Festival International's debut, remembered through rain and fire

Two drummers warm their drum skins in front of a fire
Rwanda Master Drummers tune their drums by fire before performing. Photo by Philip Gould

Festival International de Louisiane premiered in 1987 as a four-day foray into francophone music from around the world. The festival was both a product of serendipity and a catalyst for a city’s transformation. A dedicated group of Lafayette visionaries created the festival based upon a simple idea: presenting music and cultures from around the world here in Lafayette. While the Hub City was culturally vibrant at the time, it faced an unclear economic path away from an oil-based economy.

I had the honor of photographing the first festival and many more over the following decades. After the first in 1987, I remember wondering how on earth this event happened. While the festival evolved from a great idea aided by what seemed like smoke and mirrors, far more was in play than met the eye.

Actually, the seeds for a future festival had been sprouting all around us for years. The Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL) brought French teachers to Louisiana for decades from France, Québec, and Belgium, as well as from Africa and the French Caribbean to work in our schools. Their mere presence brought an international cultural element to Lafayette.

Lafayette’s art community also played a major role in Festival’s creation. Exhibits from francophone countries appeared here and vice versa. For example, in 1985 an exhibit of Senegalese art was displayed at the UL art museum by its director Herman Mhire, who eventually became the founding president of Festival. Senegalese musicians Arfan and Kinda Diabate came to Lafayette with the exhibit, performing traditional Senegalese music at a variety of venues including numerous public schools. They introduced the kora, an instrument with twenty one strings built around a large gourd.

Six people in traditional French outfits play antique instruments for a crowd gathered around them
Les Compagnons de la Claire Fontaine from Normandy France perform at Festival in 1987. Photo by Philip Gould

Cajun and Zydeco musicians were influenced by international music and influenced other musicians. Zachary Richard, for example, was quite popular in francophone Canada and in France. As a cultural and environmental activist, he knew the music scenes in those countries intimately. Other Cajun and Creole Groups, including Beausoleil, the Balfa Brothers, Marc and Ann Savoy, Clifton Chenier, Bois Sec Ardoin and Canray Fontenot, performed alongside world musicians at festivals around the globe as well.

Additionally, we cannot discount the impact of Paul Simon’s Graceland album released in 1986. His ground-breaking yet controversial CD showcased groups from South Africa including Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Simon, ever the inventive singer and composer, folded their traditional styles and sounds into his own sense of song. In so doing, Simon defied an international embargo placed on South Africa, protesting its apartheid government.

As counterpoint, Simon also penned a zydeco style song, “That Was Your Mother,” which featured zydeco accordionist Rockin’ Doopsie Sr. as well as avant garde Lafayette saxophonist Dickie Landry. The song presented zydeco to a wider audience and gave a nod to the Hub City.

Well, I'm standing on the corner of Lafayette
State of Louisiana
Wondering what a city boy could do
To get her in a conversation

Drink a little red wine
Dance to the music of Clifton Chenier
The King of the Bayou

In 1992, Simon performed at the Cajundome as part of Festival. Clifton’s son C. J. Chenier and Terrance Simien joined him onstage for his zydeco tune.

As Festival International was in development, Lafayette’s economy was fragile. Former Board member Sally Herpin later recalled:

“Thirty years of growth spurred by the oil industry had come to an end. Depressed energy prices led oil companies to downsize. New commercial buildings stood empty, and close knit families watched children and grandchildren move out of state in search of employment. Lafayette needed an economic boost, and we all needed to rediscover pride in our community. It was under these conditions that Festival International was born.”

In the summer of 1985, Mhire embarked on a culturally eye-opening trip to Jordan and Europe. Upon his return he found Lafayette in its customary summer doldrums and began to think about a summer festival with an international feel. Soon, he, Philippe Gustin of CODOFIL, and Jean Goyer, the Director of Québec’s delegation to Lafayette were discussing the possibilities of an international festival more seriously.

Man in traditional African garb next another man in a pale blazer holding a kora
Sourakata Koite-Senegal w Philippe Gustin holding his Kora before performing in 1987. Photo by Philip Gould

In 1986, Goyer invited a Lafayette group to attend three established festivals in La Belle Province, including the International Folklore Festival in Drummondville, the Montreal Jazz Festival, and Festival d’Été in Québec City. The latter event presented performers from around the world much like the Lafayette group’s vision. The summer festival was in its 90th year of operation at the time. All performances were staged in magnificent settings throughout Québec’s famed historic district, which overlooks the St. Lawrence River. In each leg of the trip, organizers from all events tutored the Lafayette delegation on putting together festivals. Members returned to Lafayette armed with knowhow and determined to create their own event for Lafayette.

That fall, Mhire, Gustin and Cathy Webre, director of the Downtown Development Authority (DDA), along with Phil Lank, director of Lafayette’s Department of Community Development, and Gerald Breaux, Director of Lafayette Convention and Visitors Commission (LCVC), formed a committee to work on the festival. They were joined in time by others including Michael Doucet, Taylor Rock, Sally Herpin, Lyn Bertuccini, Julie Calzone, Herbert Wiltz, Tina Girouard, Tom Boozer of the Acadiana Arts Council and Lafayette City Councilman Wilfred Pierre. The august group worked to create an international festival in Lafayette. The city had earned its place as a cultural spoke in an international francophone wheel, they felt. The idea had a logic to it.

In the Fall of 1986, the committee began a 50-week sprint to prepare for a summer 1987 festival, meeting on Wednesday evenings working with that singular goal. As Phil Lank later put it: “After preparing position papers, reports on concept, organizational structure, production, programming and financing, our next step was a crucial one, selling the whole idea to the community.”

A few days before the festival, the executive committee held a press conference presenting the festival and touting its potential for Lafayette. They also introduced the festival logo which is still used today. The organizers’ underlying theme was clear. “We saw in the festival a vehicle for cultural tourism to enhance economic development,” recalls Mhire.

People with masks walk in a procession
The very first Festival International procession, led by revelers wearing puppet heads borrowed from Blain Kern's Mardi Gras World. Photo by Philip Gould

Finally, on Thursday July 2, 1987 Festival International de Louisiane commenced with an opening ceremony at City Hall. Flags of the participating nations flapped in the hot breeze as local and international dignitaries spoke.

Afterwards, a group of people, some donning large puppet heads borrowed from Blain Kern’s Mardi Gras World in New Orleans, led a parade to the Festival stage on Jefferson Street across from the Federal Building, the same location as today. The Wild Magnolias, a New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian group performed first.

After the Wild Magnolias finished their performance, a storm cloud appeared over downtown Lafayette and let loose a torrent of rain. A few organizers stood there agonizing that the festival might be over before it even began. However, as is typical of summer storms, the clouds soon cleared. In hindsight it was clear the brief storm had a baptismal quality: a watery blessing on the new festival.

Soon after, a plume of smoke could be seen rising from behind the main stage. Fearing the worst. Folks rushed over only to see members of the next act. The Rwanda Master Drummers were positioning their drum skins around a makeshift fire to heat tune them for the performance. The group took to the stage and their amplified drums began to reverberate across downtown. The crowds returned and the festival continued.

The performance by the Rwandan Master Drummers was spectacular. Members wore traditional ceremonial attire of head dresses, beads, leopard skin waist wraps, all the while waving spears, playing traditional instruments, dancing, and singing. Behind them was the alluring cadence of an African drum line. The crowd went wild, exhilarated by a performance that the audience had never witnessed.

For the next four days, a variety of groups —- including the McGarrigle Sisters from Canada, Les Compagnons de la Claire Fontaine from northern France, Sylviane Cedia from French Guinea performing with Cella Stella from Benin, as well as Francis Cabrel from France, Sourakata Koite from Senegal, Les Jeunes Chanteurs d'Acadie from New Brunswick, Les Echasseurs (stilt walkers) from Belgium, Jimmy Hyacinthe and & Tchango from the Ivory Coast — presented audiences with an invigorating dose of traditional music from across the Francophone world. They were joined by local talent that included Dennis McGee with Sady Courville and Michael Doucet, Henry Gray and the Cats, the Acadiana Symphony Orchestra, Wayne Toups and Terrance Simien, and the Progressive Church Choir from Lafayette.

The first year’s festival had a relatively modest footprint that included one main stage, the Pavillon de Cuisine with 30 chefs preparing international dishes across from what is now Chase Tower, and Place des Enfants at Cathedral Carmel School run by the Acadiana Arts Council (now the Acadiana Center for the Arts). Seven hundred and fifty volunteers, board members and sponsors labored long hours to ensure the new festival’s success. In the subsequent years Festival International added stages, improved venues, expanded the pavilion de cuisine, and developed an international blending with local acts. They also moved it from a sweltering July date to late April.

Looking back, it is clear that Festival International played a major role in downtown Lafayette’s ongoing revitalization. Since 1987, DDA has transformed Jefferson Street with a streetscape project, adding wider brick sidewalks and planting over 150 cypress trees. DDA also built four parks downtown: Parc Sans Souci, Parc International, Parc de Lafayette and Putnam Park facing the new federal courthouse. As Cathy Webre describes downtown’s renewal: “We were converting parking lots into parks.”  The city also created the Centre International de Lafayette, which opened its doors in the old city hall in 1990. Philippe Gustin, the former head of CODOFIL, became its first director. 

Performers in red robes carry drums over their heads in a procession
Festival promenade from opening ceremonies at City Hall to downtown’s main stage, taken in 1991. Photo by Philip Gould

During the fourth festival in 1991, that initial wave of wow from the first year struck me again. I had positioned myself on top of the old city hall to photograph the Saturday afternoon street parade headed up Jefferson. Each group marched slowly in a rhythmic cadence through the crowd. The Plastic Systems Band from Martinique came first, followed by New Orleans’ own Casa Samba. Monk Boudreau and the Golden Eagles Mardi Gras Indian tribe followed them. Sixteen Burundi Master Drummers came next, marching with large wooden drums perched on their heads. Closing the parade, the Grand Marais Mardi Gras Association King and Queen, in full Mardi Gras attire, waved to the crowds from their respective floats. As a home-town touch, a boy scout walked in front of each group holding a sign of introduction.

I felt a shiver photographing as various groups from around the world paraded through the crowds in our downtown village. It is an impression I still hold dearly and is one of innumerable experiences that makes me proud to call Lafayette home.