Here's a test: Ask someone to describe Cajun music. Can they do it? It's a hard style to define, probably because it encompasses and transcends so many genres. It's is an amalgamation of several national music styles, descended from the former province of Acadia in the areas now known as Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and northern Maine, displaced by the British and dispersed to southern port towns.
Carrying French, German, African and Caribbean influences -- yet still uniquely North American -- Cajun music is BeauSoleil's specialty.
"Every time I play or sing a tune, I think about its origins, how and when I learned it and what it means to me now," BeauSoleil singer and fiddle player Michael Doucet wrote in an email. "The listeners don't have that experience, so to convey (the song) genuinely, I simply go back to what it meant to me the first time I myself heard or learned it."
BeauSoleil was founded in 1975 and released its first album two years later. The name, which means "beautiful sun" in French, has a double meaning for Doucet. Joseph Broussard dit Beausoleil was an Acadian rebel leader against the British when he was deported with many of his people to places like Louisiana, which are still strongholds of Acadian culture.
"When I was a child, there was a huge family reunion in Loreauville, La., at 'Beau Soleil,' the house of Armand Broussard, Joseph Broussard dit Beausoleil's son," Doucet explained. "There, the elders would tell us the story of Beausoleil in both French and English before we were allowed to go out and play, so it was in my psyche when in 1976 I was asked to perform in France and the promoters wanted a name. It was a beautiful sunny day and BeauSoleil came up. It was significant both to what I was doing and my heritage."
Doucet has received numerous accolades in his own right, including a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to study the roots of Cajun music culture by working with traditional musicians throughout Louisiana, sometimes recording their music. He also created a college course on Acadian/Créole music.
"The grants came about in the 1970s," wrote Doucet. "I took it upon myself to document the music of elder musicians and perhaps record their music so that younger generations might be curious about it enough to perpetuate the style of music that was still being played at that time. It was a wonderful experience and I continue to do research."
Today, BeauSoleil includes Doucet, his brother David Doucet on guitar and vocals, Billy Ware and Tommy Alesi on percussion, and Mitchell Reed on bass and fiddle, as well as a constant stream of guest artists. For this latest tour, Reed will be temporarily replaced by formidable New Orleans Créole banjo player Don Vappie. The group has toured in all 50 states at least three times and in 33 countries, according to Doucet, spending at least half the year on the road. The group has earned three Grammy awards and numerous nominations.
Their latest album, "From Bamako to Carencro," which was released in February, takes the group even deeper to the roots of Cajun music, tracing its lineage from Mali to Louisiana. Gliding easily from lyrics in French to songs in English, the album pulls the listener along on rapid, upbeat percussion sets one minute, then on the slow wail of a violin for a melancholy ballad the next.
Doucet said that BeauSoleil delves deeper into their musical heritage with each album they produce -- sometimes with new songs, sometimes by reimagining an old song.
"Songs tell a story and that story is always new and unfolding," wrote Doucet. "That's how I compose songs, when something of the human nature of things is not being told and needs to be said."