The new Cajun/Zydeco Grammy category has some resonance for Michael Doucet, frontman of the 30-year-old band BeauSoleil, which a decade ago became the first Cajun outfit — and the only one until the inception of the new category — to win a Grammy. The group took home a statuette for Best Traditional Folk Album in 1998, for the album L'Amour Ou la Folie. This year, Doucet is nominated twice: once for his solo effort, From Now On, and again for Beausoleil's live album recorded at Jazz Fest last year.
To Doucet, the new category is both progress and problematic. For one, combining Cajun and zydeco music into one category is as overly general as combining hip-hop and R&B. But it also represents a big improvement from when the band was lumped into the folk category. BeauSoleil's hybrid grooves, while rooted in Cajun custom, are anything but traditional. "They should have a Louisiana category, is what I think, actually," Doucet says, laughing. "It's music that comes out of a culture, not a genre.
"This [music] all comes out of such a small area, and a place where the osmosis has taken place over many, many years," he continues. "So what is the essence of this music? The people I learned from were born before 1900. And that's traditional music. But it wasn't traditional to them, because they created it. It's a very nebulous kind of thing."
For Doucet, a noted folklorist and historian of Cajun music, the recent resurgent interest in Cajun music is, however, a natural expression of the folk tradition. In the '70s, Doucet was one of the first to record Cajun pioneers like Dennis McGee and Amede Ardoin; he also notes the recent emergence and popularity of bands like Feufollet and the Lost Bayou Ramblers, most of whose members were born in the '70s and '80s.
"For me, it was always improvisational from the start," he said. "There was a base of great feeling to be able to put your own individual feelings into and use as a framework."
BeauSoleil's latest album, Alligator Purse (out this week on Yep Roc), illustrates the progress of that folk tradition masterfully. Doucet and producer Michael Pillot's choices show their reverence for the music's original performers, and Doucet's tweaks show his deep understanding of the sound. Heavyweight talents Garth Hudson and Commander Cody sax man Andy Stein join in, adding multiple voices as well as checkpoints on the road of American roots music. The album travels gracefully from a vintage Dennis McGee reel, "Reel Cajun/451 St. Joseph St.," to a clever Cajun reimagining of "Rolling and Tumbling," a classic blues song covered by Muddy Waters, Bob Dylan and Canned Heat, transformed here into the rollicking French-language romp "Rouler et Tourner." Doucet says Alligator Purse represents what BeauSoleil would play at a dance, and indeed, the record is the sound of a southeastern Louisiana dancehall on a Saturday night in the 21st century.
BeauSoleil avec Michael Doucet
10 p.m. Fri., Jan. 23
The Maple Leaf, 8316 Oak St., 866-9359