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GET SWAMPED

It's like Mardi Gras every day in Louisiana outback

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Louisiana's always in

Mardi Gras mood;

It must be an Acadian thing

The old storyteller leaned forward in his rocking chair and whispered into my ear. "You know, mon ami," he said in a strong French accent, "I read in dis survey last week dat Louisiana is de poorest state in America, we have the worst diet. But dat not de most interesting t'ing."

"What is, then?" I asked, leaning closer.

"The same survey says we Cajuns the happiest people in all US of A," he said, winking.

"So, how do you figure dat?"

Well, I thought, walking down the path in Vermilionville, he sure seemed right about the "happy" part.

New Orleans has its Mardi Gras celebrations every February with jazz bands marching down Bourbon Street in the French Quarter and tourists from around the world coming to party in the streets.

Jazz, however, doesn't come close to matching the exciting rhythms and infectious Cajun beat of fiddles, washboards, spoons and accordions that waft from bars, night clubs, restaurants, record stores and shops everywhere in Acadiana.

These remote swamps of southern Louisiana are home to a polyglot mix of French-Canadian refugees driven out of the Maritimes (Acadia) by the British 300 years ago, along with freed black Caribbean slaves, polka musicians from Germany, and poor white fur trappers.

One of the most isolated cultures in North America was hidden from the outside world until recently when music producers looking for roots music stumbled across one of the richest motherloads of dance rhythms on the planet.

Today, Cajun and zydeco (a faster version of Cajun) musicians like Chubby Carrier, Queen Ida, Feufollet, and others are winning Grammy Awards and national attention.

Vermilionville is a replica of a French settlement dating from the 1700s, located on a bayou on the edges of the town of Lafayette, the "capital of Acadiana" about 190 kilometres west of the big city of New Orleans.

Many little towns in the region are literally swamped by dance music, the aroma of tasty Cajun cooking floats through the air and French is mostly spoken. Here, happiness is a verb and not a noun.

Cajun culture has stayed largely off the map for hundreds of years because its inhabitants live in one of the most remote regions in North America.

The Atchafalaya Basin is 32 kilometres in width and 240 kilometres in length and its 595,000 acres contain significant expanses of swamplands, bayous, and backwater lakes crawling with reptiles and amphibians, many of which find their way into the cooking pot. A good gumbo might include anything from snake to alligator.

Still inhabiting the waters are "swamp people," reclusive trappers and fishers that help give Acadian food is unique raw flavour.

Swamp tours of the Atchafalaya can be arranged through tourism operators in Lafayette; millions of birds can be seen and gators sometimes sighted. Fishing remains excellent along the coastline.

Adding to its authenticity is that much of Cajun swamp music is sung in French. At the Parc International ,a huge outdoor auditorium in down Lafayette, free concerts draw large crowds to two-step and boogie to Cajun, zydeco, swing and Latin bands.

At the legendary Back Porch, a tiny bar tacked on to the back of the Blue Moon Saloon on the outskirts of Lafayette, bands play nightly.

Hundreds of people crowd into a space meant for 50, everybody high steppin' in their best boots, with fiddles wailing, accordions crying and guitars ringing late into the night. I agreed with the storyteller in Vermilionville; if you can't dance to this kind of music you must be dead.

"I don't know why we so happy down here," he says, leaning back in his rocking chair.

"I t'ink maybe because we so poor dat we force to make our own life. Everybody dance all the time. You can't help yourself. You see, every day like Mardi Gras here."

-- Postmedia News

IF YOU GO

-- Lafayette is 220 kilometres, or a two-hour drive, west of New Orleans. The city of 120,000 people has its own airport and dozens of good hotels and restaurants. For information about Vermillionville log on to http: //www.bayouvermilion.org.

-- For Lafayette, the region and swamp tours, log on to http: //louisianatravel.com/Lafayette. For information specific to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, logo on to http: //www.mardigrasneworleans. com.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 3, 2012 D2

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