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Culture and Resistance
Z achary Richard is a unique voice, expressing both remembered loss and retained hope, rooted in historical awareness and crossing cultural and national boundaries. Richard is a direct descendant of Les Acadiens (later known as Cajuns), French-speaking farmer-settlers who long ago forged a peaceful, durable social alliance ( L’Acadie or Acadia) with the Micmac people of maritime Canada—perhaps the best example of European-indigenous socioeconomic cooperation on this continent. That rich achievement was destroyed by an imperial land grab—the forced British expulsion in the late 1700s of the Acadian settlers from what was renamed Nova Scotia.
That dispossession sent Richard’s ancestors to eventual refuge in Louisiana where, over centuries, they’ve carved out a new culture still rooted in French language and a dedication to hard work and love of both the land and the people of their adopted home. In Richard’s historical songs, Native American heroes like Crazy Horse stand side by side with Acadian leaders like Beausoleil Broussard and Jackie Vautour.
Cajun songs, like those of many exiles, are often happy explorations of heartbreaking subjects. Richard’s original ballads in both French and English are delivered in a smooth baritone that can soar to a weeping wail. Story songs of Canadian voyageurs, indigenous rebel heroes, jaded Louisiana pirates, economic exploitation, and environmental concerns color his three decades of recordings and legendary live performances.
Zachary Richard is a songwriter noted for his many benefit concerts, most recently on behalf of Gulf Coast relief. In the last decade, he’s established himself as both a published, prize-winning poet (in French and English) and as an astute, journalistic observer and commentator.
Richard’s perspective, both as a writer and as an activist, is at the same time generously global and intensely local. Born and raised in the southwest Louisiana Cajun country, he still lives there on a ten acre family farm, but he is a cultural icon in Canada—revered as a returned exile—and far better known in France than in the U.S. His album Cap Enrage went double platinum in Canada and his signature song “Travailler, C’est Trop Dur” has become a transAtlantic Francophone standard.
Richard started out in the early 1970s to study law, but, as he puts it, the lure of zydeco party music distracted him from that career path. He taught himself Cajun accordion and mastered songwriting. After he graduated from Tulane University, frenetic performing quickly took over for “Zack.”
Over the decades, with two dozen albums, he has become known as one of our continent’s most thoughtful and sensitive musical social commentators, as well as the author of mature love ballads and jump-up novelties like “Crawfish.”
I spoke with Zachary Richard recently by phone from his home in Scott, Louisiana. At the time, he was preparing to record a new album in Montreal.
NEVINS: In view of the devastation caused by the hurricanes of 2005, what are your cultural and environmental priorities?
RICHARD: My interests and priorities are the same as they’ve always been, with two major areas of focus: the French language and Acadian culture of Louisiana and Lousiana’s natural environment.
What are you doing to defend language and culture at present?
There are some 250,000 people in Louisiana who still speak French, but the numbers are decreasing each year. The most effective way to counter this is through language immersion school programs. There are now at least 28 French immersion programs in Louisiana public schools, as well as many Spanish language immersion programs.
As you know, education these days has become focused on tests under the No Child Left Behind policies. In fact, recent results have shown that kids in these language immersion programs score much higher in standardized testing, and there are volumes of proof of how language education makes you a better student and a better citizen.
However, not all school boards have embraced these programs, despite their demonstrated value. Those 28 French immersion programs are in a fragile state. About half are well-established, as in Lafayette, but others are in danger. For me, such programs preserve the local culture and develop a sense of tolerance and openness to other cultures.
Why is language so important?
What was the cultural impact of the hurricanes last year in your part of southwestern Louisiana?
Many schools were destroyed and classes had to be merged. We raised more than $300,000 this past fall through concerts in Canada and France, specifically for hurricane relief to help Acadian Louisiana rebuild itself, and we are now trying to get that money into the hands of the people who need it.
In Vermillion Parish, and other areas here, the school boards seem paralyzed. There’s been no movement from FEMA on rebuilding schools and some schools will have to be built 14 feet off the ground according to the flood protection standards they are tossing out.
In these conditions, preservation and expansion of language immersion programs are not a priority and I fear they may become “hurricane victims” themselves unless the recovery process is managed with cultural awareness. We are doing what we can do to encourage that.
What about the situation in New Orleans? You were recently there to do some recording and to tour flooded neighborhoods.
I was also there just after Katrina hit. Not much has changed in those several months’ time. A general lethargy has installed itself in the city. There’s no way the city of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana can afford the repairs. Two-thirds of the city is still uninhabitable. There are 175,000 people now in New Orleans. There had been 500,000 before Katrina.
What about the environment and the social effect of the hurricanes?
Who knows what they pumped into Lake Pontchartrain? The oyster beds and the farmers’ fields are all polluted. There has been no rain to wash them out. The land in southern Louisiana is slipping into the sea at the rate of a football field every 38 minutes. Entire communities, places I hung out in as a child, are now gone. Before the hurricanes, there were plans to allocate $14 billion to re-route the Mississippi River. Now it will cost $32 billion to protect New Orleans by rebuilding the levees and restoring the marshlands. Right now, a few restaurants are open in the French Quarter, but they’re half empty. Everybody has glazed looks on their faces. The city is dying.
Lafayette has assumed the role of new cultural capitol. Most of the New Orleans musicians have relocated there—a few of them stayed with me for a while after Katrina. FEMA trailers have sprung up everywhere, but there is no real plan for what most of the people are going to do. Desperate people from New Orleans are out in the country, walking the roads with no transportation and no way to look for work. It is very sad.
In songs such as “No French No More” you expressed the sorrow of the loss of language and culture and official callousness and discrimination. Your parents did not speak their native French language while you were growing up. Still, you continue to write and record in French. Do you see hope?
I’ve said that my parents suffered the cultural prejudice that hit their entire generation. French was strongly discouraged, even outlawed right here in French Louisiana. But I loved my grandparents and their way of speaking, and I have always loved how Cajun singers preserve the language in songs. French programs here are trying to create positive relationships.
The notion of Acadian identity, with links to the surviving Acadians still living in maritime Canada, remains strong. This is the 250th anniversary of the forced deportation of the Acadians from Nova Scotia. That’s a watershed event. It was ethnic cleansing, in our modern terms. Seven thousand people were expelled, and two thirds died along the way. Just a remnant made it here to rebuild in Louisiana.
A sense of outrage has fueled my commitment to the culture. But it’s not about hating. When Acadians meet each other they are always talking about “that thing,” that sense of identity. A poet I met said, “To be Acadian is to have forgiveness in your heart.” It’s really about remembering and honoring the memory of ancestors who were subjected to a genocide and still kept going forward.
This past year we created a statewide curriculum guide for teaching Acadian history in Louisiana. Textbooks here had few, and often derogatory, mentions of the “Cajun” people. It’s a miracle that the Acadian identity survived here.
In the midst of disaster, what is your role as an artist?
Songwriting, for me, is not a political exercise. I was glad to be able to raise some money for relief efforts here with recent concerts. But when I write songs, I think in three categories: (1) the troubadour romantic singer; (2) the tradition of the U.S. protest song; and (3) storytelling. Sometimes they overlap, as when she/he breaks your heart, but she’s/he’s an environmental activist so it will be okay. But I just have to write my songs as they come to me. “Reveille,” for instance, is a call to wake up, to think about what is happening to us. If people then take productive action, that is a good thing, too. I heard Steve Earle say that the right wing has loudmouth radio talk show hosts, but we don’t do that. We write songs.
This next French record I will be recording has songs about whales and about the restoration of the St. Lawrence. It pleases me a great deal to help, but as a songwriter I am not a politician. It has to mean something.
Your career has always crossed back and forth over language lines. Your 1990s records Women in the Room and Snake Bite Love were quite successful in the U.S., with mostly English lyrics. But since then you have recorded songs just in French. Do you plan more English language recordings in the future?
Oh, yes. My career has long been French based, with my most successful albums recorded in Canada, though I still write songs in English. I am even exploring the idea of doing some songs in Spanish as a collaboration with a Mexican poet I met recently. I consider myself bilingual in French and English, but, as another poet once said, to take away one of my languages is to cut off one of my hands.
Musically, you have moved from pretty wild accordion dance tunes to more quiet, thoughtful songs based in guitar and piano backing, though you’ve always kept a rocker’s edge, especially in your live shows. What sort of sounds can we expect on this next album?
I’m working with musicians from here in Louisiana—M.K. Napolitano and C.C. Adcock. They’re young enough to be my kids, but they bring a “walk on the wild side” to my music.
You have worked quite a bit in film, acting in a Canadian dramatic series and producing your own feature length documentary on Acadian history, Against the Tide . Do you have any other film projects in the works?
We’ll be filming an on-location documentary movie this winter in New Brunswick, focused on Jackie Vautour, the Acadian who led the resistance to the Canadian government’s expropriation of peoples’ homes and lands in 1968 to build a national park there. In the early 1970s, Jackie Vautour was a celebrated hero to Acadians. I did benefit shows for him then and even wrote a song about him. He sort of faded from the public view until six years ago when Canadian Park Rangers arrested and jailed him. He is still living on the park grounds in New Brunswick, in a squalid little hut with no electricity and has to walk through the snow to the outhouse.
How do you feel about the Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest in New Orleans in 2006-2007?
I know there is controversy and concern. It may seem hard to be having a good time when people are hurting deeply. But New Orleans is a celebrating culture. Even in the toughest times, you can’t dissociate celebration from life. I think it’s really necessary for this culture to re-affirm itself. We all still have the right to pursue happiness, don’t we? That’s a very French idea, after all.
Zachary Richard’s bilingual website is www.zacharyrichard.com.
Z Magazine Archive
CUBAN 5 - From May 30 to June 5, supporters of the Cuban 5 will gather in Washington DC to raise awareness about the case and to demand a humanitarian solution that will allow the return of these men to their homeland.
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