Out here in the Bay Area, one doesn’t often find a bayou, riverboat or streets named after distilled liquors. One can, however, find plenty of the music that fits these images – just like cayenne pepper goes with shrimp etouffee.
“I’m from Eunice, Louisiana, and I was born and raised into that music,” says Danny Poullard, a fourth-generation Cajun musician and one of the elder statesmen of the Bay Area Cajun scene. “The Bay Area, I would say, probably has the biggest Cajun scene other than Louisiana. There’s a whole lot of adrenaline that goes through you when you play that music; it’s really dance music, a happy type of music and fun to dance to.”
The seeds of Bay Area Cajun culture were planted on December 7, 1941, a day that will live in infamy. When Pearl Harbor catapulted the United States into World War II, Richmond quickly became one of the nation’s largest shipyards. Workers from around the nation traveled westward in search of jobs, many of them from the Louisiana area.
While many of those original Cajuns are almost all gone, their influence is not forgotten.
“Well, I’ve seen a dance in a ballroom that’s had 550 people in it have to turn away 100 people,” says Billy Wilson, a Cajun and Zydeco musician for the last 20 years. “That’ll give you an idea of the hardcore dance community in the Bay Area. In the Bay Area alone, there are probably 15 bands that can play this kind of music. I don’t think that exists anywhere other than Louisiana and here.”
Cajun music’s solid roots in the Bay Area hearken back to the Semien brothers, Joe and Little John, who arrived in the 1940s. Playing at church dances and folk festivals, a young Poullard joined Little John’s band in the early ’60s as a bass player. Picking up tips from Little John and his own father, Poullard learned to play the accordion, and eventually fronted his own bands. Along with the Semien brothers, Poullard taught a number of local musicians his Cajun stylings, including Wilson.
“What has really kept the culture alive is people who were not from Louisiana got interested in the music and dancing,” says Poullard. “They’ve brought things to where they are today.”
Rather than playing solely to a Cajun crowd at church socials, today’s musicians play to large, diverse crowds at local festivals. One of the most established is the Cajun & More Festival at the Berkeley Farmers’ Market, which is now in its 11th year.
Scheduled for today at Center Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., this year’s lineup includes Danny Poullard & Friends, Gerard Landry and the Lariats (featuring Wilson on steel guitar), Johnny Harper’s Carnival and Wild Buds (with former Hot Tuna harmonica virtuoso Will Scarlett).
“The Cajun crowd is the go-for-the-fun crowd,” says Berkeley Farmers’ Market co-manager Kirk Lumpkin, who is also the lead vocalist for Wild Buds. “It’s not like back when I played with the original rock scene when people would always kind of think ‘is this band cool enough that I might want to dance?’ With the Cajun crowd, on the first tune from the first band,
they’re up and dancing. They’re there to have fun and dance.”
Offsetting the down-home Cajun and Zydeco of Poullard and Landry (a Poullard disciple), Lumpkin has opened up the field with the “funky New Orleans R & B” of Johnny Harper and “West Coast Mardi Gras” of Wild Buds.
Harper, the Carnival’s lead singer and guitarist, describes his six-piece band’s music as sounding a bit like The Meters, Dr. John and New Orleans legend Professor Longhair. Setting New Orleans R & B apart from your garden variety R & B is the centrality of the Caribbean-influenced piano and “second-line rhythm” in the percussion session.
“In a New Orleans parade with a brass band and a bunch of drummers, the second line are people who are not part of the organized parade but are people from the community who come in and join because a parade is a good time to be had,” explains Harper, who used to strum with Poullard as a fill-in guitarist for the Louisiana Playboys 20-odd years back.
“This adds a tremendous amount of rhythmic complexity and extra percussion.”
Yet while the format of the Berkeley Farmers’ Market Cajun fest has changed a bit, the end goal is still the same: Have a good time.
“It’s just fun music, you know?” says Landry. “It always puts you in a good mood.”