Can This Cajun-Punk Musician Protect His Culture From Climate Change?
Louis Michot is a Grammy-award winning Cajun punk musician. When he’s not touring with Arcade Fire or the Violent Femmes, he lives outside of Arnaudville, Louisiana, on a stretch of land called Prairie Des Femmes, with his wife and three children. Michot, 42, built their home with the salvage of old Acadian cottages, held together with a traditional Cajun construction technique called bousillage: a mortar of Spanish moss and mud. The family speaks French at home, a piece of Louis’ lifework to carry Cajun culture into the future.
For the past 20 years, he has led the band Lost Bayou Ramblers with his brother Andre – Louis plays fiddle; Andre plays accordion. He also runs a label, Nouveau Electric Records, putting out music in Louisiana French that “seeks to bridge the gap between tradition and evolution by introducing new creative visions to the centuries-old instrumentation and expressive vocabularies of the region.”
Hurricane Ida made landfall in Louisiana as Lost Bayou Ramblers played their first big show after an 18-month pandemic hiatus. For the past two weeks, Louis and Andre have been organizing mutual-aid missions, filling their tour van with emergency supplies to bring to musicians and others who live in the little fishing villages along the Louisiana coast that people there refer to, collectively, as “down the bayou.” In Lafourche Parish alone, the storm left 14,000 people homeless, and across the state more than 167,000 homes remained without electricity late last week. This week, Tropical Storm Nicholas is forecast to drop as much as 10 inches of rain on those same communities. Michot’s next plan, in the works now, is to equip old houses that survived the storm with solar panels and batteries.
I talked with him recently about his mutual aid efforts, whether the culture down the bayou can change with the climate, and why some people would rather die than move away. As we spoke, via Zoom, he sipped on a glass of cherry bounce, made with cherries he harvested from the native merise trees behind his house. He was sitting in the houseboat, docked in his yard, that serves as his studio. If a flood comes, he told me, his family could float to safety.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Did Ida come to Arnaudville?
No. But I was scared. The day before the storm came, we had our first fly-out gig since Covid started. I drove myself to Houston, flew to the gig in Denver, left at 3 in the morning, and I got back home for noon. I didn’t want to leave my family alone if the hurricane hit. But luckily – for me – Ida veered east.
What was the impetus for you to start doing mutual aid?
When I got back from Denver, I was seeing all these people on Twitter like, “I’m in LaPlace, we’re on the roof, I can’t find my grandma, here’s my address.” Posting addresses on Twitter — I’m getting chills just thinking about it. I wanted to go help out.
Meanwhile, I called A. J. Rodrigue, he is a DJ who goes by Boudin Man, lives in downtown Houma. His dad started Houma Records and produced 45. [rpm] records out of their living room; he spent the category 4 storm in the same house, and he just had a quadruple bypass two months ago. He said, “I’m all right, I just need a tarp on my roof.”
Then I talked to my buddy Roland Cheramie, an accordion player in [the town of] Golden Meadow. We met Roland years ago playing in this little bar down the bayou that was half a bait store with fishing tackle on the stage. They call it “La Butte des Couquilles.” Roland’s just been a super inspirational person over the years because he speaks beautiful French and he has all these awesome stories, including stories of Hank Williams. In the song “Jambalaya,” when Hank Williams sings, “my Yvonne, the sweetest one, me oh, my oh, son of a gun, we’ll have big fun on the bayou” – Yvonne was Roland’s great aunt. I called him, and he was like, “Well, a tree fell through my house, and my mama’s house is completely gone.”
So here I am, a musician who’s been out of work mostly, pulling every diverse skill, trade, job, record label and everything I have together to make it for the last 20 months. My brother Andre has been building accordions to get by. We don’t have much to give financially, but we have time and skills. It just hit me, and I did it right then: I posted on social media with my record label, Nouveau Electric, I said, I’m going to mobilize, going to help some people out, here’s my Venmo if you want to donate. And within the first few hours I had $3,000. By the time 24 hours rolled around, we had $10,000.
Then I called some friends and we went to every store up here and got everything we could. Within 36 hours of starting the fundraiser, we were on site in Houma with four trucks and trailers.
What kind of stuff did you bring?
We filled every gas can we could find. I brought stacks of 2x4s. I got a bunch of tarps. We had rolls of roof rap, nails, screws, paper towels, water, diapers, tampons, band-aids, acetaminophen. I mean, people need basic things. My friend Brandon, he goes by B-Boy, has a barbecue business – Brandon’s Backyard Barbecue. He came too and brought pork steaks and boudin and rabbit bacon, which is one of his specialties. It’s actually a bacon-wrapped carrot. We went straight to AJ’s house in downtown Houma, started tarping his roof, while B-Boy lit the pit.
The first lady that pulled up, she asked, “What are y’all doing?” And I said, “What do you need? Do you need some water? Do you need some gas?” And she just started crying. She said, “I’m trying to take care of my mama, and she can’t eat canned food because of the salt and her legs will swell up, and we need water,” and she just started crying. We loaded her up, gave her some gas, gave her some barbecue. It just went on like that all day.
And this whole time I have people messaging me, texting me, from all walks of life. All day and night. A guy texted me, “I have 190 gallons of gas. I’m driving down from Arkansas, where can I go?” I said, “Go to LaPlace.” I just sent $1,000 to a person on Instagram who was organizing a similar mutual aid team in LaPlace. All this communicating, sending money to people I’ve never met.
How did you feel being down there?
I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was a little bit nervous because, for one, Covid. It’s probably some of the lowest vaccination rates in the country in south Louisiana. For two, power lines. Definitely I felt anxious, but also excited and given a purpose, because I can’t do my normal purpose, which is music.
Why do you think that comparatively so few people in Louisiana are getting vaccinated?
We are a very conservative state that has always put our faith into oil and gas. Oil and gas is how so many of our people went from poor Cajuns and Creoles to wealthy Americans. If we were to accept that science is correct and vaccines work, we would also have to accept that climate change is real. And we would have to move away from oil and gas. I think it’s totally connected. We can’t go all in on believing in science, because then we would have to rearrange our whole thinking.
But don’t people down the bayou know better than anybody that seas are rising and the storms are coming more often?
They also know more than anybody how oil and gas has fueled their economy.
Of course, everyone knows by now that yes, oil and gas are the ones that carved up our beautiful wetlands, and are contributing to climate change, and have polluted the air and the water, and all that. But still, it’s like, do you want to make a dollar today or — there’s no alternative. There’s no like, “Look, come work installing solar.”
Solar energy has become central to your vision. How did that happen?
The day after we got back from Houma, I was talking to Monique Verdin, who is an Indigenous Houma artist from down the road in St. Bernard Parish. She works with Another Gulf is Possible, and we were talking about hurricane relief. She said, “If we’re not getting solar panels and batteries to these people, especially the Indigenous tribal communities, then what are we doing? We can band-aid it, but it’s going to come right off, and happen again.”
I thought, that is exactly right. Because here we are – you have this funny feeling, I’m filling people’s cars with gas! So I thought wow, let me see if I can put CRIA on that.
What is CRIA?
Cultural Research Institute of Acadiana. I founded it to start a seed bank to save seeds that people had been keeping in their families for multiple generations. A lot of times people didn’t have anyone who was interested in keeping the seeds going, but it’s so tied to our history: the okra, le mamou, manglier, case-banane de brezil, ban-a’ka, all that.
I made a quick decision to revitalize CRIA as a solar fund for hurricane victims, and started a GoFundMe. It’s up to around $3,000 right now, and I’ve already talked to a bunch of solar companies in Louisiana that are willing to help. We have promises for batteries too.
When I was down on the coast, I was keeping track of which houses made it, and which didn’t. We all know the answer: The ones that made it through were built with more love, better craftsmanship, better materials. They were built that way because the builders knew they were in a hurricane zone. It’s land conscious, it’s region conscious, it’s culture: It’s how you build a house for a certain area.
If the houses that made it had solar panels and batteries, they wouldn’t need people to be running back and forth with hundreds of gallons of gas and generators. They’d be able to keep their medicine and food going, and it would just improve the whole thing. So we’re trying to look at the long term, and get people appropriate technology — even just to be able to run one [air-conditioning] window unit, because people have died because of the heat.
This has always struck me as really interesting about your work, the mixture of old and new. You respect the oldest house, and the newest technology. It’s not one or the other, there’s something about putting them together.
Totally. Tomorrow I’m driving to New Orleans to work on a solar powered music trailer, so I can bring some music down the bayou, without the loud generator. Bring them a solar trail ride!
Traditional solar powered Cajun punk music.
Exactly. I’ve been thinking about this question: How do you move culture forward? And how does culture evolve to survive climate intensification, especially when you live on the fringe? When you live in a sinking environment that is much more prone to flooding and hurricanes and pollution and all this – you have to use technology to be able to survive. The technology will allow you to continue your cultural practices, because if you can get a solar panel on your house, you can keep whatever it is you’re trying to get going and not be reliant on our current failing power grid.
I’ve been thinking about the Lost Bayou Ramblers song “Aloha Golden Meadow.” It’s a languid instrumental on steel guitar, and the video you made for it is set in a post-apocalyptic desert island beach scene. A man is drinking beer and playing steel guitar, and a futuristic alien comes out of the sea and gives him an accordion. Ultimately the steel guitar player teaches the alien how to recycle beer bottles. Anyway, you were down in Golden Meadow tarping roofs and distributing things on Friday. I wanted to ask what Golden Meadow meant to you when you recorded that song, and what it signifies for you now?
Andre wrote “Aloha Golden Meadow” in 2016. In the music video, we were trying to show the paradox of two extremes meeting in one place. You have a beautiful vision of Golden Meadow, even after climate change turns it into Grand Isle – which is to say, a barrier island beachfront. It’s paradise, and it’s the edge of disaster. The sound of the waves in the recording is the sound of the accordion air hole going through a space echo. I think of it as waves crashing on the beach of Golden Meadow, which doesn’t exist but might one day.
That’s a powerful vision: a beach that doesn’t exist yet but will, as sea levels rise. Does the song mean something different to you now since you’ve been down there doing this work?
Definitely. When you’re going down the bayou, Golden Meadow is the last stop before the Gulf of Mexico at Grand Isle. I was in Grand Isle in July, and I saw these beautiful birds—magnificent frigatebirds. They only visit the barrier islands. But then, the day after the hurricane, I saw one at my house in Prairie Des Femmes. And I’m 150 miles from Grand Isle! It made me think of climate migration, and what might be next for the people in Golden Meadow and at the bottom of Lafourche Parish.
So “Aloha Golden Meadow” just completely hit home for me then. We weren’t too far off with our fantasy, sci-fi, climate crisis video concept. Because it’s actually happening. And it’s only been five years.
What do you make of the idea that people should just leave the Louisiana coast? It’s not safe there. We know another storm is likely to come again next summer. Shouldn’t people move – if we can help them move, in a humane way. What do you say about that?
How about, instead of why don’t they move, how about why don’t we find a solution? How about we stop polluting? Why don’t we try to battle climate change? How about we do something about the problem, instead of trying to constantly amend the symptoms? People are so connected to their land. It’s all they have. That’s what you know. You grew up there. It’s where your family lives. Honestly, people would rather die at their place than leave. That’s the truth.
Your answer is really compelling: Don’t ask us to be the sacrifice because you don’t want to change. But let me ask you again in terms of Acadian and Cajun history. Their story is, we left France, we set up a beautiful place in Canada, we left Canada, we set up a beautiful place in Louisiana. Doesn’t something about that history teach you that moving is possible? Is there something in the history that can give you a vision of how people can move and be OK?
I get what you’re saying, but I’ve never given that the time of day. I mean, the ones that were hit the hardest in Hurricane Ida are the Indigenous communities that already have been pushed to the edge. They were pushed further and further south. They are the ones – the Indigenous and the French and the Spanish, these old Creole communities – that people write about when they write about the paradise that Louisiana is.
I hear two points in what you’re saying. One is, if you ask these people to move, you are destroying something beautiful. And, second, that history of migration that I described, from France to Canada to Louisiana – it was wrong. One historian described the expulsion of Acadians from Nova Scotia as ethnic cleansing. It was wrong, and just because you were exiled previously doesn’t mean it authorizes someone to exile you again today.
Yeah, and if you want to completely Americanize or homogenize us…it’s like, where do you go at this point? The natives were kicked off of their lands and pushed to the very edges. The Acadians were ripped apart and some ended up in Louisiana and became part of these same communities as the Creole, Spanish, and Indigenous. Where do you want us to go? There’s nowhere left to go.
It’s already struggle enough keeping the language going, and holding onto what little is left. It’s substantial enough to where we have that critical mass to continue, but the more that people evacuate and don’t come back, and the more that people lose their land to coastal erosion and to climate disaster, the more it becomes hard to continue as a culture. I think that relocation is just such a harsh option — it’s much worse than having the opportunity to rebuild better.
My thing is, if I can just do it for one generation. If I can just do it for five years, or 10 years, for someone to be able to stay down there, I will. If I can give them solar panels and a battery so that next time, they’ll be in a better place, it’s worth it to me. For just one more generation. Because we don’t know what’s going to happen after that. It could get better in some ways, or it could get worse in some ways. But it is worth it to me right now.
Andy Horowitz, a history professor at Tulane University, is the author of “Katrina: A History, 1915–2015.”
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