50 years of Festivals Acadiens et Créoles: How a chance encounter ignited a cultural revolution

The Advertiser

Surrounded by the pristine beaches of the Mediterranean Sea, Barry Ancelet found himself missing Acadiana while studying abroad.

Ancelet, now professor emeritus of French and Francophone studies at UL Lafayette, had been in Nice, France, for a year when a chance encounter with folk singer Robert Mason cured his envie for Louisiana culture and led Ancelet to an idea that would help reinvigorate the landscape of Louisiana’s traditional music scene.

That idea, a marquee stage for Cajun and Creole music, would become Festivals Acadiens et Créoles, which this year celebrates its 50th anniversary. 

The festival is a fixture of Lafayette’s cultural scene, which today reveres the local French music tradition. That wasn’t always the case, even for Ancelet. His encounter with Mason introduced Ancelet to a part of his own culture.

“I was walking around the streets really homesick, and I saw a sign that said, ‘Roger Mason Chante La Musique de la Louisianne’. And I thought, oh, wow. That’s interesting. So I’m gonna go check it out. And as I walked in, he was playing the Crowley Two Step. And I thought, that’s it. That’s it. That’s what’s missing,” says Ancelet.

After the show, Ancelet stayed behind to chat with Mason, animated by the serendipitous connection.

“And he said, ‘Oh, you’re from Louisiana. You must know all the people I learned from, Dewey Balfa, Nathan Absire. And I said, I don’t know any of those people. I was a young kid, I didn’t know any of those people yet. And he laughed. He said, Well, if you’re interested in this, when you get back home, go to Basile, Louisiana and look up Dewey Balfa’s house and talk to him. He’ll tell you what this is about,” he recounts.

Ancelet did just that. Dewey Balfa, a renowned Cajun fiddler, welcomed Ancelet with open arms and set him on a journey to discover his love for Cajun and Creole culture. 

“I figured out from that experience that it wasn’t just French I was interested in: it was this French. And this culture that was expressed in French.”

Ancelet would go on to delve deep into fieldwork, talking local storytellers, singers and musicians to begin scoping out the landscape of Louisiana French culture.

Having already earned enough credits to graduate, Ancelet got a job as a student aide at CODOFIL (Council for the Development of French in Louisiana) while he awaited his graduation ceremony, which the then University of Southwestern Louisiana (USL, now ULL) offered only once a year at that time. The director, anticipating a caravan of 150 French journalists, wanted to do something to impress them. That’s when Ancelet proposed the idea to do a concert.

There were modest expectations for that first set of performances March 26, 1974 at Blackham Coliseum. Its location was strategic—Dewey Balfa, having performed at the Newport Music Festival, wanted his hometown audience to sit back and appreciate the music in a new light, aside from just enjoying it as a backdrop setting for dancing. The concert proved to be a massive success.

“The place ended up being packed to the gills. Standing room only. I looked around, I thought, wow, we apparently touched on something here. We need to do this again,” Ancelet says.

After the first two years, Ancelet felt that the point of getting people to sit back and appreciate the music had been made, and that it was time to “go outside” and “turn people loose”, prompting the switch to Girard Park, home to what became Festivals Acadiens et Créoles ever since.

The festival, according to Ancelet, is not only about celebrating the past of Cajun and Creole music. It’s also about passing its appreciation down to the next generation. As he looks back on the past half a century, it’s evident that the next generation has indeed taken up the mantle.

“If back in 1974, somebody had said, in 2024, we would have this embarrassment of riches, I would have said, yeah, in my wildest dreams, and here we are, in my wildest dreams.”