Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Vermilionville, Acadiana

Vermilionville, an open-air museum in Lafayette, Louisiana -- "a Cajun/Creole Heritage & Folklife Park" -- is a first-rate example of that kind of museum. It has a pretty setting on the Bayou Vermilion, for one thing. Its lush landscape, described in great detail by the pamphlet you receive when you pay your admission, is another (now I know that Spanish moss is a member of the pineapple family). The place also has 19 buildings of pre-20th-century vintage, and of various original uses, but all from the part of the state called Acadiana, the concept of which seems to be a 20th-century invention.

To digress, Acadiana has its own flag, which I'd never seen nor heard of before. Not to be confused with the older flag of Acadia.

But the museum had more than interesting buildings in a good setting. The morning I visited, June 16, I ran into a couple of interpreters who not only knew their stuff, but could play their stuff. Stationed in the La Maison des Cultures, a Creole house dating from the 1840s, was a Creole fiddle player whose name I can't remember and which I couldn't spell even if I could remember, so French was it. Perhaps in his early 30s, the fellow was tall but not quite lanky, dark of hair and eyes but not quite so dark of skin, and dressed in what I took to be mid-19th century workingman's attire. We talked for a while about the peopling of Acadiana. I think he was glad I had some notion that Cajun and Creole were not the same, but rather ingredients in the ethnic (shall I say it?) gumbo that is Louisiana.

I was the only visitor at La Maison des Cultures, so we talked a while, and then he fiddled a while. "This," he'd say, "is how they play it in such-in-such a place." Then he played a few bars, or if inspired, more than a few. "Now this," he'd continue, "is more like such-and-such music, but you know, they listened to this-and-that music, too, so it's all mixed together." (Like gumbo.) More playing followed. I couldn't remotely keep up with him, so fluid was his demonstration of various styles and substyles. A remarkable talent.

In the 1890s schoolhouse, L'Académie de Vermilionville, I learned that the state of Louisiana suppressed the speaking of French in the schools for much of the 20th century, since that fact was written in large letters on the chalkboard (in English). I also met "Bob" (I can't remember his name either), an Acadian with an accordion. Tall like the fiddle player, but older and Caucasian, he too was in period clothes, and was just as talented. "I heard this when I was a boy," he'd said, and then launch into a blur of hand and finger movements that made the accordion sing. "Now this one, you might have heard in such-and-such a place." More music would emerge.

I wouldn't have heard it in such-and-such, since my experience in Acadiana is sadly limited. But I left Vermilionville early that afternoon, and left Lafayette itself the next day, wanting more. I'd say that's the mark of a good destination.

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