(As published in the Times of Acadiana ... )
One sign that a musician has "made it" is that his story can be told in numbers. For the New Orleans Cajun-music stalwart Bruce Daigrepont, who spent his college days preparing for a career as an accountant, the numerical approach is especially revealing.
Take the number four. Daigrepont's new album, Paradis, is his fourth, and like his others, it bears the imprint of the Massachusetts-based Rounder Records, the most Cajun-friendly independent label outside Acadiana. So pleased has the label been with Daigrepont's submissions, in fact, that it's never so much as changed a 'tit fer.
"I didn't know anybody at Rounder," says Daigrepont. "I just sent them a tape, and a few weeks later, one of the owners showed up at Tipitina's and said, 'We got your tape, we love it, and we want to release it.'"
His reference to the legendary Tipitina's brings up the number thirteen, a number that in Daigrepont's case has nothing to do with bad luck and everything to do with how many years he's been the legendary New Orleans club's Sunday-night entertainment.
The young adults, not-so-young adults, tourists, locals, and children who packed Tiptina's for the Paradis record-release party last month were treated not only to a free bowl of red beans and rice and some cake but also to three hours of prime live music from Daigrepont and his band (Gina Forsyth, fiddle; Jim Markway, bass; Lynn Abbott, drums).
How many songs does Daigrepont play on a typical Sunday night? "Around forty-five, fifty," he estimates. The total number of songs his band knows, he says, is "maybe three hundred."
Then there's the number three: Daigrepont and his wife Sue have three children, the oldest of which appears on the cover of Daigrepont's third album, 1995's Petit Cadeau. Three is also the number of the other Cajun acts who can stand alongside Daigrepont in terms of staying true to Cajun music's roots while invigorating its tradition: BeauSoleil, Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, and Balfa Toujours. Anyone who doesn't think that's rareified company probably also likes his gumbo mild.
Also significant is fourteen, the total number of cover songs that Daigrepont has recorded during his career. At an average of only three-and-a-half covers per album, his output consists of considerably less recycled material than that of the typical Cajun musician. "I've got a family," he says "I don't need to spend sixteen dollars on a recording that I've got similar ones to at home."
Obviously, the accounting major in Daigrepont hasn't completely disappeared. "I don't think I've started repeating myself yet. I don't know how people do it once they've made ten or fifteen or twenty-five albums. I don't think I would keep making records if I started feeling like I wasn’t doing anything new."
One way that Daigrepont has kept his sound new is to simplify. Paradis, for instance, features no guitars--not rhythm, not lead, not steel--at all. "You know what I'm proud of on this record?" he asks. "It's small. It's just accordion, fiddle, bass, and drums. It's pretty close to us playing live."
And it's good. Although the blend of fiddle, accordion, and Daigrepont's bright, tenor voice has long been one of contemporary Cajun music's most enjoyable sounds, the use to which Daigrepont puts those sounds on Paradis is his most ambitious to date.
In songs such as "Hommage Aux Récolteurs" (a two-step in praise of farmers), "Le Diable Est Laché" (an apocalyptic blues in which it's both the fire and the water next time), and "Je Suis Pas Un Prisonnier" (a waltz in condemnation of materialism), he offers a penetrating vision of both the Cajun experience and the sense in which it symbolizes the plight of all who feel like strangers in a strange land.
Daigrepont himself is partial to "Je Suis Pas Un Prisonnier." "That was a waltz I had written, oh, ten years ago and never shown to anybody. I knew it was something different. To me it sounded very old, like something that could've come out of the 1800's. I thought, 'This is kind of strange. How good is it?'
“Then a few years ago I showed Gina Forsyth the song, and she said, 'This is great!' Then we showed it to the band, we started playing it, and it developed into a good song.
"If one of my songs comes too easy to my band," he says, "I'm probably not doing something real creative. But if I can see sort of a little bit of a puzzled look in their face as to where it's going--right at first--that's a good sign."
On Paradis, Daigrepont's band seems to have gotten that look just the right number of times.