Before 28-year-old Cedric Watson became an internationally renowned singer and accordion and violin player, he worked as a cultural anthropologist. But he wasn't a traditional scholar with his nose in old dusty tomes. Instead, Watson visited family members in Jennings, La., where he'd record the French-language Creole and zydeco music played on the local radio. As recently as two decades ago, Walmart and McDonald's commercials in the region still used French.
Watson took the tapes back to his hometown of San Felipe, Texas, just west of Houston. He practiced the French phrases he learned from the songs with Mama J, the Cajun postmaster in his town. Although Creole wasn't a heavy presence in his family, their roots were in the culture, and young Cedric mined his relatives for the old phrases and sayings.
At 18 years old, Watson acquired his first violin, a $75 model out of the Musician's Friend catalog. Zydeco music's influence around Houston was strong, and he soon learned to accompany and even write his own songs in the style. "They say that zydeco stemmed out of Creole music when it came to Texas and started mixing with African-American roots," says Watson, who eventually relocated to Lafayette, La., in his early 20s to fully immerse himself in the culture.
"I just played music and had fun," he says of his studies. "Once you live somewhere, you're just there."
That's not entirely the case, however. Watson traveled to the Acadia region of Nova Scotia to study French, drawing the connection between the cultures that merged when the English forced the Acadians to migrate south in 1755, eventually settling in Louisiana.
Watson's presence around Lafayette immediately helped spawn a resurging interest in Creole culture amongst the town's young people. He made friends who played the accordion, violin, and a rubboard. A group of them formed the Pine Leaf Boys, who garnered their first of four Grammy nominations in 2007.
Around that time, Watson left the group to pursue a solo career, forming the backing band Bijou Creole. "I noticed that almost every Cajun band is a cover band," says Watson, who began recording his own songs in French on his 2008 eponymous solo debut. "I started learning French so early in life that it was natural for me to be writing my own. If you got into Spanish poetry at age 13, it's pretty certain that by the time you were 20 you'd be writing your own phrases."
After establishing his band and musical reputation, Watson continued his cultural travels, visiting the French islands of the Caribbean. He discovered diatonic accordion-driven merengue music in the Dominican Republic and Haiti that mirrored the styles prevalent in southwest Louisiana. Recognizing the strong Haitian influence on Creole music (nearly 10,000 Haitians migrated to Louisiana during the island's labor revolt at the start of the 19th century), Watson increasingly distinguished his Creole style from Cajun or zydeco music. He began to take issue with the word "Acadian" being used as a blanket term for his region's culture. He even cites his across-the-street neighbor in Lafayette, who reminded him that the term "Cajun" itself was considered derogatory by white people during the Civil Rights era, like "cracker" or "white trash" today.
"A lot of black people got beaten for saying that," Watson says, expressing frustration with today's historical interpretations that emphasize Acadian and Cajun cultures while overlooking Creole. Part of the problem, Watson says, is that the mixed-race Creole people have abandoned French, while Cajuns have continued to use the language at home, teaching it to their children.
Most Acadians and Cajuns are also Creoles, a term that implies a mixing of cultures, says Watson. He argues that the party atmosphere in Louisiana is the biggest indication of Creole influence on Cajun culture. "In Canada, they have a different way of what they call 'celebrating,'" he says. "Down here, everything's about festivals, festivals, festivals. It makes me think of the Caribbean. Life can be hard, and we might not have the best economic situation in this state, but life can still just be a big festival."
That's an atmosphere that Watson hopes to see remain rooted in its French influence. Days before speaking with City Paper, he flew home to Lafayette and took a cell phone call in Creole French. Two college-aged boys in the seat behind him overheard and struck up a conversation in the language.
"I turned around and asked, 'Man, ain't you too young to speak Creole?' and one of them said he grew up around his grandparents and learned it. That's encouraging," says Watson. He sees his role writing new songs in the traditional style as a vehicle for keeping the style alive. "Culture has to evolve and change in order to survive."
To that end, he's now released four albums of original music, primarily in French, including 2011's Le Soleil Est Levé (The Sun is Up). Beyond the necessity of preserving a culture and language, however, Watson's motivations are aesthetic and personal. He shrugs off his own four Grammy nominations, comparing it to the feeling a chef gets when diners say they like the food.
"I don't care about competitions, because music is such a spiritual thing to me. If I made a living off of it or not, it's always going to be there with me. Even if I lost my fingers and my tongue and my eyes and my legs, the music is always in my brain and it's in my spirit," Watson says. "I can't read or write a note, but I can feel it. They say money makes the world go around, but to me, it's music."