Singing Is Like Breathing For Zachary Richard

Zachary Richard A

The ties between the Acadian population of the Maritimes and the state of Louisiana run deep.

Maritimers learn early in their schooling that following the 1755 expulsion, many Acadians from our region settled in Louisiana to begin their lives anew. And so it should be no surprise that those familial and cultural ties remain vibrant and active more than 250 years later.

Cajun musician Zachary Richard, a native of Louisiana, has been welcomed here in the Maritimes like he is one of our own. A cultural activist, environmentalist, singer-songwriter and poet, Richard’s music knows no bounds. With an astounding 20 records to his credit, Richard’s catalogue has sold more than a quarter of a million units in Canada, a testament to the mass appeal of his musical catalogue.

His latest record, Le Fou , is an album steeped in the sounds and rhythms of his native Louisiana. The folk-driven songs deal with themes of resistance, identity and more. Taking its name from the type of bird that was first captured and cleaned after the catastrophic Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, Richard’s social conscience is as vibrant and relevant as ever.

All good stories, musical or otherwise, have a beginning, middle and an end. Zach­ary’s is no different.

“My first experience with music was in the Catholic church in which I was raised in Lafayette, La.,” Zachary tells the Times & Transcript from a stop in the Gaspé region of Quebec last week. “The church decided that they wanted to have their own boys choir, much like the Vienna Boys Choir. From the time I was eight years old until the time I was 12, I was singing five days a week and then for High Mass on Sunday. That is not only where I learned how to sing, it is how I learned that I loved to sing.

“When my voice changed, I stopped singing for the Lord and started singing for the devil,” he laughs.

Fast forward to 1968. With the Vietnam War in full swing, Zachary found himself identifying and enthralled with the counter-culture of the time. It was then that he made the decision to become a songwriter.

Realizing his chances of becoming a professional songwriter would be better if he lived in New York City rather than his home state, Zachary moved to the Big Apple. His singing in the streets would eventually lead him to a contract with Elektra Records. Some might call it fate but with some of the advance money he received from Elektra, he purchased a Cajun accordion. His life would never be the same after that.

“Initially, I didn’t know much about the instrument. I didn’t grow up in a traditional music family or anything of the such. As much as my grandparents were unilingual French, my parents were bilingual. By the time we reached my generation, the Cajun culture had essentially been Americanized. All of a sudden, there was little difference between Lafayette, La., and Lafayette, Ind.

“When I discovered Cajun music, it really rocked me and so I started to incorporate elements of traditional Cajun music with rock and roll and folk, which is where I was coming from. There was a whole wealth of musical tradition that had been largely under the radar that I wanted to shine a light on.”

Zachary’s first show in New Brunswick took place in Cap-Pelé in 1975. He immediately felt a musical and cultural kinship with the region. He says the similarities between the people he saw in New Brunswick and the people of his native Louisiana were all too evident.

“Not only did the good people of New Brunswick have the same last name as many folks in Lousiana, the LeBlancs, the Cormiers and the Richards, everybody looks like everybody else, too. You could take people from Louisiana and drop them in Bouctouche and vice versa and no one would know the difference.”

“There were deep undercurrents that were very significant for me:. Both the Acadian and Cajun populations are family-oriented and deeply religious. They also hold a similar world view, that if you work hard for your family, you are going to enjoy a good life. I found those things to be incredibly moving.”

Physical features and last names aside, Zachary says it was a conversation that he had with a complete stranger that truly made him realize how culturally similar New Brunswick was to Louisiana.

“When I played that first gig in Cap-Pelé, I met this very kind lady named Mrs. LeBlanc. To the best of my knowledge, there was only a vague awareness that the people of Louisiana held of the Maritimes and vice versa. This was long before the Acadian World Congress that we enjoy these days. And so, Mrs. LeBlanc was somewhat intrigued by the fact that I was from Louisiana. Not only did she bear a strong resemblance to my grandmother, she began asking me questions similar to what my grandmother would have asked.

“When we were saying our goodbyes, she said ‘Je prierai pour vous’ (I’ll pray for you). My grandmother said those very same words to me when I was leaving to go to New Brunswick. It is those kinds of things that make the connection between New Brunswick and Louisiana all the more profound.”

A collaborative record with his 13-year-old grandson is due later this year, illustrating that Zachary has no plans to slow down. With a somewhat regular show schedule of approximately 50 shows per year, he is looking forward to the opportunity of visiting New Brunswick once again.

“Right now, it is not about the fame or the money. It is more about the quality of life and the experiences. For me, singing is like breathing; I cannot stop.”

WHAT : Zachary Richard with George Belliveau, Suroit, Wilfred LeBouthillier and Reveil
WHEN : Saturday, Aug. 17, 8 p.m.
WHERE : Dover Park, 337 Dover Road, Dieppe
TICKETS : Advance tickets are $25; $35 at the door. Advance tickets available at Jean Coutu locations in Dieppe and Shediac as well as at 1789 Mountain Rd., Moncton. Advance tickets are also available online at billetterieacces.ca

Article published in the August 15, 2013 edition of the Times & Transcript