The last week of April along the streets of downtown Lafayette and residents are decked out in hats, dancing shoes and smiles. Refrains of Happy festival! are everywhere. At the apex of spring Lafayettes downtown turns festival mode for the annual Festival International de Louisiane, the largest outdoor, free Francophone event in the United States. Every year artists from around the world perform on several downtown stages, known appropriately as scnes, allowing festival-goers the unique chance of hearing world music up close and personal. Theres an international marketplace, unique arts and crafts, Lafayettes world-renowned cuisine, childrens activities, parades and so much more. Festival International brings in thousands of tourists yearly, but its also the citys treasured spring outing, an event locals look forward to all year long. I love the festival because it brings the world to Lafayette, said Christy Leichty, a Lafayette Parish drama teacher, writer and performer. The earth is a small place full of incredible culture and beautiful people and we get to celebrate that in a big way in our happy little corner of it. Festival Origins Festival International began with a depressed economy due to sinking oil prices of the 1980s and one mans exposure to a new culture. Herman Mhire, then director of the University Art Museum at the University of Southwestern Louisiana (now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette), had been invited to a reception at the home of Maurice Dedieu, the French linguistic attach. Prior to his time in Lafayette, Dedieu had lived in Senegal and discovered exquisite paintings on glass. On the walls of his house were these amazing paintings of Senegal, Mhire remembered. Dedieu had also related to Mhire the incredible music he had heard in Senegal, particularly Senegalese musicians Arfan and Kinda Diabate Kouyate. In early 1985, Mhire organized the exhibition Senegal: Narrative Paintings at the museum and the Kouyates traveled to Lafayette to conduct a one-week residency. They performed traditional Senegalese griot music at the museum, in Lafayette Parish schools, at Southern University in Baton Rouge and for Louisiana Public Broadcasting. Their final concert on the university campus was sold out. The music had a profound impact on Mhire, who grew up on a Cajun farm outside Lafayette. When he later traveled to Jordan, Amsterdam and New York on business his exposure to world culture intensified. I thought Lafayette needed an international festival, Mhire said. My motivation as an educator was to open doors and windows to other experiences. Mhire contacted a host of city officials who would be instrumental in bringing about such a festival Philippe Gustin, director of the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL); Jean Goyer, head of the Dlgation du Quebec in Lafayette; Donnie Robin, administrative assistant to then Lafayette Parish President Walter Comeaux; Cathy Weber, director of the Downtown Development Authority; and Phil Lank, director of Community Development for the City of Lafayette. Michael Doucet of BeauSoleil, who was performing all over the world at the time, was the vice president of production and programming. There were many skeptics and obstacles to overcome, Mhire said, but the timing worked. Depressed oil prices had taken a hard toll on the Lafayette economy with people joking, Will the last person leaving Lafayette please turn off the lights. But the economy was beginning to bounce back. Both state and local tourism officials saw a festival as a way to promote cultural tourism and stimulate the economy. They were looking for a way to climb out of this hole and a way to feel good about themselves and feel good about the community, Mhire explained. Ironically, the depression created an environment that allowed ideas to be considered. Cathy Weber once said that a consultant probably would have said it was impossible to do, Mhire continued. It is lucky for us such a person didnt exist. Sometimes its better to follow your instinct and intuition. Thats what we did and it turned out pretty well. The First Festival The founding board visited festivals in Quebec and met every Wednesday night at City Hall hashing out details. They received grants from tourism and Francophone countries and attracted hundreds of musicians and volunteers for the first Festival International de Louisiane July 2-5, 1987, in downtown Lafayette. The opening act on the main stage was a group of New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians that performed in elaborate costumes until a thunderstorm sent everyone running for shelter. After the storm subsided, Mhire feared the worst. Im thinking, Oh my God this is doomed.' When he made it to the stage, he spotted smoke rising. The Master Drummers of Rwanda were warming the skins on their drums. Ill never forget the policeman, Doucet said. He couldnt arrest them because he didnt know what to arrest them for! When the Master Dummers began playing, what happened next would change Lafayette forever. The syncopated, complex rhythms of those drums they had the most complex patterns, Mhire related. Were sitting there, our jaws dropped. We were all mesmerized. Soon hundreds of spectators returned. I thought that something very powerful was connecting, Mhire said. Maybe thats the international power of music. Lafayette does respond to performing arts and music is essential to the identity of this place. You didn't need to convince people. They responded on an emotional level. It was so unexpected, Doucet said. The magnitude of luck to pull it off. People really loved it. Festival Today The Festival continued as an annual event, although the date was changed to late April to coincide with the New Orleans Jazz Festival; the connecting dates make it easier for foreign musicians to fly to the U.S. Over the years festival highlights the unique culture of South Louisiana along with its French influences from the mother country of France, Canada, Africa and the Caribbean. In addition, bands of all styles and languages have visited the festival stages. All promote an exchange of cultures unique to America. The 2015 lineup is a great example of the variety Festival International offers. Grammy Award-winner Angelique Kidjo will be traveling in from Benin along with Ukrainian folk-punk quartet DakhaBrakha. Portlands MarchFourth Marching Band returns, one of the most requested bands in Festival history, as well as Lafayettes own GIVERS and Buckwheats World featuring Buckwheat Zydeco.
From Canada, our French cousins to the north, bands will include Quebec's Nomadic Massive and folk-trash artist Lisa LeBlanc of New Brunswick promoting a new album.
Rounding out the Festival will be performances by JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound, Vieux Farka Tour from Mali, Noura Mint Seymali from Mauritania, Groupo Fantasma, Jon Cleary, Tal National, Aurelio Martinez, The Jones Family Band Singers, Lagbaja, Kinobe & the Wamu Spirit and Cambalache from Mexico.
New this year is the Official Festival After Party on Friday, April 24, featuring Big Freedia, the Queen of New Orleans Bounce. Big Freddia's a big name for Lafayette and were very excited to bring such a big act to the festival, said April Courville, Festival International's marketing director.
Since performers change every year, inviting many bands that have never played before in the United States, Festival International remains unique year after year. Participants may experience something new every time. I've loved Festival International whenever we've lived in Lafayette for years off and on, said Houston transplant Sharon Connors, who returns every year to enjoy the Festival. In 2007 I remember buying my first international musician CD, Salif Keita from Africa, who made a sound Id never heard before Afro Pop. I played it over and over for years, stashed it away and then brought it out again. It was so fabulous to discover international artists/musicians the world who came to town for Festival International. My favorite memory is when the lead singer from Les Breastfeeders climbed all the way up the scaffolding on the stage without missing a note incredible and crazy, said Lisa Hanchey, a Lafayette federal court lawyer, and a regular festival-goer. Music is only one element of the multi-faceted festival. The massive March des Arts features an enormous variety of artists, crafters and artisans. The March du Monde is set up like an international marketplace, featuring vendors from around the world. Food vendors are chosen from Acadiana's famous cuisine, known for Cajun and Creole fare but rapidly becoming a world cuisine of its own. Lafayette has won numerous culinary accolades over the years and visitors will taste these flavors throughout the festival. The festival also offers what is known locally as lagniappe, a little something extra. For instance, the festivals Cirque de la Rue involves streets performers every day as well as the Festivals famous stilt walkers and parade. There's a 5K run, a French Catholic Mass and numerous children's activities, including a Children's Ptanque Open Tournament, sponsored by La Boule Cadiene de Lafayette. Also making a return is the Louisiana International Music Exchange to present Louisiana musicians to worldwide music industry professionals and festival scouts to name a few. It gives Louisiana musicians an opportunity to grow and be discovered by people outside the area, Courville explained. This year's Festival International de Louisiane promises to deliver the world once again on the doorstep of Lafayette, Louisiana, but it's more than just an annual festival held in the heart of Cajun & Creole Country. Its an experience of a lifetime. Don't be surprised if you find yourself quickly greeting others with the Happy festival! I love the festival because it offers a variety of music that you cant find anywhere else and its free, Hanchey said. It's also special because it supports and promotes Lafayette, which is the greatest festival city in the world. For a complete lineup, schedule of events, updates and mobile app, click here.