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CAJUN MUSIC AND A FLYING DUTCHMAN


Dutch photographer Emile Waagenaar, an enthusiastic aficionado of Cajun music, is so

passionate about the subject that he has traveled frequently from Breda in the Netherlands to

Louisiana over nearly thirty years to photograph Cajun musicians. About two years ago I

became aware of his fascinating pictures, and he offered to donate a number to the National

Museum of American History’s Archives Center. He visited the Archives Center, and later I

met him and his wife in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. He donated 64 digital prints of his

fascinating photographs to us.

Mr. Waagenaar, a commercial photographer in the Netherlands, loves Cajun music so much

that he began a self-assigned project to document Cajun musicians in 1982, photographing

artists who play this regional style in New Orleans and elsewhere in Louisiana, Texas, and

elsewhere. Over the years he has made many trips to the United States in order to seek out,

befriend, and photograph Cajun musicians in their homes, businesses, and concert

environments. Since he fears that this music is at risk of disappearing as older musicians die

and other popular music styles attract audiences away from traditional forms and styles, he

has a missionary spirit with this project. He hopes not only to preserve visual records of

some of the most important musicians and their environments, but to engender interest in

Cajun music on the part of those who view his photographs. Through his dedicated, sensitive

efforts, he is performing an important cultural and historical service.

Waagenaar writes:

“The Cajuns, descendents of French farmers and fishermen from Brittany and Normandy,

France, immigrated in the 16th and 17th century to what they thought would be their

"Promised Land" of Acadiana in "La Merrique" (Nova Scotia, Canada), but their long

journey ended in the bayous of southern Louisiana.

“By keeping themselves separated from American society until the second half of the 19th

century, the Cajuns held onto their own culture. Their music has a unique folkloric quality,

which is enhanced by the musical accompaniment of a small type of Cajun accordion.”

Cajun music is often linked to zydeco music, which was influenced by Cajun music, but is

associated with people of Creole rather than Cajun heritage. These musical styles have long

influenced American popular music, especially country music. According to

ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, “the Cajun and Creole traditions of Southwest Louisiana are

unique in the blending of European, African, and Amerindian qualities.” Originally Cajun

music depended primarily upon the use of the fiddle, but after World War II Germanimported

accordions became available, and were introduced into Cajun bands, especially by

performers like Iry Lejeune. The accordion is now at the center of both Cajun music and

zydeco, while the fiddle is the other primary instrument. During and after the 1950s, Cajun

music was influenced by rock ‘n’ roll, forming a hybrid style known as swamp pop. Cajun

bands have also been influenced by country music and the Nashville sound. Later in the

1960s, however, interest in more traditional Cajun music was revived by preservationists, and

in 1968, Louisiana finally officially recognized the value of its French heritage by

establishing the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana. In 1974, CODOFIL

organized the First Tribute to Cajun Music Festival in Lafayette.


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Emile Waagenaar is not the first photographer to document Cajun musicians. In 1938, Farm

Security Administration photographer Russell Lee documented Creole and Cajun culture in

Louisiana. Others, such as Elemore Morgan, Jr., have photographed Cajun performers and

published books of their work. Waagenaar’s photographs, both in black-and-white and color,

are sharp, well-lighted, well-composed portraits of sometimes idiosyncratic subjects. They

differ from the work of other photographers of Cajun musicians, who emphasize concert

photography, documenting musicians in action within their entertainment context.

Waagenaar instead photographs musicians in their personal environments in order to convey

more contextual information about them as people, not merely as entertainers. His

photographs include visual information which will interest social and cultural historians, as

well as historians of music, now and in the future.

Waagenaar has had a number of exhibitions of his work on Cajun musicians in Europe and

the United States. His aims are both aesthetic and historical. He has tried to document the

most important and innovative musicians, first among the generation of musicians who were

the founders of Cajun music in the beginning of the 20th century. He writes, “After that I

think it is important to have the second, third and fourth generation of these musicians.

Every generation gives…Cajun music another drive, but the people I want to photograph

must…respect the old traditional style and stay close to that. These days I use the Internet to

find new musicians, but the best [way to] locate these people is talking with the musicians I

already know…when I am in Louisiana. Mostly I give them a phone call and explain my

intentions.”

The collection consists of 64 inkjet photographic prints, some in black-and-white, and others

in color. They are beautifully crafted and include a wealth of detail—straightforward

environmental portraits of people whom Mr. Waagenaar respects. Although his subjects are

rendered with dignity, sometimes unusual or quirky aspects of certain personalities and

seemingly incongruous details also are displayed in whimsical pictures imbued with gentle

humor.