In November, 1975, a thin young man from Louisiana stole a folk festival in Montreal with a rendition of an old Acadian folk song, L'Arbre est dans ses feuilles. With his serious demeanor and his strange curling bayou vowels, Zachary Richard seemed like a voice from the past, an exotic reminder of the expulsion of his Acadian ancestors from Eastern Canada two centuries ago.
Now, three years later, his rock and roll version of the folk song has surprised everyone by selling 100,000 copies in Quebec over the summer, Richard has his third album in French coming out on Oct. 15 (it has 40,000 orders before release) and he is currently on a tour of France and Belgium. In a strange twist of events, the 27year-old darling of the folk circuit is emerging as a major rock attraction; an American from Louisiana building his career in French.
When Richard hit the folk festival circuit three years ago, it was by accident. He was then just another rock and roller, still angry from a bitter encounter with recording industry politics. He had been one of the last artists to sign with Elektra records before it was sold and became Elektra-Asylum and had looked on helplessly as his completed album was shelved and never released. A chance encounter led to a trip to France, where he sang some traditional Acadian songs and provoked a tremendous reaction. A new phase of his career was launched.
Then on Aug. 15, 1975, Richard was struck, with an almost physical force, by a sense of discovering his own roots. Performing at a folk festival near Moncton, he sang Le Reveil— the awakening—a song he had written on the expulsion of his Acadian forefathers. It is a powerful, angry song, and he sang it unaccompanied. “I sang it to the crowd—and they all rose to their feet,” he said in an interview a year later, still very much caught up in the experience.“! got chills. It was one of the most important experiences I’ve ever gone through.”
He returned to his home in Louisiana with a kind of cultural passion, refusing to speak English, and rewriting some of the songs he had written in English into French. In the concerts that followed he would end each show singing Le Reveil, unaccompanied, lit by a single spotlight. Powerful stuff.
He grins a bit sheepishly now when he’s reminded of this. “It was like an infatuation, I guess. I have a very emotional feeling about my heritage, and I’m still as proud as I ever was of it— but I never was a politician for it. ”
Although he now lives in Montreal, almost all of the musicians Richard plays with still live in southwest Louisiana and, unlike Richard, speak no French. It is a bit of a jolt to wander backstage after a set in which every song has been in French to find a group of musicians speaking with the lilting drawl of the Deep South.
The music these days is an extraordinary mélange. After a few bars of footstomping accordion, playing a traditional Louisiana honky-tonk melody but echoing the kind of traditions one associates with reels and jigs, the drums and electric guitars cut under and behind the tradition. Other songs reek of the wail of Mississippi Delta blues, or the twang of countryand-western cowboy songs. Over the last two years the traditional has faded while Richard has introduced more and more improvisation and contemporary, almost jazz-rock sounds, joining what he calls “kick-ass rock and roll.”
Richard is an extraordinary performer; he had cultivated an image as a kind of solemn Cajun primitive, and now, with a prancing jig that owes as much to Mick Jagger as to Gilles Vigneault, he improvises, modifies, and almost—but not quite—mocks what he used to do. Reminded of Richard’s emotional statements in the past about his roots, a friend says with a smile: “He doesn’t talk about that much anymore.” With three albums out in French, and another planned, Zachary Richard is now thinking of heading toward the American market.
Quebec has been a springboard for this Cajun rocker, moving through folk to a larger audience in rock. How did that happen? “At the beginning it had to do with the fact that we came from Louisiana and spoke French,” Richard concedes. “There was an incredible affinity. Here we were from 2,000 miles away, speaking French just as bizarre as theirs.” But the confident, ever more successful Richard emerges: “Since then, I think it’s just because we’ve got the best band around.” Graham Fraser
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