Le bon temps continues to play on Cajun radio in southern Louisiana

VILLE PLATTE, La.—At 8:30 a.m. Saturday, the red-brick tavern called Fred’s Lounge is already packed with rice farmers, New Orleans bikers and wide-eyed French tourists ready to party. Some sit at the varnished bar drinking Budweisers and Bloody Marys, while couples dance gracefully on the worn linoleum. A traditional Cajun band (accordion, violin, rhythm guitar, bass, drums, and triangle) provides the soundtrack.

And everyone can listen.

Saturday Morning at Fred’s airs live on “The Legend” 1050 KVPI and streams online. The radio host sits at a small table under a handwritten sign: “Please do not climb on the chairs or the cigarette machine.” The little station has been on the air for almost 70 years doing everything it can to keep a dying language alive.

“Come visit DI’s Cajun restaurant in Basile and listen to Scotty Pousson and the Pointe-Aux-Loups Playboys!” Mike Perron sings into his microphone, plugging in one of his sponsors between songs.

Perron is a 71-year-old city councilman, retired auto body repairman, and part-time DJ who grew up speaking Cajun French.

“I do my patrons mostly in English, but I do a few in French,” he says, standing outside as the morning heats up and the cicadas throb. “The people here, a lot of them don’t understand all the French words, so I do it in English too. We call it Franglais, a little bit of French, a little bit of English. That’s what we call it here.”

Fred’s Lounge is in the town of Mamou, nestled among the rice fields and lobster ponds of what is known as the Cajun prairie. So successful are Saturdays at Fred’s that the tavern is closed the rest of the week. The live radio broadcast was the brainchild of a local educator named Revon Reed in the 1960s. Now his son, Seth Reed, a metalworker, is a regular on Saturday mornings.

“We dance, we drink, we have fun,” says Seth. “This is the only bar that’s still old school. Nothing has changed since it was built. That’s what I love about it. They still have the same ’40s urinal in the bathroom.”

The Acadians, or Cajuns, who populate this region are descended from Roman Catholic French Canadians who were expelled from the Nova Scotia region by the British in the mid-18th century. They headed for the swamp country of southern Louisiana and prospered here, preserving their culture and customs. But a number of factors worked against the language. Cajuns were punished for speaking French in school, Cajun soldiers left the region to fight in world wars and learned English, the discovery of oil introduced more English, and television further diluted the language.

The radio is part of a broad movement to save Cajun French from extinction.

Eight radio stations in southern Louisiana still broadcast partially in French. KVPI, located in Ville Platte (Flat Town), offers more news, weather, commercials, talk, a swap shop and even obituaries in French than any other station. This year, the Louisiana Association of Broadcasters presented KVPI with a Uniquely Louisiana Award.

While the live Cajun music broadcast from Fred’s Lounge is internationally renowned, the station’s most popular show is a daily show called La Tasse de Café, the cup of coffee. La Tasse for regulars.

The weekday morning show begins: “Good morning, my friends. How are you this morning? We’d like to hear from you, so please give us a call.” (Hey folks, how are you this morning? We’d love to hear from you, so give us a call.)

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Yet here in Trump’s deeply conservative country, callers aren’t talking about abortion or voter fraud or perfidious Democrats. They’re discussing where to find the sweetest watermelons, what food to take to the cemetery on Día de los Muertos, how to kill worms under the house, how they miss fins on 1950s cars, and when is the best squirrel hunt.

A host said goodbye to a fickle caller: “And a happy squirrel weekend to you!”

In an age of poisonous talk radio, La Tasse de Café is downright wholesome.

The station’s general manager is Mark Layne, born Martel Ardoin. Layne started at KVPI (which stands for Keeping Ville Plate Informed) in 1971 when he was in high school and has been there ever since.

“We really promote the French language and our French culture,” says Layne, “and I emphasize Cajun French. There’s a bit of a difference. We have our own slang and dialect here, and we’re proud of it.”

Most French-speaking seniors want to remember life on the Cajun prairie in days gone by. One Monday morning in late June, a gentleman called to recall a particularly competitive career for sheriff. Both candidates spoke French as their first language.

“One candidate was telling the other in French, ‘As for you, you couldn’t track a black elephant in the snow!'” says 81-year-old La Tasse co-anchor Jackie Duplechin Miller that morning. .

The idea for La Tasse de Café came in the 1960s from Floyd Soileau (pronounced Swallow), a Cajun record producer, book publisher, and storyteller in Ville Platte. He often calls to tell old stories in French, but there are fewer and fewer veterans like him who speak the language of his grandparents.

“Sadly, a lot of our Cajun French listeners have passed away and some of the young people are trying to figure it out, but it’s not coming fast enough,” says Soileau. “It’s going to be a thing of the past, unfortunately, as my age group advances. And I’m afraid it’s going to be difficult to maintain.”

Cajun Patois in Louisiana continues its steep decline. The American Community Survey on the language estimated the number of French speakers at around 77,000 in 2020, up from 136,000 in just a decade.

“It really has become a language of performance, a language of choice, if you will,” says Barry Jean Ancelet, a renowned folklorist and Professor Emeritus of Francophone Studies at the University of Louisiana Lafayette.

While he acknowledges that native French speakers are disappearing one by one, he is encouraged that young musicians, for example, are writing songs in French. And Cajun culture, in general, remains strong.

“Are you going to tell Danny Benoit, who makes the best gumbo in the world,” Ancelet says of a hypothetical character, “who loves to hunt and fish, who goes out dancing to Cajun music and Zydeco, and has a big family.” And he doesn’t speak French. Are you going to tell him he’s not Cajun? I would not do it. And if you do, I’d duck because he still feels deeply Cajun.”