As I wiped the beads of perspiration from my brow, I gazed out on the sun reflecting on the murky water and pondered if it was the humidity or too much Tabasco. I swear I saw a snowy egret gracefully take flight from the water as the sweet sounds of zydeco music drifted off from a distance. Was I really seeing this, or was this a primordial flashback to the swamps and bayous of Louisiana? "Hmmm," I confusingly mumbled to myself, "Who cares?" I was here in Long Beach, California, to, as the Cajuns say, "let the good times roll" at this June 21 & 22, 2003 festival.
I can't think of a better outdoor setting than the Queen Mary Events Park that's just a stone's throw from the massive Queen Mary and overlooks the Pacific Ocean. Six major Louisiana based touring Cajun and Zydeco bands were booked to play this weekend festival. As band members talked and joked around with each other, it seemed like old home week and made me wonder as my wife, Kim, and I wandered around backstage, if these bands cross paths on a regular basis. Probably. The six outstanding bands playing at scheduled times on Saturday and Sunday were: The Redstick Ramblers Cajun Band; The Creole Zydeco Farmers; Critical Brass; Thomas "Big Hat" Fields; Bruce Daigrepont's Cajun Band; and Geno Delafose and French Rockin Boogie. Being regular visitors to N'awlins, Kim and I have seen most of these bands playing at various clubs and venues throughout New Orleans on some of our many trips to our murky, muddy spiritual homeland. Old home week? That's not such a bad thing.
We decided to wander throughout the 15+ food venders and let our noses guide us to the best culinary treasures. This adventure is very similar to visiting N'awlins, since you are guaranteed to eat nonstop since outstanding restaurants are plentiful, and represent so many different cultures, styles and recipes. The smells of Crawfish Etouffe, warm Cornbread, Red Beans and Rice, Jambalaya, Gumbo, Catfish, Alligator on a stick, Lobster Puffs, and Shrimp Creole tantalized the weak and hungry to drop a few bucks for a mouthwatering culinary treat. You know that the food is spicy when your nose starts to run and requires a cool beverage to wash it down. Prior to this event, I've never been told this by my wife, but this phrase forever sticks in my mind, "I love you, but you still can't have my Cornbread." Still hungry? Bourbon Pecan Cheesecake, Bread Pudding, Sweet Potato Pie and not too sweet Pecan Pralines certainly made a great ending to an amazing feast as we watched sailboats cruise lazily off in the distance.
In an effort to not burst at the seams, we felt that it was time to further relax by browsing the vendors booths. Being lucky winners, we had to support a good cause and purchase raffle tickets to hopefully win great salsas, hotel packages, and other goodies. Well, the June gloom must have put a damper on my winning mojo, since none of our twelve raffle tickets ended up winning. Oh well, at least I didn't push it any further and try my luck by attempting to climb the rock wall that had fearless kids scrambling over it like certain less than desirable bugs in humid climates. Other vendors sold artwork, tie-dyes of all colors and types; batik clothing; Blues, Cajun and zydeco CDs and lots of other stuff worth your time to browse around. Kim found the cutest alligator bandannas that just had to follow us home so our trinity of Cajun Chow Chows could be decked out in style. With names like Zydeceaux, Lagniappe, and Thibideaux, they represent our inner Cajun souls that constantly remind us of the land of Mardi Gras, beads, doubloons and of course, hurricanes.
Got mojo? Don't even know what it is? Then you need to attend one of the many free cultural and educational workshops that were going on at a different part of the Queen Mary Events Park. Topics were presented by many of the bands and ranged from Cajun vs. Creole/Zydeco: The Real Difference; Introduction to Cajun Music; History of Cajuns in New Orleans; Zydeco in the Early Days; Creole Culture; The Evolution of Zydeco Music - the Music and the Dance; and Accordion and Rub Board Presentations. It was an incredible history lesson, and unlike school, it didn't require a test afterwards.
The names of the dearly departed were read over the PA so that family, friends, neighbors and strangers could communally share in the sorrow and all could ease the pain for the survivors. Tears of sadness were plentiful, even among people that didn't know each other, and quickly turned into tears of joy. The band slowly picked up the pace of the music after a few songs to that of a cheery Mardi Gras parade and everyone sang, danced and shed tears of happiness. Immediately behind the band in this parade were costumed festival attendees comprising the second line, a frenzied group of non-choreographed dancers just having a great time dancing to the music. More and more people joined in as the Grand Marshal lead the ever-increasing group all around the park so that everyone could, "pass a good time."
Emotionally and physically exhausted from the parade, it was time for us to pack up and head home. For us, a painfully long ordeal involving my critically ill mother had recently ended when she passed away, and this parade was a fitting send off. Next year we'll get to stay longer and enjoy the headlining bands playing throughout the cool evening while the sun sets over the Pacific Ocean and my hallucinated "Louisiana Snowy Egret" comes back for yet another Bayou Festival.
Feature and photos by Donald & Kimberly Tatera, Southern California Correspondents.