Michael Doucet (pronounced “doo say”) comes from southwest Louisiana, which has 300 years of French heritage. He grew up speaking French as well as English and hearing the unique sounds of Cajun music, called “French music” when he was a boy. Today he loves to “time travel” between his ancestors and future generations through music.
Michael is a self-taught musician who grew up surrounded by music. His aunts sang and his uncles played various instruments. One uncle in particular, Tee Will, tutored him. “It was a wonderful era to grow up in,” Michael says, “because there was music all around and everybody was excited about music.” At six he got his first instrument, a banjo, although he had wanted a guitar. Michael still plays several instruments, but he is best known for his extraordinary fiddle playing.
Michael found his first fiddle under a bed at his uncle’s house and had to glue it together to play it. The first time he put it under his chin and started to play, he felt a new freedom. “It was amazing…like being on a runway, being a plane or a jet, or a bird flying, just being so free,” Michael says. “It was totally natural to me.” He got his first music job two weeks later and has been playing and enjoying the fiddle ever since.
As a student at Louisiana State University, he began to research Cajun music. After graduating, his interest took him to France. As he listened to traditional French songs, he recognized many connections between his part of Louisiana and Cajuns’ original homeland. “When I went to France, I realized we were playing some of the same songs. I couldn’t believe how deep the ties were.” He couldn’t wait to go back to Louisiana to explore the musical connections and learn more about the music he grew up hearing. He obtained grants, one from the National Endowment for the Arts, to document the elder masters of this special music by recording and playing music with them.
One of the earliest things Michael discovered was that he had to relearn how to play fiddle. The first master he worked with was Dennis McGee, whose fiddling style differed from Michael’s. He was born in 1893, and his songs went back to Napoleon Bonaparte’s time. This old style was more intricate than today’s Cajun music.
More musicians began to open their homes to Michael, including Canry Fontenot, Dewey Balfa, and Varise Conner. Michael says, “I would sit next to Varise and he’d play, and time would stop. It would go along with the melody and the rhythm and that was the moment and it transcended everything. Everything was perfect in that moment.”
Michael didn’t simply interview these tradition bearers. He went fishing with them, ate and played music with them, and even performed in a concert with Canry Fontenot at Carnegie Hall. “I wanted to set up a network of the masters of our music,” Michael says. “The only people that knew about these guys were the few people living in their community. So that’s what I did for the Library of Congress. I transcribed their songs and the transcriptions are still there. It was wonderful.”
BeauSoleil (pronounced “bo so lay”), which means “beautiful sun,” came about in the 1970s when Michael brought together a group of musician friends. The name refers to a place in Louisiana called BeauSoleil where the Doucet family held big reunions. A relative lived there. To Michael, she seemed a hundred years old. She told stories in French about BeauSoleil and the children had to recite them back to her before they could go outside to play. They enjoyed the experience and, as Michael puts it, “It was really obvious that she loved the place and the stories, and so the name BeauSoleil became a very strong, positive passion for me.”
Today the band is renowned for both its preservation of French music and its modern variations. “We get to time travel,” says Michael.
“It’s playing something from the past, playing something for the future, pushing it on, and it’s amazing. We’re not a part of the audience, we’re one with the audience. I still don’t have a set list, even when we go on TV.”
With BeauSoleil ’s music, particularly Michael’s fiddling, the listener travels from the 17th century to the 21st century and back several times during a performance, and everyone enjoys dancing and moving to the beat. Perhaps it’s because, as Michael says, “Everybody is at liberty to try new things since that is where you are in the moment. And that’s the only thing that really exists, this moment.”