Seen and Heard

Photos by Allison Bohl DeHart
Melissa Bonin, Conni Castille and Kristi Guillory Munzing will present at an upcoming symposium on the role of women in Cajun and Creole culture at the Hilliard University Art Museum on Oct. 11.

On Friday, a throng of women will clang and bang their way through Girard Park in a procession that has more to do with boudin than politics.

“We’re not rallying against the establishment. We’re really just having a good time,” explains procession organizer Kristi Guillory Munzing.

Guillory says the celebratory march, which will culminate at the Festivals Acadiens et Créoles “Cutting of the Boudin,” is in the spirit of a charivari, a French folk tradition. The serenade to femininity will serve as a ceremonial bridge between an educational symposium focusing on female perspectives in Cajun and Creole culture and the festival kickoff fais do do.

The free symposium, presented by the Center for Louisiana Studies and Festivals Acadiens et Créoles, will take place from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 11, at the A. Hays Town Building at the Hilliard University Art Museum. According to Guillory, who is also directing the symposium, the intellectual discussions aim to celebrate the creative work of women and “unpack” how Cajun and Creole culture have traditionally approached gender.

This year marks the 90th anniversary of “Jolie Blonde,” the ubiquitous waltz known as the Cajun national anthem. The song’s antagonist, as the title suggests, is a pretty blonde who abandons her lover — a common trope in traditional Cajun and Creole music. Her face has been immortalized in oil on canvas by George Rodrigue, and more recently, on 100 percent cotton T-shirts at Parish Ink. So what does her icon status say about our culture?

“I don’t know the answers, but there’s definitely questions we can ask,” says Guillory. “The conversations are going to happen. It’s almost like a Pandora’s box.” 

Guillory, a longtime accordion player and Cajun musician with Bonsoir, Catin, says it’s crucial to look at these traditional lyrics in context. She says the hard-times nature of Cajun music doesn’t naturally lend itself to waxing poetic about virtuous women: the heartbreakers get all the attention. But to her, it’s precisely that raw expression of longing that makes Cajun and Creole music so enduring. 

“It’s like a cry from your heart,” says Guillory. “I think that it’s survived because that type of authenticity resonates with people.”

She says the festival will showcase this authenticity, as it’s channeled through the voices and instruments of contemporary women performers. Her band will open the festival, alongside a powerhouse cast, representing some of the best acts in Cajun and Creole music.

“It’s funny, but the general population thinks of an accordion player as an old white dude,” she quips. “The bottom line is there are women all over the place.”

Bonin, Castille and Guillory

This year, festival goers will have no shortage of opportunities to see women onstage, but the symposium will also highlight the women behind the scenes. Specifically, those who have worked to preserve Cajun and Creole traditions as folklorists, or within their own families.

“It’s the women who keep families together,” says Conni Castille, a folklorist and award-winning documentary filmmaker. “Whether it’s a meal, or religion, or gardening — typically, it’s the woman who naturally takes over the nurturing.”

Castille will moderate a panel discussion at the symposium, focused on women in folklore. She emphasizes both male and female contributions are essential to the field, particularly when it comes to access.

“If you’re a woman, you might not have access to some of the conditions that are dominated by men or vice versa,” says Castille. “Having both … we get more of a full-community reflection and perspective.”

She says, traditionally, women’s domains tend to be more private, so it might take a woman to collect those stories; otherwise, they could get lost. She says she hopes the symposium serves as a catalyst to get more women interested in folklore and storytelling.

“It’s nice to have a public platform and stage to showcase women and their work and their contribution to traditional communities,” says Castille.

Melissa Bonin, another featured panelist and the festival’s official poster artist, echoed Castille’s appreciation. As an artist, Bonin says she is thrilled to have the opportunity to celebrate her culture’s feminine voices. Her festival poster image, called “Doves,” is derived from a series of works on paper she created in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina. 

The complete series will be displayed throughout the festival, as part of her larger exhibition titled “Songbirds: Nature as Metaphor,” also at the A. Hays Town Building at the Hilliard University Art Museum. Bonin says she worked hard to curate a collection that speaks to the festival’s themes of music and femininity. 

Bonin will lead a “poetry and painting crawl” session at the symposium where she plans to tap into the positive momentum she sees women gaining in our society, both locally and nationally.

“I have high hopes that anything is possible at this point,” says Bonin. “The energy of this movement is more soulful. The young women, who are out in the world today doing important things, are really empowered in a different way than they were in the past.”

Seating at the symposium is available on a first-come, first-served basis. Visit ULPress.org to purchase a symposium lunch by Porch, Wine and Gravy ahead of the event.

About the Author

Marie Elizabeth Oliver is an independent journalist covering culture. She previously worked as an editor at The Washington Post and Better Homes & Gardens. Her work has also been published in Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, Parents, ElleDecor and Acadiana Profile.

Leave a Comment