The first family of Cajun music at Freight, Ashkenaz

The (almost) full Savoy experience tonight at Freight & Salvage and Friday at Ashkenaz with Gabrielle, Sarah, Ann, Marc, Wilson (who won't be performing in Berkeley) and Joel.
The (almost) full Savoy experience tonight at Freight & Salvage and Friday at Ashkenaz with Gabrielle, Sarah, Ann, Marc, Wilson (who won’t be performing in Berkeley) and Joel.

Ann and Marc Savoy have been performing in Berkeley for some four decades, since the dawn of the Cajun music renaissance they helped to spark in the mid-1970s. Whether touring with the Savoy-Doucet Cajun Band (their long-running collaboration with BeauSoleil fiddler Michael Doucet), or the Savoy Family Cajun Band with their sons Joel and Wilson, the couple embodies the joyous and earthy pleasures of Cajun culture.

Despite their deep ties to the Bay Area, Thursday’s concert at Freight & Salvage and Friday’s dance party at Ashkenaz offer an unprecedented view into this restlessly creative clan. While they’ve toured with their sons Joel and Wilson for years in the Family Band, the Berkeley concerts mark the first time ever they’ll be joined on stage by their daughters Sarah and Gabrielle.

Sarah, the eldest, is an executive chef in Paris who also leads the Cajun band Sarah Savoy’s  Hell-Raising Hayride. She performed on 2003’s Savoy Family Album (Arhoolie), shortly before moving abroad. Gabrielle, a guitarist, photographer, and painter who has created a colorful trading-card style series celebrating Cajun heroes, has never performed with the family. Wilson is the only sibling who won’t be performing in Berkeley.

One of Gabrielle Savoy's "Cajun Legend" cards
One of Gabrielle Savoy’s “Cajun Legend” cards

“Gabrielle is the youngest, only 28, and she’ll talk about her art and play some tunes,” Ann says. “Sarah plays accordion, piano and guitar and sings, and she’s bringing her cookbook focusing on Cajun cuisine with a lot of family recipes. At the Freight show, we’ll be telling some stories, playing music and sharing stuff about our life and music. At Ashkenaz, we’ll do our usual wham-bam Cajun dance party, and celebrate Chris Strachwitz’s birthday.”


Strachwitz is the glue that has long bound the Savoy family to Berkeley. He first encountered Marc Savoy in the early 1970s on a trip through Louisiana looking for musicians to record for his roots-music label Arhoolie. Last month, the Smithsonian Institute announced its acquisition of the vast Arhoolie catalog, which means the Savoy recordings are now firmly ensconced as part of the nation’s cultural patrimony and will never go out of print.

“Chris was down here looking for Cajun music to record and someone told him to go to this bar and meet Marc,” Ann says. “Marc had just run over a flock of guineas and had this giant gumbo party. Chris was blown away by the whole scene. He ended bringing Les Blank and Maureen Gosling to the store, and Marc guided them around,” which led to the 1971 documentary Spend It All, the first of several Blank films celebrating Cajun culture.

Based in Eunice, a small city in the heart of Cajun country, the Savoys have been at the center of the Cajun cultural revival for decades. Marc’s work has been honored with a National Heritage Fellowship Award. Ann’s definitive volume Cajun Music, A Reflection of a People earned the Botkin Book Award. Now she’s in the midst of collaborating with Linda Ronstadt on Duet, a new public radio series for PRI featuring “the two of us sitting together talking about music we like,” Ann says.

Performing together as the Savoy Family Cajun Band, they represent an unbroken chain stretching back for centuries with an extensive Ancien Régime repertoire of rollicking dance music that’s as earthy and bluntly sensuous as the blues. Handed down for generations, the songs have been infused with fresh energy by the Savoy sons, organic products of a community that once again embraces its roots.

The Savoy Family Cajun Band performs tonight at Freight & Salvage and Friday at Ashkenaz
The Savoy Family Cajun Band performs tonight at Freight & Salvage and Friday at Ashkenaz

“We live our lives so authentically within this neighborhood,” Ann says. “Marc’s family has been here seven generations. At 10, the boys started playing and never looked back. The instruments were here and they were always around when we were playing with other musicians. It’s interesting how by osmosis they absorbed the sounds and smells and tastes and became part of what this world is.”

While Ann is the only member of the band who’s not a Louisiana native, she’s devoted her adult life to Cajun culture. A Francophile who grew up in Richmond, Va., she met Marc at the National Folk Festival in Washington, D.C., in 1977. Before long she and Savoy were married and were two-thirds of the pioneering Savoy-Doucet Band.

Many of the artists who first recorded Cajun music in the 1920s and 30s were still on the scene, and the Savoys played an essential role in bringing them to a wider audience. Off the bandstand, Ann’s affectionate interviews of the old timers became her award-winning Cajun Music, A Reflection of a People, one of the first scholarly efforts to explore the history of Cajun music. She also became the public face of Cajun music, appearing in numerous documentaries and in Callie Khouri’s 2002 film Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, which also featured Joel.

Now the next Savoy generation is picking up the torch. Several years ago Joel, an expert fiddler, launched Valcour Records with two partners, a label dedicated to documenting the music of Louisiana. He tours with the Cajun/Gypsy band The Red Stick Ramblers, while Wilson, a master of Cajun accordion, piano, and bass, is a member of the Grammy-nominated Pine Leaf Boys (who made a memorable appearance on HBO’s Tremé). They feel free to put their own twist on Cajun music because of their deep knowledge of their roots.

“A lot of people our age and the generation before us learned this repertoire because my parents were part of that early revival,” Joel says. “We end up playing a lot of the tunes my dad has made famous. Nowadays they’re the only people still playing that stuff, so we’re continuing the tradition, but adding a lot as far as our particular styles are concerned. My mom has always been one for digging up repertoire, and my dad just pulls the songs out of his head.”

Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. He also reports for the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.

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