompanied by some hard core fans, the Frères Heads, or Freds as referred to on the road), on the other side of the Atlantic, research of another type was being held on the question of linguistic identity. On October 4, the Minister of Culture of France organized « Les Assises nationales des langues de France », a conference on the state of “regional languages”. Between 1989 and 2002, the number of students studying in regional languages has increased ten fold. The organization of the conference was designed to promote the idea that the French government is not hostile to regional languages. The minister of Culture is in fact mandated to “preserve” and “valorize” the “languages of France”. “Regional languages are the expression of cultural diversity of which our country prides itself”, explained the minister, Jean-Jacques Aillagon. The conference had an evidently political dimension: by organizing the conference, the government of Jacques Chirac could retake the offensive in regards to the proponents of regional language. In June of 1999, Chirac greatly disappointed the partisans of regionalanguage by refusing to modify the constitution, which is necessary if France is to ratify the European Convention on Regional and Minority Languages.

Confronting the language question under the banner of culture has the additional advantage of defusing some of the emotional rhetoric which has characterized the debate. During the last two years, the debate has focused on the integration of regional languages into the public sector and into the public schools.
In 2002, according to the Minister of Education of France, nearly 250,000 students were being schooled in a minority regional language. The progression is spectacular: in 1989 there were only 27,000 students learning in a regional language in all of the public and private schools in France.

There are significant differences between the regions. The regional language with the greatest number of students is Alsatian with 55,200 elementary students, 26,700 middle school students and 1,200 high school students. This success is due in part to the fact that Alsatian is associated with the learning of German, a language skill which is particularly helpful in the east of France. Other than Alsatian, the regional language of France with the most students is Occitan. Spoken in 30 of the 60 departments (states) of France, schooling in Occitan regroups 48,400 primary students, 15,500 middle school students and 3,700 high school students. An additional 1,800 students are schooled bilingually. In Corsica, teaching in the native language continues to grow with 21,400 primary students, 7,400 middle school students and 2,000 high school students. Breton (Gaelic) is the regional language with the least students with 9,200 primary students, 6,400 middle school students and 1,000 high school students. The number of students being taught in Breton is stagnant.

What strikes me about all of this is that in France there exists the political will to support minority languages. The argument is simple: since France promotes cultural diversity in the world, it is only logical to do so at home. “These languages are the expression of the diversity of culture which is the pride of our country”, explains the Cultural Minister. I can only regret that this point of view is inconceivable in my own country. In the good ole USofA, the openness associated with cultural diversity is impossible to imagine. Unfortunately (for us Americans) the political climate is characterized by the opposite: a mistrust of other cultures and a close minded attitude bordering on the xenophobic. American culture refuses to acknowledge the value of any other linguistic culture other than anglo-americain, even in the case of a linguistic culture which is part of the American experience, such as Cadien French. This chauvinistic vision of culture has resulted in our isolation from the rest of the world.




October 1, 2003

Near the Porte d' Orléans on the south side of Paris France is a peaceful corner, hidden away. The Parc Montsouris is a refuge for birds and joggers and young mothers with their babies. The site upon which the park was built was called “Moquesouris” because of the mice which inhabited the abandoned windmills thereon. In the great upheaval of urban renewal performed by the Baron Haussmann in the mid19th century, four parks were created at the four cardinal points of the city:

in the North, les Buttes de Chaumont, in the East, le bois de Vincennes, in the West, le bois de Boulogne and in the South, le Parc Montsouris. Montsouris is the smallest and the most charming of them all.

Upon entering from the North via Avenue René Coty, one arrives at a stone column upon which stands a statue of winged victory. Behind the column stretches a large lawn surrounded by trees. There are over 1400 trees in the park, many of which are over 100 years old: a Virginia poplar, Lebanese cedar, Siberian elms, Ginko Biloba. There are several species native to my home state: Bald Cypress and Sweetgum. Upon entering the park,there are three ways to go, left, right and straight ahead. The center path plunges into the heart of the park, amongst the baby carriages, and the benches filled with groups of old men and whispering lovers. To the right is rue Nansouty with its small stone houses. Following the path to the top of the hill, one arrives at the meteorological station and the southern boundary of the park. Continuing on the path, one descends the hill following the eastern edge of the park and comes upon the lake, the favorite spot for exotic water fowl and preschool children (Jungle Gym, Merry-Go-Round). Just before the lake, hidden on a small knoll under the pines, is a small monument to the memory of Pierre Durand, killed, like so many young people in Paris, in the month of August, 1940. Paris is filled with markers such as this one, on nearly every street, in every neighborhood, one can find a small plaque discreetly bearing witness to the death of a resistance fighter during the liberation of “Paname”.

Last March during the anti-French hysteria which gripped the USA like an rabies attack, I witnessed an interview on national television which shocked and saddened me. On the Late Show, Paul Schaeffer was filling in for David Letterman and he interviewed Senator Bob Dole. French bashing was the order of the day. What was so profoundly distressing to me was the cheap demagoguery to which both Schaeffer and Dole fell prey. Paul Schaeffer is better off sticking to his keyboard, his over exuberant witless remarks a foil for Letterman. He was clearly out of his element. The ex-Senator, ex-Presidential candidate, however, made a pitiful spectacle of himself. A political figure should conduct himself with a little more class, it seems to me, and particularly a WWII veteran, but Bob Dole was clearly playing to the basest sentiment of the crowd. Give ‘em what they want. Even if it’s shit. I was ashamed. The highlight went something like this: Dole tells joke (after all this is a comedy show) “How many Frenchmen does it take to defend Paris? Answer, “None, it’s never been tried.” In response to such a pathetic case of stupidity, allow me to offer a few historical facts.

In the months of May and June, 1940, over 100,000 civilians were killed by the Nazis on the roads of France. An equivalent number of French soldiers died in the same period in defense of their country. Following a campaign of terror unequaled in the history of the world, millions of Frenchmen, Belgians and Dutch fled the barbaric Nazi invasion. For weeks before the Germans rolled into France, Europe had been bombarded with images Warsovie and Rotterdam, reduced to ashes. The images of Nazi brutality were burned into the collective conscious of all of the people of France. Even in the most isolated areas, the rumors of German savagery had a tremendous impact. A feeling of insecurity spread like an epidemic. Everyone feared the worse. The Nazi invasion of France was a masterpiece of psychological warfare. The civilian population was utilized like a weapon, sending it fleeing to the South, choking the roads and effectively preventing the French army from passing.

The French general staff was particularly incompetent. It stuck to a strategy of containment mired in the thinking of the first World War. In the face of blitzkrieg, the strategy of defense inherent in the Maginot Line was totally ineffective. With an overwhelming superiority of tanks and aircraft, the Nazis were able to speed past the French positions. The border with neutral Belgium was violated by the Nazis to the complete surprise of the French. While the German tanks penetrated deeper and deeper into French territory, and while the Luftwaffe unleached destruction from the air, the French generals attempted to define a battle front like that of the Great War. The French army was totally unprepared for the nature of the threat.

With the roads of Northern France clogged by civilians fleeing the oncoming invasion, German aircraft attacked, massacring thousands. This was not an orderly retreat, but a riot of automobiles, carts, wheel barrows, people, horses, cattle, chickens and goats fleeing pell mell. In many cases the French civilian leaders simply disappeared, being among the first to flee. The countryside as well as the city was emptied, a whirlpool of terrorized men, women, and children desperately attempting to get out of harm’s way. Onto this scene of desperation, the stukas would fall like falcons on their prey. There was a siren on the stuka which served no other purpose than to terrorize. Upon beginning his descent, the pilot would begin the siren, with no other purpose than to spread panic and fear.

Although the war in France was a disaster, pockets of resistance sprung up immediately. There were desperate attempts to hold back the invading army, by isolated military units, valiantly fighting to the end. The story of the flight of Charles de Gaulle and his role in the war is well known. Fleeing arrest in Bordeaux, de Gaulle fled to England where he would organize the French resistance. In the cites and towns, fighters organized themselves and began to conduct a clandestine geurilla was, the famous Maquis. During the war, France was a sinister place, lives lived in shadow, a society in which fear and mistrust dominated. Much of the population was simply relieved that the war was over feeling little solidarity with the political class. Many continued to resist and thousands gave their lives, thousands like Pierre Durand.

I went to Parc Montsouris on August 26, 2003 to place a bouquet of flowers and to pay tribute to the young man who died here under these same pines. Under a clear blue sky, I saluted his courage and his sacrifice.

www.mesbalades.com/ppied000.htm
www.proactivate.com/photo_album/france/montsouris/index.shtml
www.parisparis.com/fr/jardin/montsour.html
www.montsouris.net/index.htm




August 27, 2003

27 July. Today the flag of the Great State of Texas floated over the Hôtel de Crillon, Place de la Concorde in the heart of Paris, France. This was obviously in tribute to Lance Armstrong, native of the “Lone Star State,” one of a very exclusive number of racers to have won the Tour de France five times. along with Bernard Hinault, Jacques Anquetil, Eddie Merclcx, and Miguel Indurain. I could not help but wonder if there was not some political undercurrent to the gesture, a tribute to the home state rather than the home country of the mighty Lance. Flag waving aside, the day was magnificent, a joyful crowd gathered on the Champs Elysées to welcome the rainbow colored peloton of two-wheel heroes. They passed my spot ten times, the tires hissing on the asphalt, the faces of the riders contorted by the effort, flashing past in a flood of color. A wave of applause preceded each passage of the peloton, breaking past me and spilling down the avenue. It was a beautiful day for a bike ride, temperature in the 70s and clear skies. Everybody seemed to be having a good time. While Lance Armstrong mounted the podium wearing the traditional yellow jersey, I departed on my own Tour the France.

1 August. Capbreton. It seems fitting that the biggest (i.e. the only) music festival in France dedicated to the French language culture of North America is held in this port town from which departed the sailors who would discover the Saint Laurence valley. Before Christopher Columbus landed in Santo Domingo, Basque fishermen were bar -b-queing on the shore of the River Saguenay near Tadoussac. There is not much remaining from that period apart from a Basque tradition in Saint Pierre et Miquelon and Québec street in this French town, but thanks to the Festival les Déferlantes Francophones, the French public and the French language singers and poets of North America, have a venue in which to make acquaintance. Attending were many friends, Nova Scotian fiddler Johnny Comeau, poet Gérald LeBlanc and songwriter Ronald Bourgeois. In the middle of a record breaking heat wave, we lived in the ghetto of a “Little Acadie” . I had the pleasure of presenting the French language version of my documentary, “Contre vents, contre marées” at the opening of the festival. The French public is very open to North American francophone culture, but suffers from a lack of information due largely to the indifference of the French media. Here’s hoping that this little festival will plant the seeds of a bountiful harvest for the French language poets and singers of North America in the hearts of the French. Robert Charlebois performed for the closing of the festival. I shared a moment with him on the beach amidst the local surfers and a horde of tourists. His show was energetic and well received. I was happy to visit with my friend, drummer Justin Allard.

5 August. Saint Jean pied de Port. Once you have left behind the flat land of Les Landes and its ubiquitous pine forests, and climbed into the Pyranees, it is clear that you are in Basque country. All of the road signs are in the two languages, French and Basque, with the French as often as not, painted over in black. There is independantiste graffiti abounding, the slogans more or less virulent. It was impossible for me to avoid comparing the situation of the Basque minority with that of the French language minorities of North America, the Cajuns of Louisiana, and the Québécois. The total Basque population is 2.9 million with 262,640 living in France. Three of the seven Basque provinces are north of the border. In spite of the bucolic image of sheep herders in red berets, only 6% of the population works in agriculture. 22% work in industry and 72% work in the service sector which includes the very important tourist industry. The image of the Basques, for the outside world as well as for the members of the community themselves, is that of a people of the land, even though most of the community lives in an urban environment. Given the fact that Basque country is not a nation state, the question of identity resembles that which we know in Louisiana. According to Jean Haritschelhar, president of the Academy of the Basque language, “To be Basque is to consider oneself Basque, even though one might be a citizen of Spain or France or even the United States. It is to be conscious of being part of people, of a community, social, spiritual and emotional to which one is attached by blood or spirit or heart.” Sounds a lot like the definition of Cajun: “A Cajun is someone who considers himself to be Cajun.” As with the Cajuns of Louisiana, the challenge for the Basque people is to be able to create a viable future for the community in the context of a culture which is often reduced to a caricature. How to surpass the image of a country rich in shepherds, sailors, jai alai players? How to go beyond the folklore of a festive tradition? The problem is compounded by the media in France (them again) who have a tendency to reduce the Basque question at best to the struggle for independence or at worst to the phenomena of political violence.

The political question is all the more confused by the real threat of terrorism posed by the ETA, just across the border. Ten times more Basques reside in Spain than in France, and the relation between each respective Basque community and each respective national state is profoundly different. It is important to understand that during the 19th and 20th centuries, the Basque of Spain fought three wars against the central power (the 2 Carlist wars of the 19th century and the Spanish Civil war of 1936-1939) while the Basques of France fought in three wars for the central power (the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 and the two world wars). The Basques in France did suffer a severe repression during the French revolution, primarily because of their attachment to the Catholic clergy. During the “Terreur” many villages were declared “infämes” and thousands of villagers were deported to other departments, with hundreds dying from cold, hunger and disease. (The Deportation of the Acadians took place only 35 years before.) The enlistment of the Basques in the French army during the First World War marked the turning point for the community in terms of its identity, the beginning of a strain of French nationalism, conservative and Catholic in essence. 6000 Basques died in the trenches of the First World War, and the community came out of the experience with their traditional values integrated into the dominant political ideology of France at that time. It was not before the 1930s that there existed an independence movement. Today the existence of political militants does oblige the traditional political parties to take into account a certain number of demands: the creation of a Department (State) of the Pays Basque, the creation of Basque university in Bayonne, and the teaching and institutionalization of the Basque language. In the Pays Basque, 26.4% of the population speaks the language, 9.3% understand without speaking and 64.2% do not speak Basque. The ability to speak the language is particularly weak in the 15-35 age group. The percentage of bilingual French-Bascophones falls from 35% for those over 65 years to 11% for the young. In Bayonne, the largest city, Bascophones represent less than 1% of the population 16-25 years old. This decline, which is the mirror image of the situation in Louisiana, takes place in the family, parents not transmitting the language to their children. The question is whether it is too late to save the language or whether it will be relegated to the ghetto of folklore as seems to be the case with the French community of Louisiana.

In terms of the survival of minority culture, the Pays Basque fits in somewhere between Acadian Louisiana and Québec. It resembles most the situation of the Acadians in New Brunswick, first of all by demography (approximately 250,000 Basques in France, approximately 300,000 Acadians in New Brunswick), and by the rate of assimilation. While in Louisiana, the rate of assimilation can be considered at just about 100%, the rate of assimilation in New Brunswick and the Pays Basque, while threatening, is not nearly as dramatic. The challenge for each of these communities, Acadian, Cajun, as well as Basque, is to be able to offer the possibility of a contemporary expression in the traditional language. To remain viable, the younger generations must be able to satisfy their desire for modernity within the native language, and to be able to go beyond a simple repetition of folklore. In Québec, the demographic situation assures the survival of the French language in way that neither the Acadians, nor the Basques, nor particularly the Cajuns can take for granted. The similarly between the Pays Basque and Québec is closest regarding the question of independence. Although the political will for separation from the Canadian confederation is at a low point in Québec, the Parti Québecois, obliges the political discourse to take into account the question of independence. The desire for a specifically Basque department with the French nation state resembles the actual relationship between Québec and Canada. The history of Québec and that of Pays Basque are significantly different, yet each community shares a deep desire for political autonomy. All of these communities, Basque, Cajun, Acadian, Québécois share the hope of preserving their respective cultures and of transmitting to future generation their linguistic heritage.

8 August. Col de Organbexterka. Migration in Europe for shore birds and water fowl takes place largely via the Atlantic coast. For the songbirds and birds of preys, however there are a few possibilities, via Italy and Sicily and onto Africa, or via the Iberian peninsula, and across the straight of Gibraltar. Before arriving in Spain, however, the birds must cross the Pyranees mountains, which present themselves like a wall to all of the migrants. There are several passes which allow the birds to continue south, one of the most important of which is the Col de Organbbexterka. On top of the challenge of crossing the mountains, the birds are confronted with another difficulty, the wall of lead thrown up by hunters waiting in the passes. Unlike North America, where environmentalists and hunters have established a solid relationship based on their mutual desire to preserve migratory species and the habitat upon which they depend, the situation in Europe is characterized by antagonism. (Which is not to say that migratory species in North America are not stressed: Ornithologists estimate a 50% decline in passerine species in the last 20 years due largely to loss of habitat). In Europe, the protection of migratory species is complicated by the national borders over which the birds have to travel. There is a general lack of effectiveness in the wildlife protection service which suffers from a lack of means and a lack of will in restraining the hunting population. Each year hunters in Europe kill 1.8 million (1,800,000) “palombes”, wood pigeons (Columba palumbus) and stock doves (Columba oenas) during the fall migration. A number which menaces the survival of the species. (The passenger pigeon which dominated the skies of North America prior to the arrival of the Europeans was hunted to extinction in the 19th century). In 1979, a group of militant environmentalists “liberated” the Col de Oragnbexterka. Every year from June to November, the mountain is “occupied” by bird watchers. A scientific census of birds of prey and “palombes” is performed. From dawn to dusk, the bird watchers are on duty, counting the migrants, and at the same time, protecting the site from the hunters. They are none the less unable to prevent more than 2 tons of lead from falling into the environment from the nearby peaks during the hunting season. In order to occupy the space, the organization must pay over 20,000 Euros per year. To support their cause visit http://www.organbidexka.org

In the twilight, we left our new friends, the moon in three quarters climbing in the sky above the peaks. The road descending from the Col d’Iraty was completely covered with graffiti. “Lance is God”. and “ETA” and complete sentences in Basque. The bicycle Tour de France had just passed here. We drove down to the valley under the starry sky, our trip slowed down by the herds of sheep and goats crossing the road.




July 30, 2003

July 6. Vienne. The Jazz Festival of Vienne is held in the old Roman amphitheater. Quite a sight the stone bleachers climbing halfway to the sky. And to think that the amphitheater has been here for centuries. There was a towering wall, as high as the highest benches, where the stage now stands, which reverberated the sound allowing the spectator in the last bench to hear the dialogue. The wall was torn down, no longer necessary in an age of power amps. It was our first performance of the tour and we were victim to the usual technical problems, but all in all, it was a good show. The evening was dedicated to Louisiana music and I had the pleasure of meeting some old friends. Bobby Michot and his Franco-american Cajun band heated up the crowd in the afternoon. Chef Dwight Landreneau regaled the festival goers with some Louisiana cuisine. He had saved two boxes of Tony Chachere’s creole spice mix, which he presented to me. But of all of the homefolks that I saw, none touched me more than Rick Sebastien. Rick and I played together over twenty years ago in New Orleans. He is originally from Lafayette but has been living in New York City for years. He was playing with Los Hombres Calientes, a New Orleans group playing an afro-caribean salsa mix. He was very chic in his Jazz Man attire, although suffering a little from hair-space-itis. In the days we played together, Rick had hair like an azalea bush. Now adays his coif is a little more sedate, but his spirit is as exuberant as ever. It was great to see him. And Nicole Boudreaux as well. Nicole is an adopted Louisianienne who is originally from here. She was in town visiting her own homefolks. She is a very devoted French teacher and the president of the Consortium of French Immersion schools. Nicole gave me the sad news that Richard Guidry is retiring. Richard is the director of the French and Spanish immersion programs for the Department of Education in Louisiana, and as such is responsible for the hundreds of foreign teachers who are leading the struggle to preserve our cultural and linguistic heritage. Having spent thirty years fighting the good fight, Richard Guidry has decided to pass the torch. We will miss him dearly, and we wish him all the best in his new endeavors. As far as our endeavor was concerned, in this old Roman town , it finished in the dressing room underneath the old Roman stage, reminiscing with old friends. A good and tender moment.

July 7. We left the hotel at 9AM and plunged into one of the horrendous traffic jams which plague the highways of France in the tourist season. After a wild ride through the small streets on the edge of town, we were able to make the train station in Lyon with only seconds to spare. Weighed down with a considerable quantity of baggage, our equipment and personal bags, we were none the less able to jump aboard the TGV (Train Grande Vitesse. i.e. fast damn train) and settle in for the two hour ride to Paris. I love traveling by train, the hypnotic clippity clop of the wheels whacking the rails, a view of the country side unavailable any where else, and a sense of being detached from the world. Plus the food aboard the TGV is edible. Looking out over the gently rolling hills covered with golden wheat, the stalks swaying gently in the breeze, with here and there a stone farm house punctuating the landscape, I lapsed into a state suspended between reality and the dream. Once arrived in Paris, however, the dream was over. Descending from the train, we were catapaulted into a pool of noise and agitation. Trailing our still considerable quantity of gear, we made off for the New Morning. Hidden in a small street in the bowels of Paris, the New Morning is “the” show club in town. But like most of the show clubs in most of the towns in the world, it is far from fancy. Particularly the dressing room. But I have seen worse. The sound system, however, is very good. With our debut gig behind us, and a lively crowd in the house, we were able to enjoy a good show.

July 8. Given the late night and the excitement which always follows a show, it is no wonder that we were unable to get to sleep before the wee wee hours. Which made for a less than pleasant wake up call. On top of which, the taxi was late in coming, making for an anxious ride to the airport. Welcome to on the road. With our still considerable baggage in tow, and the usual hassles attendant upon airplane travel, it was not until we actually were seated on the plane that we were able to relax. Once we did climb aboard, however, we were already in Italy. The cabin personnel, with their Roman noses, their elegant style, extravagant gestures and pearly white teeth, created a definitely Latin ambiance. Everyone spoke Italian except the pilot who expressed himself in three foreign languages, all of which were incomprehensible to me: Italian, airplane French and airplane English. Once we arrived in Naples, we were greeted by Tomaso and his staff, all wearing the black t-shirts of the Festival de Blues del Liri. Isola del Liri is a small town halfway between Rome and Naples. Perched on the mountainside, it is known for the small river (Liri) along the banks of which are scattered the old stone buildings of the town, and a small island (Isola) in the middle of the river which is home to a family of forlorn looking geese. Given the lack of sleep from the previous night, we were anxious to get to the hotel for some rest. But not before we took time to “mangare”. We stopped on the roadside in one of those ubiquitous restaurants which looks as though it was built a hundred years ago and has not been renovated since, but which serves a fare as simple as it is delicious. And the Caffé. As any coffee lover will tell you, the best espresso in the world is in Italy. Why this is the case, remains one of the great mysteries of life. The espresso machine, the level of steam pressure, the coffee and its roasting, all could certainly be reproduced elsewhere, but nowhere else but Italy is the espresso as luxurious and as good. And this is true for even the most pitiful looking bistro in the most out of the way place. I would have spent my afternoon drinking cup after cup of the thick-as-mud elixir, just listening to the Italians talk, but duty called.

We checked in and headed right to bed. During the siesta, a violent thunder storm burst upon the valley. Thunder groaned as though the mountains were shouting basso profondo. The rain fell in buckets. A continuous hard rain which fell to the delight of the local farmers, suffering as they are from one of the worst droughts in over one hundred years, but which was a bane to the festival organizers. The Blues Festival Isola del Liri is a very special event. It is one of the only if not the only major free-to-the-public festival in Italy. And as such it is an event that touches the community as a whole. Watching Tomaso and his colleagues wringing their hands in the very demonstrative manner of the Italians, their anxiety was palpable. We finally decided to go down to the site. In spite of the plastic roof over the stage, the entire surface was drenched. The equipment was covered in black plastic, the color of death. The technicians were huddled under one corner of the roof in make shift raincoats. Their hands were immobile at their sides. There are few things which are of an aspect as sad as an Italian who is standing still, his hands, so used to gesticulation, abandoned useless at his side. Realizing that it would be a while before the stage could be made ready, we decided to take a tour of the town. During which the sun burst from behind the clouds. A good sign. Lost in the labyrinth of the old town, we found a trattoria. Spaghetti al pomodoro, pollo paillarde, tira misu. Heaven.

Finally the stage dried up enough to allow the technicians to set up. Even though we did not have enough time for a sound check, the show started as scheduled. Thanks to a father (Mario) and son (Manuel) crew, the sound was very good. The square was chock full of Italians. They were stacked up on the wall and the crowd risked spilling into the river. All Isola was there, having come from kilometers around to dance to the rhythm of our Louisiana style songs.

July 12. After returning to Paris with two days off, we headed back south. Around 1 o’clock in the morning we met up with the bus in which we were to travel. Catastrophe. Instead of the bus that we had ordered, with bunks and sheets and pillows for all, we found ourselves aboard a tourist transport bus. The driver kept insisting that this was the bus we ordered, brandishing an order form on which it was marked “couchettes” i.e. bunks. He folded down the seats to make a row of back busting “bunks”. “These are bunks” ,he said, “If you had wanted “beds” you should have ordered “beds”. There was not much point in arguing with him in the middle of the night in the middle of the busiest season of the year. Evidently the bus company had found a client who was prepared to rent our bus for a longer period, and so we were confronted with a bad situation and no wriggle room. In Europe there are no partitions between sections of a tour bus as there are in the USA, this due to fire regulations. There are wonderful double deckers, however, which solve the problem by having a sleeping section below and a lounge above. One of which we had ordered. But instead of which we found ourselves aboard a tourist bus with one fold down stem to stern “bunk”. No sheets, no pillows, and curtains too thin to keep out the light. Once we got to Bagnols, around 11 AM, in spite of the assurances that we had obtained from the hotel that our rooms would be ready, they were not, and we were told that we could not have access until after check out time, 1 PM. Then our friendly driver informed us that we had to unload all of our gear because he was going to sleep and did not want to be disturbed. Ass hole. So we found ourselves seated atop our gear in the hotel parking lot, a hotel which had no restaurant. Welcome to on the road. At least the surroundings were pleasant enough, hidden away in a little park, with cicadas singing to beat all hell. Finally we were able to slither into our rooms. One of the festival drivers had a brother in law with a pizza parlor and he was able to finagle a table for us even though it was Sunday and every restaurant in town was packed.

I spent the rest of the afternoon sleeping like a tired black dog. We had a little dip in the pool before heading off to dinner downtown. We ate outside, the odor of the bar b que wafting on the breeze. All around us the lilting accent of the south of France, le Midi. Here the people talk like the cicadas sing. We played at midnight, the responsive crowd making up for all of the shit we had to go through to get there. While we were pulling out, Otis Taylor was beginning his set. Traveling blues.

14 July. Rather than climbing back on board the one-bunk-bus-from-hell, we bade the driver fare thee well and made other arrangements. The driver became very friendly of a sudden, wishing us a safe trip and apologizing much too profusely to be sincere. Ass hole. After a short night in a real bed with sheets and a pillow, we headed to Avignon to catch the TGV. Us and half of the population of Europe. Otis Taylor and his group as well, looking very much like strangers in a strange land. We took them under our wing and guided them through the quick sand of the train station. The TGV pulled in, staying only a few short minutes before pulling out again like the proverbial bat out of hell. With our large quantity of large cases we were at a slight disadvantage amidst the aggressive train travelers. Parisians on their way back home. Of all of the behaviorial traits of the French, the most aggravating is the general lack of discipline and civility whenever waiting on line. For most Frenchmen and women, a queue does not inspire patience or respect for those that have arrived earlier, but an irresistible desire to cut in. As soon as there is enough space to stick in an elbow or a knee, the average Frenchman will wade in with abandon, smirking gleefully if he or she is able to manage to get in front of somebody else. Lines in banks or at the cinema or anywhere else for that matter are always a pain for me, conditioned, as are most Americans, to appreciate a certain amount of space with which to surround my person . In spite of the pushing and pulling, however, we were able to get aboard with all of our gear, occupying the last remaining centimeters on the train. In the next car, i could see Otis Taylor and his band, swept along the human tide, their eyes wide with panic. “We ain’t in Colorado any more, Otis” I heard someone call. It was the last I ever saw of them.

Once arrived at the Gare de Lyon in Pairs, we transferred to another bus, direction Orléans. With just enough time for a quick shower nearby, we made the downbeat at 7PM. Before we hit, a parade band (fanfare) had been playing in the street. Wearing colorful shirts and bouncing to the music in glee, the band was great fun. On the big bass drum, however, a printed message played a sour note.

“Endangered species of musician” it said. From the beginning of this tour, we had encountered the “intermittent’s” strike, the strike of occasion performance art workers. Everywhere we had played, the concerts were threatened with cancellation. In several places, the strikers had been able to read tracts before or after the performance. At the New Morning, they blocked the front door, in a foul mood, refusing to look me in the eye as I squeezed past. At first I had but little sympathy for the hard core strikers who had brought down several of France’s most established festivals, Aix, Avignon and the Francofolies of La Rochelle. I had watched my friend Jean-Louis Foulquier, the president of the festival, nearly in tears, in a television interview castigating the strikers union. After nearly twenty years, the Francofolies may never be held again, a blow to the economy of La Rochelle and to the hundreds if not thousands of people who depend on the festival. But as with many social questions, the problem is complex. Finally, I came to the conclusion, the same as that proposed by the strikers, that the bad guy is the government. The abuses of the system are well known: film production studios who declare only a part of the work days of the “occasional workers”, the balance of their time paid for by unemployment insurance, the ASSEDIC, or the stars of French cinema who are eligible for unemployment insurance once they have finished a project, in spite of their astronomical fees, Etc. etc.. It was evident from the start of the system in the 70s that there was potential for abuse. To understand the mentality involved you just need to try to jump aboard the TGV in Avignon on July 14, i.e. it’s every man woman for him or herself. None the less, the thinking behind the plan is good. In order to allow a class of performance artists and technicians to pursue their craft, and due to the occasional nature of the work, a safety net of unemployment insurance was created. By achieving a set minimum of hours employed, the worker in question could continue to ply his or her craft with the relative assurance of being able to make a living. The general culture of France would therefore benefit from a class of workers who otherwise would not be able to make ends meet. Unfortunately, the system was corrupted, and not by the people it was designed to help, but by the big production houses which include French national television itself. The government has chosen to reduce the amount of benefits available, penalizing the least affluent workers while leaving in place the potential for abuse inherent in the system. Simply put, the government does not have to political courage to take on the big producers, and so will penalize the smallest of the small. Nobody knows what will happen. With a summer festival season sabotaged by the unions, the general public and the government are seemingly insensitive to the plight of the rank and file performance artists and technicians. The future of well established festivals like the Francofolies of La Rochelle is in question. None the less, the concert of French rock god and Elvis wannabee, Johnny Hallyday, attended by French president Jacques Chirac and his wife, went on without any trouble , thanks to a healthy deployment of CRS (National police goons) who kept the strikers at bay. The future of the parade band in the streets of Orléans is another story.

I had plenty of time to mull over these and other critical social questions on the way back from Orléans to Paris. The regular one and one half hour ride turned into a mega marathon, caught as we were in the 14 of July national holiday traffic jam. What better way to spend the national holiday than stuck in traffic until 2AM. In spite of all of that time to ponder, I was none the less unable to figure out whether France will in fact be able to reconcile its social ideals with the conflicting interests of the various social classes of its population. Sounds like it could be just about anywhere. Stay tuned. Vive la France




July 2, 2003

On board the French airliner hurrying us to Paris, voilà the usual semi-lingual blah blah. Following his welcoming announcement explaining flight time and weather conditions, the pilot presented us ostensibly the same message, but in a sort of pidgin English totally incomprehensible. “Lads un gin, hi tell zoo zat info am shogunaux sank you ver mush.” During the jet lag induced insomnia of my first night in France, I discovered the latest realité-show. Something called “Nice People”. A collection of losers with nothing better to do with their lives are all bunched together in a “nice house”. Every week, the television audience calls in to vote for their favorite “nice people”, and the “nice People” with the least amount of votes has to leave the “nice house” and go back to his or her idiotic life. Given the amount of times that the announcerette uses the term “Nice People” (pronounced Naz Pee Pole) the phrase is surely destined to become part of the daily lexicon and will most likely be in the dictionary in a few years. Once, that is, that the Académie Française has approved it. Imagine the scene as the fifty or so very old farts in their brocade jackets discuss ad infinitum the real meaning of “Nice People”. In this particular context, the phrase does not mean what it would seem to, but can be loosely translated as, “Butt hole with nothing to do in life, but who none the less winds up on national television acting the ass in front of millions who have even less going for them and spend their time watching stupid reality shows and phoning in to vote for their favorite nobody.” The wave of anti-american sentiment has apparently not reached the popular lexicon, nor popular television. Nor the flight decks of French airlines.

Paris herself is unchanged. And this to my great satisfaction. The people in the street are as stressed and impatient as ever, but with the latest wave of general strikes recently terminated, there is a sense of détente in the air. Recently, the whole country was paralyzed by a mean series of strikes. Bad, but according to my sources, not as bad as ‘95. I was in the middle of the strikes of 1995. During the autumn of that year, I was recording the album Cap Enragé. The studio was in a little town north of Paris, La Frette, about 45 minutes drive. But during the strikes, the 45 minutes quickly became 2 or 3 or even 4 hours. At the beginning I would pick up every hitch hiker (auto-stoppeur) that I found. There were so many people stranded without public transport, just hard working people trying to muddle through the mess. At first I would converse with them. Later on, I stopped talking to them, and finally I stopped picking them up at all. The conversation was always the same, and always as absurd. We always talked about the same thing: the strike. And they always said the same thing, expressing a blind and unconditional support of the strike and the strikers who were so obviously turning their lives upside down. Everybody blamed the government. Ever since the French Revolution, the French have replaced the king with the government. Which is to say that the people expect from the government what they expected from the king: somebody to solve all of the problems of society and to make life better for all. With this attitude comes the assumption that one can reap havoc in the world at any time that one is not pleased with the situation. This time the fuss is over the question of retirement. With the aging of the general population, life expectancy continuing to increase, the pension funds of the government are not longer sufficient to feed everybody they are supposed to. The government has therefore proposed to extend the retirement age to make up for the shortfall. (In France the work week is currently 35 hours). Evidently the governments proposed solution was not acceptable. In 1995, the strike question was very similar. It all started with the railroad workers. Out of sympathy, the entire public sector went on strike, government workers having the right to strike in France. In spite of the ensuing mess, the general public supported the strike all the way, at least according to my very unofficial hitch hiker poll. Everybody was obliged to get up hours earlier than usual in order to walk to work, in spite of which I never heard any criticism of the strikers. All of the public ire was directed at the government. In fact there was often a light hearted ambiance in the street, or at least a more humane aspect to daily life, much like that one finds during a natural disaster. The strike was perceived much like a hurricane or a flood, more like an act of God than the decision of a few people. The bad guy was the government. That there was more emotion than rational thought in this attitude never seemed to dawn on anybody at the time except me. Down with the government. Down with the king.

I am not sure what to think. I am sympathetic to the cause of the working man. And yet, the phenomenon of the work strike in France seems more like a caricature of what it is meant to be. Everybody’s lives are turned upside for a few days or even weeks, but nothing much seems to change. The government will put its proposal in place and everybody will adapt and get on with their lives. At least the strike allows some people to express their anger. In a very real way, the strikes bring people together. Having to cope with the near impossibility of simply getting from one place to the next, people are obliged to look at their lives in a very different way, and to reevaluate just what is important to them. There is a strike currently looming in the entertainment sector. The technical unions associated with the concert business are threatening to walk out. Several large festivals have been canceled. I am sure that the strikers have a valid point, but it is the concert going public and the artists who will suffer. For the time being, none of my shows have been canceled. Vive la France.

None of this really disturbs me. I am used to it by now. A shrug of the shoulders and get on with it. The surly attitude of Parisian drivers and the ever impending transportation strike are part of the folklore of France. Like wine and cheese. Paris remains a beautiful town, perhaps the most beautiful city in the world. Walking along the Seine with the summer light shining on the facades of the beige stone buildings, the Eiffel tower piercing the bright blue sky, one is part of a living post card. The city is irresistible. Even the Parisians, with all of their stress and their never ending street squabbling, are ever ready to share a smile and a tender moment. I love this town and its crazy people, their pushing and pulling and yelling and screaming, their foibles and their charm and their feelings strong like old cheese. Strong like cognac.

Vive la France. Vive Paris. Down with the king.




June 4, 2003

One evening lately I was surprised to discover a small flock of purple martins flying in place in front of one of their cages. They were flying as they do when the fledglings are on the verge of leaving the nest for the first time, beating their wings wildly and calling incessantly. I made nothing of it at the time although it was weeks before the chicks would be ready to take off. It was only two days later that I understood what all of the ruckus was about, when I saw a large snake sunning itself underneath the cages. It was a Texas rat snake (Elaphe obsoleta linéairementi), about three feet long. Just a baby. The adults can reach over six feet in length. These snakes are very useful as they can consume large quantities of rats and mice, but they also have a penchant for small birds and eggs. Before I realized what was happening, the rat snake had reduced our purple martin colony from twelve adults to four, taking with them an unknown quantity of chicks and eggs. He would climb up the pole in the night and corner the birds in their cabins. I don’t know if he was able to capture them all or frightened away some of the birds, but the result was a population implosion approaching catastrophic proportions.

I decided that I had to protect the birds at all costs, but I was at a loss to discover how I would solve the problem. The snake came out at night, and now that he was aware that I was on the lookout, he would certainly become even more wary and harder to find. Plus I did not really want to kill it. First of all the snake is beneficial, consuming unwanted rodents. It poses no danger to humans apart from the possibility of a nasty though otherwise harmless bite. I am not a snake lover, but neither do I feel the revulsion which seems to characterize many people’s feelings about snakes. In fact it seemed quite a handsome animal. And in any event I am loathe to kill any living being.

This dilemma troubled me, not only because I had to figure out some way to solve the problem with the least amount of pain and suffering, but also because the situation symbolized for me the difficult relation between man and nature. How to leave the smallest footprint. Never the less, my mind was made up. I would protect my purple martins at all costs. I have been nurturing the colony for many years, taking delight in their annual return and their acrobatic swirling as well as their babbling song. I still had no idea how I was to accomplish the proposed eradication, but I had made up my mind to intervene in Mother Nature’s way.

The natural balance is something that mankind has proven itself unable to respect and the consequences menace all of the species with which we share the planet as well as our own species itself. In a study published in England last week, the notion, so dear to biotechnical companies, that genetically modified food will save the third world, was refuted. The large chemical companies pretend that OGMs will allow poor farmers to raise crops which are better suited to the harsh conditions under which they live, allowing them to feed themselves finally. The study showed that, in fact, the opposite will be the case. Unable to afford the more expensive modified grain and the chemical products necessary for their cultivation, poor farmers will descend a spiral of debt, and ultimately will be driven from their land. The only agricultural beneficiaries will be the large monoculture farms, and the four companies that dominate the market: Montsanto, Syngenta, Bayer CropScience and Dupont. According to the study, the real motivation of these companies is not to help poor farmers in third world countries, but to increase their profits. The information they propagate is destined not to inform, but to influence, advancing the economic interests of the companies and nothing else.

Here is yet another example of information, or rather disinformation, used to advance a particular agenda. This is reminiscent of the use of information, or rather disinformation, by the US government to justify its recent invasion of Iraq. It is no surprise that the current US administration is one of the greatest, if not the greatest proponent of the use of OGMs. The US is currently badgering the European Union to allow the importation of OGMs, menacing to take the case into the international legal arena. Europe seems to have caved in to the pressure, insisting only that all OGM products be labeled, which seems to be a strict minimum. In the USA and Canada, there is no labeling of OGM products! American consumers have no way of knowing what foods they purchase and consume are genetically modified. This policy is as reckless as the military adventure in Iraq, by a government subservient to big money and big business.

It is getting harder and harder to know just what to believe. The first responsibility of any government should be the protection of its citizens and the advancement of their well being. The current policies of the American government, however, seem devoted to the interests of large corporations rather than to interests of the citizens it was elected to serve. Regarding the use of pesticides etc. I do admit that the question is very complex, and plead guilty to the use of chemical pesticides, at least in the past. A few years ago, we experienced an invasion of colaspis or pine beetles. They emerged during the second week of the New Orleans Jazz Festival (first week of May). The effect on the cypress and pine trees is devastating. They eat the spine of each needle, causing the leaf to die, leaving the tree brown and burnt looking as though it has been caught in a fire or doused with herbicide.

The tree is not killed by this activity but the result is very depressing. Amidst the reckless verdant springing of spring, the cypress and the pines look as though they have died. In order to combat this intrusion upon our sense of well being, we would put on our astronaut garb and spray the trees with chemical pesticides. Although we were able to put a crimp in their style, we were never able to stop the colaspîs beetles completely, and finally we gave up. Every year now we simply grin and bear it and hope that a flock of chickadees will one day discover this insectivore’s paradise and take up residence in late April on their way back from Cuba.

The experience with the pine beetles has proven to me that there are no cut and fast rules when it comes to dealing with Nature. What seems to be a good thing may effect some other part of the chain with consequences as dire as those we are attempting to avoid. Take whole wheat bread, the harvesting of the grain of which kills multitudes of rabbits and meadow larks and quail who have taken up residence in the tall wheat. Or blow dryers in public washrooms for drying hands. You would think that the resulting economy of all the paper not used to dry all those hands would be a good thing, were it not for the pollution caused by the plants that make the hand dryers. Etc. etc. We are obliged to make choices in dealing with the natural environment around us. To make the best choice, we need the best information which is where the problem lies, particularly when one is governed by an administration such as the current one which is prepared to compromise the quality of the national parks, which belong to all of the citizens of the USA, for the benefit of a few timber companies. Or the Alaska Refuge which it is prepared to sacrifice for the sake of a very insignificant amount of oil. How about conservation? How about fuel economy? How about alternative fuel? How about Haliburton contracts in Iraq?

In any event I will admit that old habits are hard to break. And this from a reformed pesticide addict. Just try convincing your neighbor that nitrate and herbicide are a bad thing for the environment in spite of how good he or she feels about his or her uniformly green and smooth as a carpet new mowed lawn. Our esthetics have been so influenced by the marketing of uniformity that we have become a nation of lawn mower freaks. My grandfather’s yard, with its plethora of randomly scattered flowers and so called weeds was a haven for bees and a multitude of insects which fed a multitude of birds. All of that has gone by the wayside in an effort to control nature, even though nature is best left to control herself. But we are part of Nature and must therefore make choices that will impact not only our lives, but the lives of all things living around us.

We can only hope to act in the most positive or at least in the least negative way possible. As in the case of my Texas rat snake. Finally his appetite did him in. One night after supper, I spied his sinuous shape slithering up the purple martin pole. I am not sure what he had in mind since he had emptied that particular housing project days before. Maybe he thought the little houses just kept filling up with delectable feathered creatures. Seizing the moment, I ran out and shone my flashlight on the snake, cornering him in the empty cage. Claude and I wound up pulling out the lawn chairs and just watching him, waiting for some inspiration. Finally, Claude came up with the idea. She suggested that we throw a plastic bag over the cage, which I promptly did, imprisoning the snake and securing him with a double twist of left-over-from-the-terrorist-attack duct tape.

The next morning we woke to find our rat snake coiled up near the bottom of his plastic prison. He was agitated early on, but became more and more docile as the morning wore on, overcome by the heat and the lack of air. We, on the other hand, remained in a frenzy. Now that we had the snake, I was still unsure about what to do. Even to kill it, which I was still loathe to do, I would have to remove it from the plastic and make sure it stood still long enough for me to get in a good whack. As the morning wore on, both the snake and I were increasingly ill at ease. Finally I called a friend who works for the Wildlife and Fisheries, asking for some help or at least a little advice. He proposed lending me his snake stick, a yard long baton with a clamp on one end designed for capturing snakes. It was a Sunday, Mother’s Day, and I had caught him just as he was leaving for a family dinner. I rushed over and fetched the snake stick. In no time flat I had returned to the house and liberated the snake. With the help of my friend’s handy implement, our Elaphe obsoleta linéairementi was resting comfortably in the bottom of a straw basket on his way to a new home on the banks of a languorous bayou far away from any human habitation. We let him loose near the edge of the woods. He slithered off, looking back at us as he went. He seemed to be saying thanks.

The story finished pretty well. The four remaining purple martins will be able to sleep at night with no fear of being swallowed whole in their sleep. The Texas rat snake escaped suffocating to death in a plastic inferno and found a new home in the woods where he will probably find many things to eat. And I have the satisfaction of knowing that I did the best I could to intervene in this little natural drama in as humane a manner as possible. Which leads me to believe that if we attempt to conduct ourselves on this planet with respect for all living creatures and in a way meant to insure their future as well as our own, we might have a chance.




May 5, 2003

On April 26, in a ceremony held in the old State Capital building at Baton Rouge, I was declared a “Louisiana legend”. Amidst serious gentlemen in black tie and lovely ladies shining like so many jewels in the night, I was recognized for my “contribution to Louisiana culture”. We were several to receive the honor: the opera singer Shirley Verret, civil rights activist and president of Xavier University, Norman Francis, businessman Chuck McCoy, children’s author William Joyce. The historian Stephen Ambrose was honored posthumously.

It is always gratifying to be recognized for one’s work, but the evening was stuffed with irony like a boudin. My musical career as well as my “contribution to Louisiana culture” have been defined by my commitment to the French language. What was ironic was that at the same time that my achievements were being celebrated, Louisiana was undergoing a spasm of anti-French sentiment. The French bashing which was sustained by the American government and the media, had a particularly nasty effect in Louisiana. This because we are surrounded by so many vestiges of our French heritage. If you are intending to denigrate things French, there is no shortage of targets in Louisiana. Take for example the sign which commemorates the twinning of my town with the village of Saint Aubin in France, and which is displayed prominently near the railroad tracks. As I reported last month, one of our local citizens proposed to remove the sign and “un-twin”. While I was being feted in Baton Rouge, his proposition was before the city council in my home town. The reason given by our local yokel was that when he passed in front of the sign it “made him feel bad.” The motion did not even get a second. Like so many of the anti-French remarks spreading like an epidemic of stupidity, this proposal revealed itself to be fundamentally without substance, the idiotic product of a nasty nationalism.

In this bicentennial year of the Louisiana Purchase, the latent anti-French sentiment which was spawned by the collision of the well established Creole culture with the “Americains” is manifest. In the context of the current French bashing, one has to wonder whether there is a real desire in Louisiana to maintain our French heritage culture or whether we would not simply prefer to be just like everybody else in America. Unfortunately (or fortunately depending upon one’s point of view) there is not much that can be done to change our history. Which is not to say that we won’t try. Take Congressman Billy Tauzin for example. Congressman Tauzin was quick to remove the French language section of his web site in what he termed a “silent protest” of the French opposition to the war in Iraq. Tauzin confused international politics with local culture and his action was nothing but petty demagoguery.

There has been a latent anti-French bias running through the last two hundred years of Louisiana history like the Mississippi, sometimes a slow and languid stream, sometimes a powerful flood, but, slow or fast, always rolling. And a tributary stream has flowed through our history as well, a latent tendency of self denigration and even shame which is part of the French psychosis in Louisiana, and of which Tauzin’s move is but the latest manifestation. The social institutions which perpetuated the myth of French (Cajun) inferiority in Louisiana were often controlled by persons of French descent. In an effort to assimilate into the social and political elite, Cajuns have long had a tendency to repudiate their own heritage. The school boards in South Louisiana which are so resistant to the implementation of French immersion education in the face of overwhelming statistical proof of immersion’s benefits, are controlled by Cajuns, many of whom seem to be ashamed of their French language heritage. We have never been able to effectively separate Cajun French culture from a perception of ignorance and poverty. And so U.S. CongressmanTauzin can remove the French language section of his web site since he does not really consider it to be of any importance.

There has been much ado associated with the invitation of French president Jacques Chirac to attend the official ceremonies commemorating the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. There was a motion introduced into the legislature to “disinvite” Chirac. That proposition, like the one in my home town, revealed itself to be without substance. The motion died in committee, more of an embarrassment than anything else. Yet even the governor of Louisiana has been bitten by the anti-French bug. He recently said that the war in Iraq was the fault of the French. His reasoning was that if the French had supported the U.S. in its war, Saddam Hussein would have been so intimidated by the coalition of the entire civilized world, that the war would not have been necessary. Shaky logic at best.

Given the anti-French sentiment which had gotten us all in an uproar, I could not avoid addressing the situation during the awards ceremony. Particularly since the governor of Louisiana was to been in attendance. Unfortunately he was not. I would have enjoyed seeing his reaction as I stated that I was very proud of my French heritage and that my language and my culture did not make me less of an American, and that dissidence and the tolerance of dissidence are the foundation of democracy. In the words of my neighbor, “Democracy fails when good men (and women) do nothing.” My remarks were greeted with a standing ovation. All of the stiff stuffed penguin looking fellows and the corset wearing women were on their feet applauding enthusiastically. I was surprised by the fervor of their reaction. Which indicated to me that in spite of the fact that a wave of stupidity seems to have engulfed our land, the phenomenon is without any real substance.

So how to explain how we have arrived under such a somber shadow? The answer is the diffusion of information, or rather the diffusion of a lack of information. The broadcasting of television news in the USA is pitiful. One has only to cross the border to realize to what extent the media in America is one sided. During the Iraq war, the major networks seemed to be in the business of cheer leading rather than in informing the public. The reporting of the “embedded” journalists seemed more like propaganda than news. Only PBS offered an alternative. It was there that I saw a Bill Moyers interview of the American diplomat who had resigned in protest over what he sees as a perversion of the basic mission of American diplomacy, that being the promotion of liberty and the the values of a free society around the world (as symbolized by the Statue of Liberty, in New York harbor, gift to the American people from the people of France). Did he appear on any major news broadcast? No. Did we even hear about it on any major news broadcast? No. Or what about the “embedded” journalist that complained that the control exercised over him and his colleagues compromised the integrity of their reporting? Did we see him on any major network broadcast? No. They were too busy reporting the war like a football game, play by play. So how are we to form any ideas other than those acceptable to the government?

During the Iraq war, information was used as a weapon. All of the information we received at the start of the war explaining how the U.S. army was in communication with officers of the Iraqi army was intended primarily for the Iraqi army itself in the hopes of creating a crisis of confidence which would lead to a wholesale surrender. The hoped for mass surrender never occurred. And throughout the conflict , we were told things which have since been discovered to be false. The manipulation of information has consequences which are potentially disastrous for democracy. Now that the war is over, no weapons of mass destruction have been found. This in spite of the “irrefutable evidence” of their existence announced by Colin Powell at the United Nations replete with charts and images of Iraq’s mobile chemical labs. Nor have the links between Saddam Hussein and Al Queda been proven. The American propaganda machine continues rolling, however, diverting attention from these particularly crucial questions.

We are awash in a sea of hubris since the end of military operations. We see Donald Rumsfeld giving a pep talk to the troops. And George W. Bush, dressed in pilot fatigues landing on the deck of an aircraft carrier. Cowboy stuff. Enough to divert attention from the catastrophic condition of life in Baghdad. American opinion has become one sided, admitting no contrary point of view. Since September 11, 2001, it has become more and more difficult to contest governmental policies. In an attempt not to appear unpatriotic and not to encourage terrorism, the media in the U.S. has in fact censured itself. The country is kept in fear, a population traumatized by the specter of 9/11. And thus much easier to manipulate. The looting of Baghdad’s museums and the subsequent loss of a great deal of humanity’s archeological heritage was reported, but the story is overshadowed by the bright light being shined upon the success of the U.S. military. Who cares that humanity has lost 7000 year old artifacts, looters given a free hand while down the street U.S. troops were carefully guarding the Ministry of Petrol? Who needs history when we have precision bombs and oil wells? A relatively intelligent friend of mine told me that the looting of the museums was the fault of the Iraqis, since after all, it was “them who done it”. As though the U.S. army bears no responsibility in the matter. As Donald Rumsfeld says, it’s normal to have a few problems in period of transition, after all, being free also means being free to loot and burn.

The U.S. prides itself on having liberated the Iraqis people. But the images from Iraq tell another story. One thing is clear, the U.S. will not allow the installation of any government which is not made to order, as in “made in the USA. As Henry Ford said of his Model T, “You can have it in any color, as long as it’s black.” It is much too soon to say what the real effects of this military adventure will be. Will we achieve stability in the region and a reduction of the terrorist threat around the world as promised? The British invaded Iraq not quite one hundred years ago. Faisal was installed on the throne and it was believed at the time that Iraq would become a model of peace and stability in the region. But rather than evolve into the enlightened monarchy that was hoped for, the country was torn apart by a revolt in 1958 which ultimately led to Saddam Hussein. Will history repeat itself? Will the Kurds, the Sunnis and the Shiittes be able to create a stable democracy, or will the major ethnic groups and the contentious tribes which make them up, devolve into a prolonged and violent struggle?

We can only hope that the situation in the Middle East will stabilize and that democracy will descend on the region like manna from heaven. But the road ahead is long and fraught with danger. Here’s hoping that the U.S. will be able to find the patience and the ability to nuance its polices which has been so lacking of late. There are no simple solutions to so complex a problem in spite of the glorious images of U.S. soldiers lording over the ruble of Baghdad. It will be much more difficult to create than it has was to destroy.




April 2, 2003

Spring has sprung into a festival of color. The azaleas are all a riot in light pink, dark pink and bordeaux. On the ends of all of the branches of all of the trees, the tender green shoots wave seductively. The bumble bees have invaded the wisteria which rumbles with the sound of their wings. The birds are busy building their nests, working joyfully under the bright blue sky. Nature is on schedule, following her pattern of the eons, impervious to the affairs of men.

But if Mother Nature is doing well, it is otherwise in the world of mankind. Darkness has invaded our souls. In this corner of the world, known previously for its hospitality, a mean spirit is raising its ugly head. Last week in Lafayette, a tourist couple from Belgium was insulted in a restaurant by a waiter and asked to leave. He had apparently mistaken them for French people. In my own village, the city council will meet this week to study countermanding the twinning which has been in place for years with a small town in France. Reactionary politicians have proclaimed that Jacques Chirac will not be welcome in Louisiana and hope to rescind the invitation offered to him to attend the celebration of the Louisiana Purchase. The United States ambassador to Canada has taken to insulting the Canadians for not supporting the U.S. in their invasion of Iraq. The world has gone mad.

I do not support the war in Iraq. I believe that the U.S. has embarked on a dangerous road without international support, and without a real understanding of the consequences. The policy of “preemptive strike” is reckless. It is hard to know what to believe. We were led to believe that the war would be short. Now we understand that the war risks to be long and costly. We were led to believe that the Iraqi soldiers, in the face of the “Shock and Awe” bombing campaign would throw down their arms in the face of the apparent folly of combating the U.S. military. And we believed this propaganda. We were led to believe that the U.S. and its only real ally, Great Britain, would be welcomed as liberators. The U.S. is invading Iraq to set the people free and to give them democracy. The images from the war have shown the absurdity of this pretension. The number of civilian casualties continues to rise. The terms itself, “civilian casualties” is dehumanizing and horrible enough. Women and children reduced to a glib phrase that is bandied about on the evening news as though we were talking about the weather. In Basra and cities across the South, the people have no food or water. They are not preoccupied with implanting “democracy” just yet and won’t be for a while to come. And now we are told that the military strategy can no longer be effective aslong as it is hamstrung by a political goal. Translation: expect more innocent people to die. We are killing the people that we are supposed to be “liberating”.

We are also told that the “liberation” of Iraq will lead to peace in the region and in the world. Once “liberated”, Iraq will be at the head of a democratic revolution in the region banishing dictators and kings. The Middle East will finally be at peace. This strategy, like many other American strategies, is based on wishful thinking. First of all, the effect of the U.S. led invasion has promoted anything but peace in the region. The governments of the Arab countries are following the lead of their most anti-American citizens and are condemning vigorously what they see as a bloody military invasion. The deaths of civilians and the inability to bring humanitarian relief to the population continues to fuel the rage. The U.S. has sown the seeds of hatred in the Arab world, the effects of which will be felt for a long time to come. The outcome risks not to be the more secure world of the best case American scenario, but the confirmation of the worst fears of France and Russia, a great rise in terrorism in the West and a bitter struggle approaching religious war.

The first step toward a reduction of terrorism is not the invasion of Iraq, but the resolution of the Israelo-Palestinian conflict. In 1992, the Intifada was considerably weakened by the diplomatic initiatives of the first Bush administration, combined with the election of a Labor government in Israel and the ensuing Oslo Accords. The hope of resolving the Palestinian question, however, is sabotaged by the inability of the current Bush administration to influence the government of Ariel Sharon. The Americans insist that the Israelis withdraw from the West Bank, the Israelis respond by invading Gaza. The current Bush administration has never been engaged in the resolution of the conflict and has been unwilling or unable to reign in the Israeli hard-liners. The U.S. has recently published a “road map” for the resolution of the conflict, largely through the insistence of Tony Blair who needed something to quiet the overwhelming protest in his country. According to the plan, no real qualitative decisions will be taken until 2005, well after the next U.S. elections, effectively letting the Bush administration off the hook.

I have been watching a lot of television lately, addicted strangely to the horrible images which are arriving in real time from halfway around the world. The war opened with 24 hour coverage, like the super bowl with tanks and bullets, the American reporters taking themselves very seriously. That’s another thing: the reporting of the war comes dangerously close to propaganda. It has been apparent to me for very long that the U.S. suffers from a lack of information. All the news we get is essentially defined by a very specific and non-controversial point of view. The news from the war is obviously pro-American, which is to be expected, but the outcome is that inside the United States we cannot have a real understanding of the perception of the war in the world at large. Which explains much of the arrogance with which American society in general views the world. Without access to any other points of view, it is not surprising that we write the story to suit ourselves. It is very uplifting to pretend that we are engaged in a fight to bring democracy to an oppressed people, uplifting and naive. It doesn’t hurt that Iraq has the second largest oil reserves in the world, particularly since Saudi Arabia is enraged and Venezuela is falling apart. But I am digressing. The last point I hope to make is not related to the war, at least not directly. While watching the war coverage on television, I happened upon the local news. A friend of mine was being interviewed at the University Medical Center, the place where one goes for health care if one does not have health insurance. He owned a music store which went belly up in the current economic downturn (‘economic downturn”, like “civilian casualties” is a bloodless term for an otherwise very human tragedy). His wife suffers from serious cardiac problems and every time she has an attack, they truck down to the emergency room of the hospital and wait. According to my friend, the service is pitiful. He cannot afford the insurance which would give him and his wife access to decent care. His case is not rare. In Louisiana, there are over 1,000,000 (one million) people, a full fourth of the population, without health insurance. The price of the bomb that killed 54 Iraqi civilians last week was in the tens of thousands of dollars. Enough to pay for a lot of health care and a few books to educate our children.

Chers amis, this is the end of a rather somber report. I am headed outside to listen to the cardinals and mocking birds sing under a perfect blue sky. There will be birds singing on a spring day eons from now. Not sure if there will be human beings left to observe. I leave you with a verse from Longchenpa hoping that you find the courage to carry on in this difficult time.

Since everything is but an apparition,
Perfect in being what it is,
Having nothing to do with good or bad,
Acceptance or rejection
You might as well burst out laughing!




March 6, 2003

Since this report will be appearing the day after Mardi Gras, I had originally intended to write about carnival and what it means to me. A local event, however, caused me to change the theme of this piece. Recently someone has insisted that the “French flag” floating in front of the mayor’s office in Erath be removed to protest the intransigence of that country viz à viz the American campaign for a war on Iraq. The ignorance of the supplicant is manifest by the fact that there is no French flag flying in front of the mayor’s office. The flags flying in front of the municipal building are those which have floated over the territory of Louisiana and include the flag of the Bourbon kings which Iberville planted at Mardi Gras point in 1699. The idiot who demanded its removal had evidently confused it with the actual flag of France..

This little anecdote would be funny if it were not so sad, indicating as it does a spirit of intolerance and racism directed against everything French. And this because France refuses to kow-tow to the US. I have a friend who is proprietor of a wine shop which deals in gourmet products, many of which come from France. For the last few weeks, he has seen many of his imported goods blocked at US customs. It would seem that there is an unofficial policy of intimidation aimed at those who, like my friend, deal in French imports. It doesn’t take long for cheese to be detained before a problem occurs.

What is even more strange in the flag story is that Erath is in the heart of Cajun Louisiana and the community has long prided itself on its French heritage. It’s hard to understand the level of stupidity necessary to arrive at such a small minded point of view. Unfortunately this is part of a larger phenomenon. From the US Secretary of Defense all the way to the idiot in Erath, France and everything French are being castigated. The war drums are beating in Washington and by not dancing to the rhythm, France is considered a traitor in the ranks.

The policy of the American administration shares a common theme with that of the government of Nova Scotia during the deportation of the Acadians. The idea of deporting all of the French speaking Catholic “French neutrals” from British territory had its partisans long before 1755 in spite of the fact that the Acadians, after 1713, were British subjects. Even after the Acadians accepted the draconian conditions of the government of Nova Scotia, the deportation was begun. According to the governor, it was too late for them to change their minds. It seems as though the current US administration is as intransigent as that of Nova Scotia, totally unable to imagine any solution to the current crisis other than war.

I remember all too well the Viet Nam war and the trauma that was plunged into the heart of American society by that conflict. We are only now finally healing the wounds left behind by those years of strife. There is no indication from the Bush administration that any real consideration has been given to what will happen once a war is begun. No real understanding of the consequences in the region, the world, nor in the United States itself.

On the other hand, the countries of Europe, France included, are very well aware of the eventual consequences of a war with Iraq. Europe cannot allow itself the arrogance which seems to be at the foundation of current US policy. A conflict in Iraq will most certainly spill over into the Middle East and Europe itself is likely to suffer directly from the displacement of population and the creation of a refugee problem in ways that will not effect the USA. With half a world separating it from the theater of action, the USA, in spite of all the terrorism alerts and the runs on duct tape propagated by the Dept. of Homeland Insecurity, will never be as vulnerable to the consequences of a military invasion of Iraq as will Europe. It is curious that since September 11, 2001, the great majority of arrests made in the so called war on terrorism have been in Europe. Is this because the European police is so much more effective than that of the US? Or is it because there is just so much more terrorist related activity in Europe? It seems to me that it is because the terrorists organizations have been able to penetrate the borders of the European countries much more effectively. This obliges the leaders of the European countries to factor in their greater vulnerability into their geopolitical calculations, at least those leaders who do not regard the US as a real world Santa Claus, and who are willing to blindly follow Washington’s lead in hopes of getting something in return.

The most troubling aspect of current US policy is its arrogance. Already to speak of a “war on terrorism” is an aberration. The terrorist acts of September 11, 2001 were not acts of war, they were criminal acts. To treat them as “acts of war” is to elevate them to a status which they do not deserve and to consecrate their perpetrators as warriors as opposed to criminals. The effect being that Osama bin Laden can be regarded not as a criminal, but as a warrior. At the same time, the US can clothe itself in the mantle of a holy war, a war of Good against Evil. This is very disturbing. The US should be doing everything in its power to capture international terrorists and to thwart their plans wherever they may occur. But we must avoid casting this action in terms of a “Holy War”, which can only lead to greater intolerance and racism. Something which, unfortunately, is already taking place. The very complex international situation is being reduced to a simplistic, “Are you with us or against us?” proposition which will not necessary best serve American interests in the long term. The further isolation of the US is bound to follow.

In a recent interview, former US president Jimmy Carter has said that during his lifetime he has never seen the level of ant-American sentiment which is prevalent in the world today. The current administration has done much to isolate even our closest allies. By refusing to sign the Kyoto accords on global warming, by stubbornly going ahead with the anti-missile defense program, the Bush administration has managed to isolate the US from the rest of the world, including the democratic nations who have here to fore been our natural allies and our greatest friends. It should come as no surprise that the Western democracies of Europe, with France and Germany at their head, are not prepared to blindly follow US policy especially since that policy risks pushing the world toward a conflict with unforeseeable consequences. Everyone agrees that Sadam Hussein is a brutal dictator and should be removed from power, but the goal of American policy should be to neutralize him rather than to absolutely invade a volatile region with no apparent understanding of the results that this action are likely to produce. In the present situation, supporting the UN inspectors is the most reasonable policy. It should not be abandoned because the US administration does not have the patience to let the inspectors do their job. This is simply what France has been saying, and for saying it, France has earned US reprobation and antagonism.

I have often heard, from silly Americans, that were it not for the US, the French would be speaking German today. One could also say that were it not for the French, the US would still be a British colony. In these times, careful consideration is required, not knee jerk reactionary posing. France was the first and has been one of the staunchest US allies. I am proud of my French heritage and the heritage of liberal democracy which France has given the world. On the other hand, I am concerned by the belligerent and reckless attitude which has come to characterize American policy, and I am frankly ashamed at the intolerance and simplistic rationale which has come to characterize how many in the US perceive the world.




February 5, 2003

Can't find report.




January 8, 2003

The first time I went to France, I was sixteen. My parents sent me on a summer-study-travel-vacation-trip which had at its heart the culture of ........France. Me and my American cohorts lived and pretended to study for six weeks in Switzerland and..... France. At that time in my life, I considered myself to be..... sophisticated. I felt myself to be quite refined, a cosmopole through and through. I listened to the music of Andy Williams and Antonio Carlos Jobim and fantasized upon becoming an international lawyer with several residences scattered about the globe including the major capitals of Europe and Latin America. I remember the first time I ever had strawberries and fresh cream. it was on a terrace in Leysin, Switzerland, overlooking a bucolic Swiss valley with the Swiss Alps and its jagged Swiss white capped peaks behind. It was also the first time that I heard “A Whiter Shade of Pale”, which is one of my two favorite songs, the other being “The Weight”. I was in love with a Cuban girl I had met in New York City, and my best friend was a scion of the Salvadorian elite. French culture fit right in to my scheme of things sophistiqué. It was part and parcel of my cosmopolitan connaissances. I was as yet pretty far removed from my ultimate status of avatar of Louisiana French culture.

In 1973, I went to France for the second time. I had met, quite by accident, a young Frenchman. He had come to the U.S. seeking the roots of his version of the American dream. He was one of the first Frenchmen, if not the very first, to visit South Louisiana heralding the call of traditional Cadien music. He had met my first cousin in New York. She had explained to him that there existed a French speaking community in Louisiana. One grey and dismal afternoon, he arrived on my front porch (I was living on Orange Street in Northside Lafayette, around the corner from Clifton Chenier’s house on Louisiana Ave.) looking much like a stray dog, not knowing whether to come on in or high tail it on the hell away from there. We became very close friends and have remained such for all of these thirty years. He now lives in Los Angeles and continues to practice the craft that he was learning when we first met, that of luthier. You can visit his web site and see his guitars at www.jamestrussart.com.

The summer of 1973 was the tail end of my very wildest year in New York. The record into which I had poured my heart and soul had been consigned to the dust bin of history following the original merger of WEA. The trip to France was just what the doctor ordered for my shattered ego. My partner, Michael Doucet, and I were welcomed with open arms by the French public. We played several folk festivals and were acclaimed everywhere that we went. After the New York adventure, which had left me bitter and confused, it was very satisfying to by so warmly received. This was the golden age of the French folk movement. With celtic-rocker Alain Stivel and the groupe Malicorne (led by Gabriel Yacoube) as its “figures de proue”, French folk music was all the rage. The phenomenon was fueled by the success of the English folk movement with groups like Fairport Convention and Martin Carthy. And here I was, 22 years old and ready to take the bull by the horns. From that moment in 1973, it seemed to me that my future as a songwriter could and should be expressed in French, a decisive moment in a budding career which had yet to find a direction. I began to translate my English songs into French and to write my first French ones.

After such a promising start, I experienced a setback during my next visit to France. My friend, James Trussart, had installed himself and held court in a magnificent if not “having known better times” country house atop the “Colline inspirée”, the “inspired ridge” of Sion, halfway between Strasbourg and Nancy. That house became the headquarters for the local, and in my case, international music scene of Eastern France. For many years, I arrived in Sion with an entourage of American musicians who were subsequently aumented by French players to form the neo-folk-rock-Cajun bands that accompanied me on my first European tours. In spite of that promising début, I have never been able to assume a prominent place on the French music scene. First of all, the folk movement began a steady and rapid decline after a brief period of glory. On top of that the band that I travelled with no longer corresponded to the acceptable norms imposed by the folk culture. As soon as I could afford to add a rhythm section, the band had grown to include bass, drums and electric guitar, all of which were way beyond the pale of French folk orthodoxy. We played a blend of folk-rock incomprehensible to the promoters of the folk scene. An American, singing in French did not compute in the French rock scene either. This fact has always disturbed me. The first article that ever appeared in the French folk-rock bible “Rock et Folk” was a review of my first English language album. So much for cultural solidarity. My arrival in Québec in 1974 changed everything. Encouraged by the success I achieved in French Canada, my trips to France became few and far between and the promising beginnings ultimately withered on the vine from neglect.

The inability of the French press to understand my situation as a French speaking Louisiana Cadien playing American roots music sung in French, has always been a rock up my butt. I had been spoiled by the reception in 1973. We had been received like kings, the French speaking descendants of French migrants to the French New World, returned 400 French years later. But once I had outraged the French folk world with my brand of energetic folk-rock, I no longer had an audience base to depend on. I began touring in the jazz circuit for lack of an alternative. I do come from Louisiana which is not far from New Orleans and play a sort of hybrid Euro-Afro roots music and so the jazz promoters were able to find a spot for me on their programs. But I was still not able to find my natual audience base. I was unable to circumnavigage the labyrinth of the French music business, which is weird enough, but especially foreign to me not being French. The audiences loved us, but we weren’t able to impose ourselves on the business. My irregular touring didn’t help matters much.

This could seem like another anti-French diatribe. I must admit a certain intolerance when it comes to certain aspects of French culture, such as: everybody smokes, dogs eat in restaurants next to people, and Parisians love to yell at any and everybody, but my own problem with French culture goes deeper than simple culture shock. And so is harder to deal with. Years ago its seemed to me that the French public owed me recognition simply because of who my ancestors were. Am I not one of the few French bluesmen or something like that? What is particularly hard to take for North American francophones is the apparent indifference with which the French hold their own language. The French find the Québécois interesting what with their maple syrup and their lumber jack hats, or the Cajuns with their spicy food and jazz music (!). (French people cannot even pronounce “Cajun” in French but pronounce the word for my community (Cadien) as do the English speaking Americans) It seems to me that people in France have no understanding of what it is to be part of a francophone linguistic and cultural minority in threatened with the extinction. (And how could they). On the other hand, the French are as adamant about imitating Anglo-American culture as they are indifferent to the plight of the French speaking minorities in their ancient colonies. Example: following our recent show in Paris (Vincennes), I was accosted in the dressing room by a fan. He complimented me on my “songwriting”, using the English term and mauling it pretty severely in the process. In North America, French speakers would make the effort to use the French term “auteur-compositeur”. In France, however, more prestige is attached to the English term and therefore to those who can use it. And so the French language as spoken in France is choc full of badly pronounced English words, thrown about in what is brazen attempt to appear “in”, i.e. snobishness. So we hear “morphing, coming out, building, e-Mail” and a host of other terms which are to an English speaker generally incomprehensible. This is certainly not a terrible thing, but it seems very odd to me the way the many people in France and particularly the media fall over themselves attempting to use the latest “in” word, while we francophones of North America are desperately trying to preserve our language, in or mostly out of current style. The impression is that there are many people in France and particularly those in the media who would prefer to speaker the language of Sheakespeare rather than that of Molière. After all, Paris is the fashion capital of the world.

What is particularly galling to me is the English language influence in the media. It is a question of fashion, but, after all, Paris is, as I have recently mentioned, the capital of fashion, which is, as compared to real culture, of relatively short duration. Real cultural change takes time as opposed to whatever is in fashion these days. Yet in spite of all of these galling gallic details, I remain as fascinated and absolutely seduced by French culture as when I was sixteen years old eating strawberries and cream on an outdoor terrace at the foothills of the French alps. Impossible to resist a culture which has given to the world the foundation of democratic philosophy, a country in which the tradition of tolerance is the best developed in the world. And a country in which the arts of the table are (arguably) the best in the world. Not to mention the countryside. (I have recently discovered the magnificent Normand coast, hiking the cliffside from Etrétat to Fécamp). There are, in France, thousands of small villages where one feels safe from the onslaught of the rampant consummerism which is propogating itself around the planet like a plague. And the love of a French woman who continues to inpsire me after a quarter century of “vie commune”.

In the streets of Paris, it is not unusual to see two automobilistes fighting over a few meters of space. In any public space, a bank or the post office, the queue resembles more a herd of wild cattle than the disciplined saxon lines to which Americans are accustomed. It grates on my nerves to hear a television commentator mauling an English phrase in a bold faced attempt to be “à la mode”. In the face of this apparent cultural pretention, it is difficult for me to control my own American elitist arrogance. But after having travelled the by-roads of France for these last thiry years, I have finally understood that the fault of incomprehension lies not with the French, but rather with myself. I have finally understood that it is up to me to make the effort if I hope to be understood. The people of France are like people anywhere and are sensitive to anything of interest presented to them in an attractive way. We should avoid imposing the preconcieved notions of any culture upon any other. All that we can do is to tell our story with sincerity and hope that it strikes a chord. And in France, the apparent indifference to North American French language culture is really just a lack of knowledge. I have understood that it is up to me to make the French people understand the plight of the French speaking minorities of North America. It is not that they do not care, but rather that they do not know. And so it is up to me to tell the story.