Louisiana Creole and Cajun music has long had a home in the D.C. area. From the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, the Twist and Shout club and Wolf Trap’s “Swamp Romp” to Texas Fred Carter’s WPFW Saturday afternoon radio show and dances at Glen Echo Park, distinctive fiddle and accordion-led bayou sounds have always been on the area’s musical menu.
On October 17 and 18, dance instructors and promoters Michael Hart and Sharon Schiliro presented the 1st annual “Dancing by the Bayou” festival at Glen Echo. The event hosted a number of Louisiana and D.C. zydeco and Cajun bands for people to dance to throughout that weekend. The roster included Nathan & the Zydeco Cha-chas, Jesse Lege & Bayou Brew, and Leroy Thomas and the Zydeco Roadrunners among many others.
Hart and Schiliro, who will be presenting a dance at Glen Echo on Sunday, November 8 with the Acadien Cajun Band, talked to me recently via e-mail about their festival and the state of zydeco and Cajun music in the Capital region. They combined most of their responses.
City Paper: Do you think the recent festival will translate into increased enthusiasm for upcoming events, and/or will it be like that Buffalo Gap event—an annual thing that folks look forward to once a year?
Hart and Schiliro: I do think we may get a lift in attendance at the upcoming November/December dances, but weather, football games, etc. can always cut into the attendance; we shall see! We do have an outstanding Zydeco band for our Mardi Gras dance in February to be announced shortly! The Mardi Gras dance, in the last two years, has had great attendance for a week night!
CP: Were you happy with your first festival? Any fave performers or dancers or stories you would like to mention?
H & S: Yes, we are very proud of what we achieved for our first Cajun and Zydeco music and dance festival at Glen Echo Park. While Mother Nature’s attire for the weekend did not include sunshine, we had dancers attend the festival from Richmond, Virginia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Philadelphia, Rhode Island, to name a few locales outside the beltway. You could feel and see the joy in the dancer’s faces. For many, it was their first time to Glen Echo Park.
We did have a magic musical moment during the Festival. Cedric Watson came to the stage during the performance by the BeauSoleil Quartet [a special 4 member version of BeauSoleil] late Saturday night. Dancers were dancing, but spun slowly to a stop as they all gathered around the stage. The ballroom lights were dim, as Michael Doucet and Cedric created the most beautiful fiddle sounds one could hope to hear. The dancers were mesmerized by the improvisational playing between Cedric and Michael. Pure music magic!
Another wonderful story is of the mother and daughter who attended the Festival. The daughter brought her 90-year-old mother, who used a two-handed walker, to the Festival to celebrate her 90th birthday. BeauSoleil, upon learning that the mother was from Louisiana, broke out into a Cajun musical version of Happy Birthday. The moment could not have been sweeter!
CP: How many people attended each individual session (Saturday day, Saturday night, Sunday day, etc.)
H & S: Over 300 people attended each day. We anticipated larger attendance, but the weather played a huge role in keeping folks away. It was the coldest weather in 50 years for this time of the year!
CP: When did you begin preparing for the fest?
H &S: We began planning and preparing for the Festival a year in advance.
CP: Was it hard getting certain bands? BeauSoleil, for example? Others?
H & S: Certain bands were challenging to book, due to their travel schedules. Others were easy. BeauSoleil Quartet was a blessing to book, since they were going to be in the area for a private event.
CP: Were you unable to get certain bands you wanted?
H & S: We contacted Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys and Geno Delafose. While they wanted to perform at the Festival, both they and we could not build enough dates around the Festival to offset the travel.
CP: Were you trying via the festival to establish a name within the national and international zydeco and Cajun dancing and music world or were you trying to get new folks into zydeco?
H & S: Our goal was to present a major event for the Washington, DC metropolitan area. We travel to many Festivals during the year, outside our area. To establish a Festival, strengthens the Cajun and Zydeco dance community and brings in excellent musicians and music. The Festival was a “thank you” to the entire dance community and the musicians, to say we support the community, the music and want the culture to thrive.
CP: Do you think you met your goal?
H & S: We met our goals, with the exception of the financial goal. Again, Mother Nature did not put her best dance foot forward that weekend!
CP: Did you lose money or break even or make money?
H & S: We did suffer a loss financially, but feel strongly it was due to the adverse weather.
CP: Do you know if that is that standard in the zydeco and Cajun world?
H & S: Yes, we have spoken to other promoters and a Festival normally takes several years to establish its identity and take hold in the community as a destination.
CP: The D.C.- area zydeco audience seems to be growing older. Did a bar-like atmosphere that Twist & Shout had help bring in some young folks to zydeco who eventually liked it, who might not have embraced the genre if it was just heard at Glen Echo, where they feel they may not fit in if they’re not doing the right dance steps? Any other thoughts on attracting a younger, newer audience?
H & S: While the Cajun/Zydeco community in the DC Metropolitan area is mature, we continue to attract new dancers. Younger dancers do come from time-to-time and really enjoy the music. The bar atmosphere that was Twist & Shout, Tornado Alley and others, drew younger folks but not so much for the music, but to drink, stand and watch the bands. Now go to the clubs in Louisiana, out in Lafayette, Lake Charles, and other areas outside New Orleans and it is filled with young, wonderful dancers. We continue to make the effort to draw young folks to the dances. Dancing by the Bayou is on Facebook and other social networks. Glen Echo Park does draw young folks and we welcome any ideas that might help bring them in greater number to our dances.
CP: Does the Glen Echo atmosphere (and its location far from Metro) dissuade newer folks from wanting to check out the genre?
H & S: Glen Echo Park is not easy to get to with public transportation. However, it does have a presence in its own right for fun and good quality dances. We have had young folks come to the dances, only to get other dancers to drive them to the nearest metro (Bethesda) after a dance.
CP: Do you have any ideas you want to try to reach newer folks—ads in local university newspapers, flyers, Facebook, ads in local media, etc.? Would this require a bigger budget than you have?
H & S: Indeed, we want to reach new folks! We always want to grow the community that supports Cajun and Zydeco music. We have a million great ideas, all of which takes money! We do as many of the “free” advertising opportunities as possible. I hope to apply for a grant this year to help support this effort. We also teach at large events and have a web presence of our own on Facebook. We are working on obtaining better local media coverage, but without the budget it is difficult.
CP: Will you be doing this again next year?
H & S: We think we owe it to the dance community, the musicians and ourselves to try again next year. The support of the community has been overwhelming!