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, Lafayette's 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 scenes, allowing festival-goers the unique chance of hearing world music up close and personal.
There's an international marketplace, unique arts and crafts, Lafayette's world-renowned cuisine, children's activities, parades and so much more. Festival International brings in thousands of tourists yearly, but its also the city's 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 International Origins
Festival International began with a depressed economy due to sinking oil prices of the 1980s and one man's 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, a French linguist. 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 that the last person leaving Lafayette should 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 the 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. It is lucky for us such a person didn't exist. Sometimes it's better to follow your instinct and intuition. That's what we did, and it turned out pretty well."
The First Festival International
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 on July 2-5, 1987 in downtown Lafayette.
The opening act on the main stage was a group of New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians who performed in elaborate costumes until a thunderstorm sent everyone running for shelter. After the storm subsided, Mhire feared the worst. "I'm 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.
"The syncopated, complex rhythms of those drums they had the most complex patterns. We were sitting there, our jaws dropped. We were all mesmerized. Soon hundreds of spectators returned. I thought that something very powerful was connecting. Maybe that's the international power of music. Lafayette's response 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."
Festival International 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 include 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.