Reviving a culture with Acadian swing

Posted: Thursday, April 03, 2003

As the story goes, when Louise Arsenault, fiddler for the Acadian band Barachois, snuck her father's fiddle from under his bed, she knew she could play it before she even put the bow to the strings.

"She was only 7, and she just played right there," said Helene Arsenault-Bergeron, Barachois keyboardist and spokeswoman. "Here, music is just something that is in you. ... We absorbed it from our parents."

When she says "here," Arsenault-Bergeron refers to a tiny French-speaking region on the southern shore of Canada's Prince Edward Island province. The area, marked by rolling green hills and fishing towns, five times zones away from Juneau, is where a unique dialect of Acadian music has developed over the past two centuries.

"Since we live on an island we have our own kind of music which kind of developed in our community," Arsenault-Bergeron said. "Influences surrounding our community are different from New Brunswick or Nova Scotia - there's a lot of Scottish and Irish influences here."

Barachois (pronounced "bara-schwa") is the headline band for the 29th Annual Alaska Folk Festival. The group will play at 8 p.m. Thursday, April 10, and at 9 p.m. Sunday, April 13, on the main stage at Centennial Hall. Barachois also will teach several workshops and play a dance set at 8 p.m. Saturday at the National Guard Armory.

As if to illustrate the music's provincial roots, Barachois consists of four members who have the same last name: Arsenault-Bergeron, Louise Arsenault, Albert Arsenault and Chuck Arsenault. Albert and Helene are brother and sister, Louise is a distant cousin, and Chuck is no relation.

Each band member plays several instruments, ranging from traditional guitar, keyboard and fiddle to horns, pump organ and all manner of "kitchen implements." Barachois distinguishes itself most by traditional dancing and the use of foot-stomping as percussion.

"The fiddle player is this really tiny woman and she was playing while her feet were going constantly," said Juneau musician Andy Ferguson, who caught a Barachois concert Outside. "When she got off the stage, she collapsed. She pumped out so much energy."

Barachois members have been playing together for a relatively short time, since the mid-1990s, but they have had tremendous success. Their tour schedule is booked nearly solid, and they all support themselves solely through their music.

Arsenault-Bergeron says Barachois' style of music might be compared to Zydeco or Cajun because all come from the same French-Canadian roots. Like the rousing folk tunes of Louisiana, Barachois' music is often inspired by old French folk music.

Some of the songs come from a collection of a capella recordings made by Georges Arsenault (no relation) in the 1970s of old women singing traditional songs in their homes. Though the tunes were familiar, the women sung words Barachois members hadn't heard before. They learned them and now they sing them.

Like the spoken French in the primarily English-speaking province, French folk music on Prince Edward Island is somewhat of a dying tradition. For Barachois members playing the traditional music is an act of cultural preservation, like speaking French to their children, Arsenault-Bergeron said.

Barachois differs from Zydeco and Cajun, because it has the flair of Irish and Scottish folk tunes, especially in the fiddling, she said.

"Their music, the Cajuns, they evolved with influences of the South in the same way our music evolved with the influences of the Celtic races," Arsenault-Bergeron said. "The songs still have that same kind of lamenting but happy feel to them ... and we still speak the same old French."

"Barachois," a word that refers to a warm pool of water protected from the ocean by a sand bar, also speaks to the sense of protection and family legacy that anchor Barachois' music.

"We call "Barachois" the fishing harbor where my grandfather and great-grandfather used to fish," Arsenault-Bergeron said.

Julia O'Malley can be reached at

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