Zachary Richard, for the love of French
New album, Le Fou
With his 20th album, Le Fou, "Cajun King" Zachary Richard, creator of the hit Travailler, c’est trop dur, appeals to a French public once again. The spiritual ecologist fervently defends the French spoken in Louisiana, set to a happy groove. RFI Musique met up with a musician keen to perpetuate his ancestors’ language: a militant musician bursting with poetry.
The news is everywhere: Zachary Richard is coming back to France! After an absence of five or six years, the legendary composer of Travailler, c’est trop dur has returned to the land of the Gauls. Yet the relationship between this unparalleled defender of Louisiana music and France has been long, tumultuous and passionate.
It all started in 1973. “I thought that France would greet me like the Messiah: a providential man, shedding new light on speaking French, with a particular vision from its former colony, Louisiana (Ed.’s note: from 1682 to 1803)…” said the man who does a balancing act between French and English.
The seventies seemed like a good time to dig down to old roots. In Brittany, the musical activists Alan Stivell and Malicorne were dusting off forgotten traditions and reviving a language. “That was exactly what I was doing!” smiled Zachary. Yet the self-confessed Francophile says he received a mixed reception in France. “I was fascinated by the way French society was evolving: the succession of presidents, the musical and cultural changes… I took to the country. But I always felt frustrated about the general lack of interest in the French-speaking world and the fascination for English.”
Although musicians were fascinated by New Orleans jazz and listened to Cajun music, the French man in the street wasn’t really interested in Francophone cultures in America, despite their strength and common history. “For example, from Quebec, most people only know about Céline Dion and Isabelle Boulay: the light pop music.”
Rolling your ‘r’s
Is it that the French language doesn’t really fit in with a certain image of jazz, groove and rock’n’roll? Zachary has his own theory: “I’d say it’s a diphthong issue: the guttural way you pronounce your ‘r’s doesn’t really work with a rock’n’roll ‘bop shoo bob’. In Louisiana, we roll them, which solves the problem!”
On his 20th album, the Cajun King rolls his ‘rrr’s under the bayou sun, boogies images of his birth region in French, breaks down his identities and resistances, and expresses the pain of departure and separation, accompanied by the furious sways of his guitar and accordion.
The title track, Le Fou, refers to the oil spill in 2010, via a musical portrait of a symbolic bird, the fou de bassan, or northern gannet: “The nesting territory of this sea creature is on Bonaventure Island in Quebec. The bird often winters in Louisiana, around the oil wells on the Gulf of Mexico, which reproduce a coral reef ecosystem. After the oil spill, it was the first animal to be captured and cleaned. With Le Fou, which expresses my emotions and humanity, I was paying tribute to the bird and to nature. I was also raising the alarm about human thoughtlessness.”
Universal energy fields
Bird-like, on the album’s cover, the fervent ecologist stands on one foot, like a crane, in Qi Gong. “This symbol also represents the letter psy: psychosis, psychiatry, the mind,” he went on. “With music, my religion, I meld mind and body in a communion. I’m interested in Buddhism, and I’ve been practising seated meditation for forty years. Song is like a life cycle – breathing in and out – a spiritual force constantly runs through me: I move away from my ego and daily problems and move into a kind of trance. Since I was a kid, singing has let me open the door onto a universal energy field…”
For the rest, Zachary has not given up the fight to preserve the French language in Louisiana. “With other artists, in the 1970s, we resuscitated the music and language of our ancestors, which had been repressed like all French culture in Louisiana, more concerned with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones at the time. The 1980s were a golden era for Cajun music. Today, French is the most fragile part of our culture, and will die out if we don’t fight for it. It will be ghettoized in schools and universities, rather than part of everyday life. The problem will be solved by politics, what else? I got hooked from an early age: it’s an affair of the heart, and nothing to do with the head. This language enriches us, reinforces our identity and our roots…” With his twentieth album, Zachary Richard will be getting French speakers dancing all over the world, whichever way they pronounce their ‘r’s.