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A renowned Cajun violinist and singer was recently at Tchefuncte Middle School teaching students how to improvise — a transition he likened to learning a new language.
“Music is a universal language,” said Louis Michot, co-founder of the Grammy-winning band Lost Bayou Ramblers. He performed the song “Two-Step de Ste Marie” written by his uncles, Bobby and Rick Michot, about their mother who grew up in St. Mary’s Parish.
He encouraged students to listen and learn as he did – through the live performance of music from the French-speaking culture of southwestern Louisiana.
“When you’re trying to learn a foreign language, you have to hear it,” then add your own interpretation, he said. “Feel free to play as you understand it.”
Many string students in grades four through six of Annie Bridges’ Tchefuncte Middle School Orchestra were surprised to be asked to play without using sheet music. But they took their violins, violas and cellos to play, and soon a euphony of sound joined Michot’s violin.
“You are good !” he said. “That’s how you learn to jam.”
Michot was leading a master class that had been planned before the pandemic by Jazz Kids, a music education program from Friends of the Dewdrop. The Friends, the nonprofit organization that programs two annual concert series at Mandeville’s historic Dew Drop Jazz & Social Hall, has presented 60 Jazz Kids programs since 2015 at 41 schools in St. Tammany Parish.
While Michot’s grandparents spoke French, the language was not encouraged at home. He was, however, rooted in the traditional songs performed and those written by his father and five uncles in a group known as Les Frères Michot.
Young Michot first performed with them when he was 15, he told the students. They needed a bass player, and he took the stand-up base and learned how to play it on stage. It was not until the age of 18 that he received his grandfather’s violin, the very one he played for the students.
Michot said he studied early recordings of Cajun fiddlers such as Dennis McGee and others at a time when the fiddle was the primary instrument in Cajun music. This led him to research the dying language of Acadiana, and it led him to a French immersion program in Nova Scotia, Canada. Afterwards, he got into “busking”, playing live music on the streets of New York.
“It’s fine to play in your bedroom, but when you’re on the street and you have to get people to stop for a second and listen, that’s when I learned how to play well. to play.”
“If you feel it and enjoy it,” he learned, people will stop to listen.
He had no intention of performing for a living, but he knows: “It’s so precious to do what you love.”
Sometimes it is struck how personal it is, the language and its preservation.
“It’s completed a part of me that was missing.”
Along with a double case containing his grandfather’s German-made violin and a rare violin made in Louisiana by Adner Ortego, Michot brought the Grammy Award to show off to the students. He made a point of highlighting the category in which they won: best regional roots album in 2018 for their eighth album “Kalenda”. Their 2019 album, Asteur, includes two live recordings of the Dew Drop.
“Do you know the difference between a violin and a fiddle? he asked the students.
“A violin you put in a case, a violin you put in a bag,” he joked.
“It’s the exact same instrument, that’s how we play it,” he said. “Due to the many musical subcultures in the region, all music has been influenced by other music.”
Tchefuncte Central Orchestra instructor Annie Bridges said schools in St. Tammany Parish offer a string music program for children in kindergarten through sixth grade.
“I love being able to bring another perspective, crossing over to show them how to play by ear and tapping into local and regional music, like Louisiana French and Cajun, and encouraging ways to bridge them,” she said.
Some of her students also attended a Jazz Kids masterclass with renowned classical violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg earlier this week in Christy West’s class at Salmen High School.
As the Friends try to offer five programs each year, they were grateful to be able to bring the first classes since the pandemic, as well as a trip to the Dew Drop, where third graders at Woodlake Elementary heard about the history of jazz in New Orleans by pianist Tom McDermott and clarinetist Aurora Nealand.
Michot ended the lesson by asking the students to play “Happy Blues”, a piece they had rehearsed and which he improvised with them.
“It’s great to see so many string players in one place,” he told fellow performers.