“The trail to today’s Cajun music and culture was blazed a long time ago,” muses Cajun music icon Jo-El Sonnier.
And Sonnier’s a big part of that “trail” himself. Often called the “King of Cajun,” he’s been a fixture on the Cajun music scene since the early 50s, when at the age of three he first picked up an accordion. He had his first recording session at the age of 6. He’s a four-time Grammy nominee, a La. Music Hall of Fame member, and a winner of numerous awards and honors from the Cajun French Music Association. He’s played throughout Louisiana, from festivals to CFMA concerts, throughout the US and all over Europe. But what he remembers most at this point of his long career is, perhaps, playing the clubs in the Lake Area during the late 1950s and 60s.
“Everyone had a place to go to listen to music,” Sonnier says. “There were Cajun music clubs all over the place in Southwest Louisiana. People couldn’t wait to hear Cajun music.”
Places such as the Sham Rock Club, the Bamboo Club, Club 90, Moulin Rouge, The Green Frog, the Big Oak, The Purple Peacock, The Riceville Club, The Mermentau Club, The St. Regis, Club 73 and so many others.
“They’re all gone now,” says Sonnier. “There’s no place to play Cajun music here.”
Other than the once-a-year festivals and occasional “swamp pop nights” at some local clubs, people aren’t able to hear and dance to Cajun music as they were each weekend in the 50s and 60s.
“Bands pretty much have to leave this area if they want to play,” says Sonnier.
That’s something he, along with his wife, Bobbie, would like to see change.
A Place To Eat, Dance, Listen And Learn
The Lake Area is in dire need of a place, says Sonnier, for people to hear Cajun music — and dance to it, of course, for you can’t listen to Cajun music without dancing — on a regular basis. What’s more, he says, that venue needs to be a center which brings together the music, food, culture and history of the Cajuns.
“What I see is an entertainment and education center,” says Sonnier.
The Sonniers envision a cultural center complete with museum including exhibits and videos.
“There could be exhibits of Cajun art, musical instruments, Cajun culture and history, area wildlife,” says Bobbie Sonnier.
The Sonnier’s vision also includes an area for weekend workshops on not just Cajun music, but Cajun arts and crafts — from piroque building to making a gumbo. There could also be an area for Cajun artisans, craftsmen and food producers to sell their goods — from woodworks to fruit preserves to wildlife paintings.
“It could really give people an idea of Southwest Louisiana as it was,” Sonnier says.
The center could also include a restaurant/buffet.
But, first and foremost, says Sonnier, it would be a place for people to learn about the music of this area’s rich history — and the musicians who developed it and who’ve kept it alive.
“I learned by showing respect to the older generation of musicians,” says Sonnier. “By learning from them. If we don’t hand down the music and its history to the younger generation, how will they learn? You’ve got to expose kids to the music and history to keep it alive.”
The Next Branson?
Keeping the music alive would be perhaps the main function of the center. The Sonniers say such a place would not only be a place for visitors and residents to hear the big names in Cajun music, but it would give the area’s younger musicians an opportunity to play without leaving the area.
“Why would you bother to learn Cajun music if there’s no place for you to play?,” says Bobbie Sonnier.
The Sonniers say a cultural center would provide a stage for many musicians; in fact, says Bobbie Sonnier, it might be compared to Branson, Mo., or Nashville, Tenn.
“We could have a little Branson here,” Bobbie Sonnier says, referring to Branson, Mo., and its plethora of country music venues. “It could be a place for people to go and hear music and see a culture’s hsitory. Much like Nashville preserves country music. It would be a place people would plan a vacation to come and see.”
Would It Fly?
That begs the question, though: Is Cajun music and the Cajun culture really enough of a draw to support such a place?
Absolutely, say the Sonniers.
“People can’t get enough of Cajun music in other areas of the United States, and especially overseas,” says Bobbie Sonnier. “(The Cajun band) Beausoliel just came back from Europe, and they had sold-out crowds. Every time Jo-El plays in Europe, he sells out dinner shows.”
And, say the Sonniers, any time someone comes to this area from out of town, the first thing they want to do is hear Cajun music, then eat Cajun food. They want to experience the Cajun culture.
“Right now, if you want to take out-of-town guests to listen to Cajun music, you have to take them to Lafayette,” says Sonnier.
Why Lake Charles?
Which brings up another question, of course: Why create such a place in Lake Charles? Isn’t the music and history of the Cajun culture properly preserved in New Iberia, Lafayette and points East?
It is, of course, says Bobbie Sonnier. But there are a couple of things that make Lake Charles an ideal location for a Cajun cultural center.
“We’re on the border,” she says. “We’re the first stop along I-10 from the West. This is a perfect place to introduce people to the history and music of the area, and to its environment.”
Also, say the Sonniers, the coming expansion in the area makes this a perfect time to consider such a venture, with perhaps thousands of people relocating to the area. These people, say the Sonniers, will want to experience and learn about the culture of the area they’re relocating to or simply working in temporarily.
How To Start?
While the Sonniers have done much thinking about a cultural center here in Lake Charles, they haven’t taken formal steps toward building such a place. They haven’t discussed the matter with government officials, haven’t drawn up plans, haven’t picked out a building or land for a building.
The first step, they say, would be to organize a committee to explore the matter. Such a committee would include representatives from the music industry, local government, local business and the community.
“We have to start somewhere,” says Sonnier. “Maybe there’s a company that would donate land or buildings.”
The center, he says, would be more than a tourist draw.
“It would keep a legacy alive,” he says.
If interested in serving on an exploratory committee, donating property or otherwise becoming involved, email the Sonniers at email@example.com.