The Spice of Cajun Life

‘This child belongs with us. She’s got Leblanc in her, and Cancienne way back, and before that, Thibodeaux.’
— Tim Gautreaux, "Floyd's Girl"

After experiencing the near deadness of Baton Rouge (it felt like a contemporary ghost town, too lifeless to be a state capital), we traveled to Lafayette, the city that felt the most authentically “Louisianan” of all the cities on our journey--at least, to me it did.

I say this because it did not feel flooded with tourists, but it still had enough people for us to interact with for lengthy periods of time. The more rural, “small town” atmosphere of the city made it feel more welcoming. Our ventures into Cajun music and dancing also integrated us more into the Cajun culture.

Immediately upon arriving in Lafayette, we immersed ourselves in a surrealistic world where our first meal—poboys and catfish galore—was accompanied by dancing to zydeco music. We ate at Randol’s and watched couples dance slowly around the floor, spinning and smiling, while the people around us and sitting along the fringes of the dance floor cheered and spoke to each other in their thick accents. I savored my well-seasoned catfish and watched the spectacle through the glass pane in front of me.

Had I read Tim Gautreaux’s short story, “Floyd’s Girl,” before this experience I likely would not have expected his characterizations of Cajun life and Cajun people to be so accurate. Yet, I read the story the day after arriving and found myself captivated by how well he had outlined his characters, showing us so much of their personalities simply through their actions and dialogue. Although I had only tasted a sample of the Cajun life, I already understood the accuracy of his depictions.

I remember as soon as we had driven into the city, I saw a car with a license plate that read “IAM KJN.” I was a little too excited to see it and I had no idea why. It gave me a great first impression of Lafayette: it signified the pride that the people had in their Cajun culture.

I think of everything Gautreaux covers in his story, he captures this pride best. He pits Floyd, T-Jean, his grandmère, Mrs. Boudreaux, and even little Lizette against the Texas man who attempts to kidnap Lizette. The antagonist’s role as a Texan proves to be vital to the story: it seems as if the act itself, while atrocious, doesn’t anger them as much as the symbolism behind the act, the idea that this man from another state, another culture, this random man is trying to take little Lizette away from the community that raised her. By carrying her off to another land, like a hurricane, he would wipe away her family, her culture, her entire lifestyle, eradicating her sense of belonging and, ultimately, her Cajun pride.

There’s nothing wrong with west Texas, but there’s something wrong with a child living there who doesn’t belong, who will be haunted the rest of her days by memories of the ample laps of aunts, daily thunderheads rolling above flat parishes of rice and cane, the musical rattle of French, her prayers, the head-turning squawk of her uncle’s accordion, the scrape and complaint of her father’s fiddle as he serenades the backyard on weekends…
— Tim Gautreaux, "Floyd's Girl"

Gautreaux structures his story by separating it into the different points of views of everyone involved—excluding the Texas man. It works perfectly in conveying the obligation everyone feels they have in helping Floyd get his daughter back: Mrs. Boudreaux letting Floyd use T-man’s car, T-jean’s grandmère’s gift of a St. Christopher statue, Nonc letting him use a plane. Gautreaux certainly hits at a togetherness in the story. The last section in the story even has the heading “Ensemble,” in which everyone works to take Lizette back from the Texas man (not one singular perspective) and announce that he wouldn’t have been able to take the culture out the girl either way.

‘You, if you would’a went off with her, you wouldn’t have got nothing. Some things, you can’t take. All you would get is her little body. In her head every day she’d hear her daddy’s fiddle, she’d feel okra in her mouth. She’d never be where you take her to.’
— Tim Gautreuax, "Floyd's Girl"

The sense of community between everyone in the story also translated into our adventures in Lafayette. These elements came through most powerfully during our trip to Tom’s Fiddle & Bow in Lafayette. I must admit that I felt uneasy beforehand, as it was a like a potluck event with music and I felt weird about bringing food and ourselves to a potluck where we knew no one.

Yet, every person there welcomed us with open arms, asking about us, about the program, about what we wanted to do. They showed us around the shop next-door and invited us to read any work we had for later that night. And, as we sat around and ate, more people walked in and joined the group in their conversations. What surprised me most was that some of these people were newcomers; like us, they had never been there before, but had wanted to join, usually with a buddy who was familiar with the gathering. Yet, they spoke to everyone as if they had known them for years. They blended right into the atmosphere of the shop.

Everyone took out their instruments before long, tuning them, including themselves into the circle of chairs in the middle of the room. And soon after, everyone started playing. There was no lineup of songs, no preparations in between; people just offered up song names and the group would play, either knowing the music by heart or going along with it. It reminded me of the way my tios and tias in Mexico requested songs for the band to play at birthday parties and all danced the same Mexican dance or sang the same Spanish song. There was a clear cultural unity, customs embedded in the blood, and it was beautiful to witness.

It fit so well with the story, which I had finished by the time we visited. The way they spoke to each other at Tom’s Fiddle & Bow even felt similar to the characters in “Floyd’s Girl.” But, it was those themes of togetherness and pride that seemed to shine through the most, in the story and in the fiddle shop. It was perhaps one of the greatest glimpses of the power that literature has in capturing the essence of a place; not just the landscape, the street names, the prevalent food, but the atmosphere, the tone.

I felt like this was confirmed during one of our conversations with one of the fiddle players at Tom’s Fiddle & Bow, Joel (who also had an awesome voice). Chipping into the conversation we were having with some other folks about writers who focus on the bayou and Cajun life, he asked if we had read Tim Gautreaux yet. I said that we had just finished reading a story of his and he responded, saying that he felt Gautreaux was the man who captured Cajun people and Cajun life the best. Although I had already begun to see the similarity beween Gautreaux’s story and the atmosphere of Lafayette, hearing a local confirm the accuracy of his writing made it feel even more enlightening.

While Lafayette didn’t have the flashiness of the French quarter or the carefree relaxation of Grand Isle, it provided some of the most enriching experiences during our trip, some of the best glimpses into the customs and characteristics that distinguish Louisiana from every other part of the United States (and even the world).


‘... The only thing that keeps him from thinking he is not a hog is that radio. Take that radio away, and let’s see what you can do for the soul of a hog.’
— Ernest J. Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying

New Orleans: the birthplace of jazz.

Knowing the title this city held, we could only expect our journey through Southern Louisiana to take us through magical musical territories. However, it has actually been more than I expected. Not only is the jazz, the bluegrass, the Cajun music, the street drumming, and everything else practically ubiquitous here—take a late night stroll through the French Quarter and you’ll hear different genres of music coming at you from all directions—but music has taken a larger role in the trip’s significance for me and in the texts that we’ve read.

Upon arriving in Grand Isle, our main source of music was the sea, which greeted us with beautiful melodies, consistent crashing of waves—upon one another and against rocks. I was happy to read about the allure and the musicality of the sea in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. Yet, Chopin surprised me by also making literal music—or a less metaphorical music, I should say—a vital element to Edna’s story.

In the first half of the story, Robert asks Mademoiselle Reisz if she would play the piano for Edna, seemingly knowing Edna’s fondness for her talent. Now, Chopin writes that Edna was “very fond of music” and “musical strains, well rendered, had a way of evoking pictures in her mind.” Yet, Mademoiselle Reisz’s piano playing evoke no pictures for her. Instead, “the passions themselves were aroused within her soul...” She believes it makes her feel this way because it was the first time she was “ready” for the music, ready for the experience.

She saw no pictures of solitude, of hope, of longing, or of despair. But the very passions themselves were aroused within her soul, swaying it, lashing it, as the waves daily beat upon her splendid body. She trembled, she was choking, and the tears blinded her.
— Kate Chopin, The Awakening

I thought this was strange since I would expect an unexpected bombardment of beautiful music to affect someone most deeply. However, as we headed into New Orleans, to many venues where we obviously expected great music to be played, Edna’s sensation began to feel more real for me. Although it wasn’t solely piano music that captivated us in New Orleans, it’s difficult to ignore the similarity between the intimacy of her experience and the intimacy I have experienced here, sitting or standing among a crowd of people but knowing that my reaction, my perception of the music is different from everyone else’s. I’m sure that other people feel it deeply, that it arouses rarely tapped emotions, but I wonder if anyone else feels the near-hypnosis, the poetry that sways the body as I do when I listen intently to the sounds which circulate through the air of Preservation Hall. I wonder if people clap to clap or clap when the music moves them to clap; if people sway or even tremble, as Edna did, or if they let the music become a background to the canvas of thoughts in the mind.

As the rest of the audience does in The Awakening, the crowd may yell out their praise for the musician and it may very well signify “a fever of enthusiasm,” but you never really know what’s going on in the minds of everyone else as they listen. It’s an interesting way of learning that, although people may express similar reactions, each response is unique. For Edna, because of the music’s ability to bring her to tears and the fact that it coincides with her developing infatuation with Robert, it almost felt to me as if the music catalyzed and intensified her desires. It simply made her feel more and this may have been a giant stepping stone in allowing her to confront the emotions she held within.

This urged me to see the power that music had on the character in this story, especially in conjunction with the sea and the voice of the water. I’m not sure I could imagine the effect of the music without the landscape as an equal influence on Edna. In this way, the novella served as a great introduction to the conversation between the landscapes, the music, and the people of Southern Louisiana. All elements felt significant to the story and it served as a nice precursor for the voyage to New Orleans and Cajun country, where I felt I gained a stronger sense of this conversation.

Music did play a small role in the lives of the characters in Interview with the Vampire (our next novel): Lestat, one of the vampires at the center of the novel, surprises the protagonist, Louis, and the readers with his reluctance to kill his friend, a musician. He appears to be magnetized by the musician and his “disturbing” music. Something about him and his music seem to keep Lestat from biting into him and draining him.

However, it’s the role that the music plays in the novel A Lesson Before Dying, as well as the musical atmospheres we absorbed ourselves into in New Orleans and Lafayette, that begged me to ponder the relation of music to the area more deeply, especially in regards to the African American experience.

In the novel, Grant Wiggins, the protagonist who has achieved the rare status of serving as an educator for the children in his Cajun community, struggles to connect with Jefferson, a young man convicted of murder, sentenced to death, and called a “hog” during his trial. Grant’s aunt wishes for him to speak to Jefferson, to get him to die with dignity, as “a man” and not as a hog. Grant struggles to reach Jefferson until he has a conversation with him about the things he wants most before death. Listening to his desires, he offers Jefferson the gift of a radio, which completely changes the dynamic between the two and the course of the story.

... I found a way to reach him for the first time. Now, he needs that radio, and he wants it. He wants something of his own before he dies.
— Ernest J. Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying

The radio seems to serve not only as a distraction for Jefferson from the suffocating thoughts trapped in the jail cell with him, but as an object that he can keep for himself, an object that he wanted but never owned. It’s an object of comfort, but at its core, it is something that is his.

The radio’s meaning increased upon our visit to Ernest J. Gaines’ home in New Roads, an invaluable trip in which we got to meet his family, look inside the church that inspired one of the settings for the novel, and sit around his dining table as he responded to our questions.

Morgan had asked him a question about music and its role in the book and he gave a response that still urges me to consider the music of this region in conversation with the cultures and the people that inhabit it. He said that blues, jazz, and other types of music he grew up listening to allowed him to understand African American culture. He mentioned the difficulty of attaining this knowledge from books because of the lack of representation of African American culture in them. Therefore, music took on a huge role in this education. Much like Jefferson, music offered a place for Dr. Gaines to carve out a home for himself. Like Jefferson, music served as a catalyst for his education and became a way of tying him to his community.

With this context, our walks through Bourbon Street—despite the puddles of vomit lying on the curbs—and through city parks feel more significant. While I already sensed the significance of the music to the people bringing it to life, reflecting on the music as a mode of communication between individuals and their communities made the music feel even more substantial, as if it overflowed with the power of its meaning to the musician. Walking through Congo Square, a historic place where slaves used to gather on Sundays to dance and play music under the code noir system, aroused these emotions before we even read about them in A Lesson Before Dying.

We sat down in some benches in the park to read and, as we got up to leave, we encountered a man in a wheelchair holding a trumpet, willing to play for us. His friend attempted to bring out a tip bucket, to which he responded, “No, we don’t need that.” And he proceeded to blow into the trumpet, squeezing out some soulful tunes. The best moment, however, came about a minute later when he stopped playing, opened his mouth and began singing, his voice coarse but evocative, beautiful, calming, containing as much soul as Louis Armstrong, Al Green, Otis Redding, all the singers known for singing with emotion rather than technique. Afterward, everyone I talked to could only mention the beauty of his voice.

It was certainly an incredible moment acknowledging the history of the place and getting treated to a live performance just as we expected to leave. The past and the present meshed so beautifully in those moments.

It also wouldn’t feel right to exclude the significance of music (and dancing) as we trekked into Cajun country, settling in Lafayette. I felt that Lafayette offered us the most authentic taste of Louisiana culture out of every city in our journey. We probably had more one-on-one conversations with the residents of Lafayette and our interactions with them, especially in Randol’s restaurant and Tom’s Fiddle & Bow shop, gave us greater insight into the lives of Louisianans. Granted, it’s difficult to generalize their lifestyles, but they still felt more homey than the tourists of New Orleans.

Several of us danced mindlessly—or mindfully, maybe, since people tend to think too much when they dance to music they’re unfamiliar with—to the folky sounds of Cajun music at Randol’s. It was wonderful looking through the giant panes of glass separating the diners from the dancers, peeking at the dancing couples rocking back and forth or guiding each other in circles around the dance floor. However, the experience meant more when a small group of us took to the dance floor without any idea of what to do, but feeling the grooves of the music and moving our bodies accordingly.

I love dancing. For me, there’s something beautiful about creating your own interpretation of the music and letting it move your body, letting it control the movement of your feet, the shake of the hips, the bounce of the shoulders. Of course, it doesn’t always come so naturally. It took some time and some pre-planning for me and Morgan to get into our groove. Yet, there still exists a magic in familiarizing yourself with the patterns in the music and allowing yourself to feel comfortable with something that initially felt foreign. By the time I danced with Ogechi, I felt like I knew some basic movements that felt comfortable and compatible with the music and it became easier to let the music guide our movements.

A couple days later, at Tom’s Fiddle & Bow, our dancing had been reduced to shoulder shifts and head bobs, but it provided a greater understanding for me in the bond between people, music, and the environment around them. If I ever saw a group of fiddlers jamming out together in California, singing songs about rain and bayous, I’d probably be flabbergasted. However, it felt so natural there. It provided me with the weird sensation of having felt as if I’d experienced it before, while also feeling surreal because of the strangeness of it all.

I remember there were a few moments where I stood on the back porch with the bluegrass musicians, looking out past the screens in front of me and into the brown water and bright green bushes of the bayou, letting the sound of fiddles, ukuleles, and warm harmonic voices supplement the serenity of the landscape. I remember thinking about how these moments were singular to this place, that I could never experience this same combination of elements, these same emotions anywhere else. Everything was working together to give me a taste of a culture that I had never truly known, but that I loved and admired.

I can recall moments infused with music from every city we’ve visited in Louisiana and I think it has proven to be one of the most transcendental aspects of this trip. While the moments of cultural education and enchanting entertainment offer some amazing carefree experiences, the music has offered moments which allow the mind to linger, to consider the present moment and to wander into the past, the history of the place and the conversation between the people and this history. The joint act of reading about the power of music for characters like Edna and Jefferson and actually living through the experience of music in the places where these characters resided has proven to be one of the most rewarding experiences for me. It’s one thing to read about the music of a city and its cultural significance, but to breathe in that music and to listen to its conversation with the people, the culture, the history is another reality altogether.

Alfredo's Other Music Picks

Just a few random music selections that I felt either fit the location or that have stuck with me upon hearing it here:

One of the most significant songs for me on this trip after it enchanted me at Preservation Hall. It inspired my poem, "Preservation Hall."

A song about a woman from New Orleans. A beautiful way to hone in on all the details of the life of a native.

A song that meant a lot more after everyone joined in to sing along on the back porch of Tom's Fiddle & Bow.

Leon Bridges just fits the region so well... especially when you reside in a hotel across from the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge.

Preservation Hall



Sitting front row: fear of feeling
too close; staying seated, stiff,
two feet away from the man in the middle,
the man who swipes away any lingering doubt
with the first thumb on the trumpet,
his first toot trailing through the room,
slow flight into everyone’s ears,
minds excited by the burst
breaking the quiet in the room.

The crystal call of the clarinet
and the strong blow of the trombone
permeate the space the most
but the subdued boom of the bass,
the dun dun duns of the drums,
the light ting with each strike of a piano key
all fall into the watercolor wind,
whirling together to create a concoction
for the audience, a taste of New Orleans
as potent as the Cajun crawfish,
the café beignets, the gulf gumbo.

After letting each man spice up his own dish—
the clarinetist cleansing his soul,
offering the most appetizing treat,
squeeze squeeze squeezing that magic
out of the tool in his hand,
melting his heart into mine—
the head chef, the man in the middle
closes those eyes and opens his mouth,
letting his soul, that soul guide him.

If you close your eyes, you can hear
Louis himself, a voice riding along
a bumpy road on its way out the mouth,
a voice thick as a Louisiana swamp,
thick as a sticky syrup, sweet,
smoothing out into the air,
a jazzy sap drizzled, seeping into
the dense honeyed sound of the bass,
the piano, the beat beat beat of the drum,
reminding us that time,
although slowed and savored,
passes by with each gruff growl
pushing its way out from the mouth
of the man in the middle.

Gimme your Big Easy, middle man,
your mind’s map, your days out
on Basin Street benches, warming
the seat beneath you and the bodies
of the few gathered around you,
listening to the spirit, the soul
build up inside, the voice of New Orleans
directing your own, guiding your fingers
as they cast hell out of the trumpet in your hands.

Gimme your story, your history,
the story of your city,
the story of those Basin Street days;
tell me, sing to me about the crooks,
the lawyers, the children, the dogs,
the days of milking out malaise
on Monday mornings, cultures blending
like the blare, the blow, the bounce
billowing into both my ears,
settling in my stomach,
snaking back up to the shoulders,
shaking and swaying the torso,
freeing themselves down to my feet,
which punctuate time with their

That gruff gravel voice and that Southern swing
seem to rouse the crowd, as they,
after the man in the middle has let go of Louis
(though his Louisiana soul still looms),
wake from their walk through this wonderland,
compelled, complimenting,

I let my own claps fall onto the heap
of applause, indiscernible among the rest,
but I stand entranced,
my greatest gratitude living
in the way my heart engulfs the music,
the way I refuse to let it die, the way I
swallow that soul, let it slide down,
big and easy,
into every part of my being.

Bookpacking through the Grand Isle

The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.
— Kate Chopin, The Awakening

Louisiana Waters

My feet don’t crunch on the sand,
its exterior like soft caramel skin,
smooth as the uncrashing waves.

Winged shadows float along the land, 
brisk but elegant, feathered outlines
etching birdsong into my soundscape.

An unworried bird with mechanical legs
scurries across the sand, fleeting feet
familiar with the warmth of the grains.

I reach the firmer terrain, wetness
darkening it. The water looks less calm
the closer I walk towards it, more alive.

I don’t walk into the waves as much as
they charge towards me, smoothing out
before caressing my too-white feet,

welcoming me, beckoning me to bathe
in its body, to embark on a voyage
to the barricade of rocks just beyond.

The rocks, arrayed in overlapping piles,
break the waves, forcing eruptions, but act
as companions rather than interveners—

the drummers in this band, the creators
of the bang and the clang, accentuating
the lyrics and the water’s raspy voice.

I look down at my feet and find them
vanished beneath the blue liquid blanket
covering me halfway up my calf.

Clouds of sand swim like fish around me
as I engulf more of myself into the body,
wading, wandering, waiting, wondering.

I see dolphin fins splintering the waves, 
weaving through their wavering world, 
splashing away the white of my mind,

wiping at every inch of the canvas inside,
throwing me into a different kind of
wilderness, witnessed through the eyes.

More of me has disappeared beneath the
surface and I think of how I can’t even
see how deep the water’s beginning is.

Even the pile of rocks, who sit still
for years, day and night, wouldn’t know
how far your presence flows.

How deep do you go?

Immediately upon stepping outside the New Orleans airport and driving our way through Southern Louisiana in our huge “minivan,” I felt captivated by the landscape. It was completely different for me, especially as a California native who hasn’t traveled much. The green was everywhere and I felt compelled to stare endlessly through my window, taking pictures which gave absolutely no justice to the landscape (many came out looking like just blurry blobs of green).

The water was also everywhere. I noticed that the trees did not stand tall among grass or expanses of dirt, but rather seemed to emerge from the water flooded around their roots. This amazed me!

As we entered Grand Isle, I also found it hard to tear my eyes away from the view. We had passed over the water at a beautiful hour, just as the sun began to descend and paint itself on the surface of the water. There was more to see as we drove closer to our home for the next three days: many houses built high upon tall wooden stilts, but each one unique in the name plastered on it (my favorite name was “Claw Enforcement”).

We arrived at our own place along the beach, “Sol Et Terre.” It was also stilted with a beautiful brown wooden exterior. Looking around indoors was even more of a pleasure: the bedrooms big enough to fit up to three people; the board games and books stacked along the shelves; the main living area with the comfy couches, the TV, and the rocking chairs facing the beach. It was so foreign to me, an absolute luxury, a calming home.

Although I loved reading next to the huge windows facing the beach and laughing with everyone else around the big table, one of my favorite parts of being on Grand Isle was venturing into the sea during the few trips to the beach.

We had been reading The Awakening by Kate Chopin and one of my favorite parts of the book was the description of Edna’s growing kinship with the water after she learns to swim. Heading out to the same body of water that she had relished in was an almost surreal experience. And I, not a frequent beach-goer, felt alive in the water. It was a feeling I didn’t feel often, but it became familiar to me through the love for being in water that I had always possessed. I don’t think I’ve ever felt unhappy in a sea, an ocean, even a pool. This was no different.

I had traveled out to sea both by myself and with others, completely different experiences. When I walked out to the water with others, jumping waves and getting submerged in the salty world beneath the surface, the experience felt like more of a mindless bliss. Lots of smiling, heart racing, throwing myself into the water like a child.

By myself, however, I was able to remain calm and pensive and allow the water, the sand, the rocks to influence my thoughts. It was during my time wandering alone on the beach that I came up with most of the lines for the poem above. I don’t know if I’ve ever really written about nature. I laughed at myself because it’s so different from the material I typically write and I feel like Romantic nature poets were the guys that everyone despised reading because their poetry was too happy and too “flowery.” Yet, I couldn’t help but feel Romantic when on the beach alone. It really is a poetic place.