Since Duke Performances began in 1956, the arts series has been recognized nationally for exceptional – if proudly eclectic – programming, annually presenting artists from different disciplines of the arts and cultural world.
Casting a wide net to bring a high quality of diversity to the program, students and residents alike have been able to partake in some of the finest musicians the world has to offer over the years, with genres and styles as wide-ranging as string quartets to jazz ensembles performing throughout Durham.
With that in mind, some longtime fans of the series might still be surprised to find the Lost Bayou Ramblers taking the opening slot in Duke Performances’ 2017-18 season. The band’s three-day residency at Duke University begins Sept. 7, with an opening set at The Pinhook in downtown Durham. It continues with performances Sept. 8 and 9 that will accompany the film, “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” the film their music appeared in that continues to draw them attention.
Lost Bayou Ramblers hail from the fertile musical towns found around southern Louisiana. For almost two decades, they’ve honed their craft touring as professional musicians and now are known worldwide as today’s premiere performers of traditional Cajun instrumentation with punk rock influences.
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Like any music genre that has been around long enough to have some of it designated as “traditional,” there has been pushback against the Ramblers by those who prefer their Cajun to sound the same as the first time they experienced it. Louis Michot, one-half of the brother pair that make up the leaders of the band, says rumblings from disgruntled audience members have lessened over the years.
“I would say that people have embraced what we do, even on the traditional side of things, back home,” the vocalist says over the phone from a tour stop in Seattle, Wash.
“Even as much as people may want what they are used to – aka ‘tradition’ – they also want to hear something new,” he said. “For every critic we have, there are also 10,000 people who love it and celebrate it. We have heard very few criticisms about our music recently, and when we do, they always tend to be out of state, even out of country.”
Some might have a definition in their mind of how traditional Cajun music should sound, Michot said.
“Most people realize that tradition is a growing thing, and what we are doing is 100 percent traditional,” he said. “It’s a fine line to walk, but by and large people celebrate our music, because they need something new brought to the music to keep it growing.”
It’s that sense of something new mixed with tradition that has brought the Ramblers opportunities in the past few years. In 2012, their music was featured in “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” and ever since, they have been asked to perform alongside screenings of the Academy Award-nominated movie. The band has played alongside some of the most renowned orchestras across the globe, and Michot readily acknowledges that their work with the film was a lucky break the Ramblers never expected.
“Being part of the ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ score – and the film and score then taking on a life of its own – has led to our performing with symphonies all over the world to perform it,” said Michot, a fiddler.
“It’s amazing to see the appreciation, and very appropriate that a university like Duke would want to see it happen there,” he said. “The great thing about it is that we’ve been working with wordless music for a long time, and we’ve been given the opportunity to work with so many new symphonies we haven’t worked with before. So many of the orchestras have never seen the film before, and when they are sitting there performing the music, they are watching it for the first time, and i’ts amazing to see their reactions. It’s not just another another performance for them; it truly is a moving movie, and the music is just as powerful.”
But don’t underestimate the amount of joy a band finds when its work allows it to stay in one city for more than a handful of hours. Staying in Durham for a few days comes as a nice change of pace for a group of musicians who are more accustomed to leaving the bus for only a few hours each day.
“Being a touring band, it’s always the greatest part of it, learning something new about a place that you’ve never had a chance to spend too much time in before,” Michot says. “To be able to spend three days in one place while on tour is a very rare feat.
“Never having been to Duke, we’re real excited to see what the school is all about,” he said. “The great thing about it is that these events usually start long-term relationships, because music is the passion that is shared with academics, and we usually find a common thread between people that are studying things like this and people who are actively creating it.”
Who: Lost Bayou Ramblers with Shamu Garcon as the opening act
When: 8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 7
Where: The Pinhook, 117 W. Main St., Durham
Cost: $14 general public, $10 Duke students. 984-244-7243 or thepinhook.com
Other performances: The band will join a chamber orchestra with members of the N.C. Symphony at 8 p.m. Sept. 8-9 to accompany a screening of “Beasts of the Southern Wild” at Duke’s Reynolds Industries Theater. Tickets are $20, or $10 for Duke students. For details, go to dukeperformances.duke.edu.