A very Cajun, Covid Christmas

Chas Justus, right, and an all-star band of local players mask up to track drums on a new Christmas record, made possible by the pandemic. Photo courtsey Maggie Justus

The year 2020 hasn’t offered much in the way of silver linings. However, as the Christmas and New Year holidays approach, it’s time to unpack all the serendipity and tiny miracles that have come through this year.

One such local wonder is Joyeux Noël, Bon Chrismeusse, a new album of popular Christmas songs translated and sung in Cajun French released Dec. 4.

Featuring original arrangements from an all-star cast of Louisiana musicians, including members of The Revelers, Sweet Crude, Feufollet and The Daiquiri Queens, Joyeux Noël delivers the joy and familiarity of yuletide staples such as “I’ll be Home for Christmas,” “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” accented with Americana two-step swing and French lyricism.

Deviating from a strictly Cajun record, singer and fiddler Courtney Granger pours soulful blues into a horn-filled “Joyeux Noël, Catin” (“Merry Christmas, Baby”), while Megan Constantin and Kelli Jones of T’Monde give the poetic “Je Reviens Chez Nous pour Chrismeusse” (“I’ll Be Home for Christmas”) a 1920s jazz standard nostalgia. The album’s last track takes a surprise synth sojourn with Wham’s enduring 1980s hit “Last Christmas.”

Producer Chas Justus notes that the auspiciously-timed album may not have been near as sweet — or happened at all this year — had it not been for the coronavirus pandemic grinding touring musicians’ schedules to an abrupt halt. Justus describes the late summer recording session at Chris Stafford’s Staffland Studio, seven months into the pandemic, as focused and oddly intimate, despite cautious musicians, out of work for months, wearing masks and maintaining social distance. The elation of being able to be back in the studio was (and is) palpable. A Christmas tree and lights over the studio organ ushered in holiday vibes.

Holiday vibes care of Christmas lights on an organ and speaker cabinet Photo courtesy Maggie Justus

“Everybody had so much musical and creative energy pent up,” Justus says, “so when it was time to do something, everybody could concentrate on this project and throw everything we had at it.”

The project originated with Justus’ wife and co-producer, Maggie, the album’s primary French translator. A community development specialist with CODOFIL, Maggie has been translating Christmas songs into French for years, a hobby that began back in 2015 when she was asked by some of her then-freshmen LSU students for help re-creating songs featured in the popular Christmas movie Elf.

For Maggie, the exercise of translating songs was fun and challenging, a way of exploring the subtle flexibilities in each song’s phrasing while staying true to its lyrical meaning and rhythmic rhyme structures.

“Every once in a while you can translate and the line sounds pretty much the exact same in French as it does in English,” she says. “Other times you have to rearrange things. It has to do with the meter of the song. Sometimes it just doesn’t flow right or translate well.”

Aside from the album’s opening track, which casts couple Blake Miller and Amelia Biere to Cajun legend Belton Richard’s translated take on “Tout Moi Je Veux Pour Chrismeusse, Chère, C’est Toi” (“All I Want for Christmas is You”), all the songs on Joyeux Noël are first-time Louisiana French interpretations.

Maggie has collected more than a dozen Christmas song translations in different notebooks over the years. With husband Chas, she found a partner for the project. An ArtSpark grant they applied for just prior to the pandemic came through and helped bring it to life — an early Christmas gift. (Additional funding was provided by La Foundation Louisiane and the West Baton Rouge Museum).

“It couldn’t have been more timely,” Chas Justus says. “Musicians, like most anybody, they’re not necessarily happy collecting unemployment. They’re trained to be musicians, so if they’re mowing lawns or waiting tables or something like that it’s all well and good, but to actually produce something musical and doing what we love to do, it was so great to have that kind of feeling of worth again.”

Joyeux Noël, Bon Chrismeusse is available on Bandcamp (chasjustice.bandcamp.com) and locally at Lagniappe Records