The princess and the accordion
It starts like a fairytale. “Once there was a little princess who lived, surrounded by the affection of her family, in the heart of the Cajun prairie in Louisiana…”
Her father, the master accordionist Marc Savoy is the world-renowned craftsman of the Acadian trademark Cajun accordion, fervent gardien of the flame and of the tradition. Every Saturday morning, for almost half a century now, he organizes a jam session in his music store/workshop–just on the outskirts of Eunice on highway 190—to “honor the old musicians” and give them a place to get together, drink coffee, share stories and laughs and play some tunes. Her mother, Ann Savoy, is all at once a guitarist, singer, accordionist, photographer and music producer. She started and continues to lead several bands and, after years of hard work, self-published her masterpiece, Cajun Music, A Reflection of a People, which remains the absolute reference, the Bible, on the subject of Cajun music.
Born into such a dynasty, it was therefore difficult to escape the music. Sarah remembers, “When I was 9 I tried to learn ‘J’ai passé devant ta porte’ on accordion but instead I studied piano for ten years and played cello for five. At 14 I picked up a guitar and quickly learned the basic open chords to accompany myself when singing country songs, and then my brother Joel and I started this cover band and my mom taught me some bar chords to songs by the Sex Pistols and Black Flag.”
Once she grew up, our princess entered the University of Louisiana at Lafayette at the height of her rebellious period—listening to punk, piercings and multi-colored hair. “While learning Russian and studying English Liberal Arts and Visual Arts, I booked punk bands at a crappy bar on McKinley Street near campus and sometimes went to strum my guitar and sing Patsy Cline songs solo at the local Hell’s Angels bar.”
But Sarah will allow no misunderstanding when she stresses, “Even though I’ve always had this contradictory spirit, and though it was strongest at that time, I never tried to be ‘punk’ for real. I had so much respect for the efforts my parents have always made to protect and preserve the Cajun culture and I went to see them play everywhere I could. Despite purple hair and piercings I hung out with old Cajuns when I could and really made an effort to spend time talking to them. When Christine Balfa was pregnant with her first daughter I replaced her for a few gigs with the Magnolia Sisters, my mom’s all-female Cajun band, playing guitar, triangle and washboard. I had learned the 2 songs my dad required us to learn to play if we wanted an accordion, so I got my first Acadian (along with my Martin guitar) on my 20th birthday. I didn’t really understand the instrument yet, though, and I had a rough time trying to learn to play a lead instrument by ear when I’d always had the crutch of sheet music before. It was around then that I started going to Cajun jam sessions at the Blue Moon with my brother Wilson and going out dancing at La Poussiere and Mulate's to listen to Jason Frey. Sometimes we’d get up and do a couple of songs with him or replace him while he went to grab a beer. I was also listening to Amédée Ardoin a lot at that point, but I was still trying to figure out who I was outside of the Savoy family and the whole Cajun thing. I needed to find my own path.”
A search which, when her American studies were completed, led her to set off to Russia in order to “read and study Dostoyevsky in the original language. I did learn to read and speak Russian, but not the old language of my favorite author.”
While she worked as the Director of Marketing at American Medical Centers, Moscow, Sarah began feeling homesick for her family, her culture, and asked herself if “business executive” was really right for her. She found the answer in France or, more precisely, Ris-Orangis where, having arrived to spend a weekend at a folk festival she re-joined and accompanied the Savoy Family Band. She met a French friend of her family’s there, David Rolland, who plays Cajun accordion and who convinced her to return to France to tour with him. “I realized how much the music made me feel closer to home and just got to a point where I understood it was what I was meant to do, so it was stupid to try to escape it.” A new life began in France as together Sarah and David started the band Sarah Savoy and the Francadians, in which she sang and played guitar with Vincent Blin on fiddle and Manolo Gonzales on upright bass. With her marriage to Manolo Gonzales and the birth of their daughter, Anna Marquette, she started the life she was meant to lead.
The Francadians quickly found their mark, their public and their very unique sound, touring throughout Europe and recording four albums. “I couldn’t allow myself to just ride my family’s coattails. Everything they have done is so great, so powerful—they’re the masters! So I knew that if I was going to play Cajun music, I’d have to do my own thing and not just try to do some kind of sub-standard copy of what they do, so I mixed country, rockabilly and rock’n’roll, along with a punk attitude, into the music we were playing, careful all the while to keep a traditional Cajun sound. But even as I played with the Francadians I was listening more and more to Adam Hebert, Belton Richard, Milton Adams, Iry LeJeune, Lawrence Walker…and the more I listened the more I felt that their style was so much more rock’n’roll than the rock I was listening to. I started feeling this push to learn accordion.”
As she approached her feelings for the instrument—behind which she must have sensed the formidable tutelage of her father—she delivered herself to working on learning it and finally arrived at the point where she felt—after much hesitation and self-doubt—capable of playing on stage before an audience.
A funny aspect of her life on the road, she became, little by little and largely by accident, a spokesperson for her culture. At the request of her audience, hungry for more information, she began holding conferences (“people, especially in France, always want to know more about the origins of the music they’re hearing, the history of the Cajuns, their way of life”), teaching them Cajun dancing, and above all excelling in her Cajun cooking demonstrations which have reached almost a cult status for discovering the secrets of Louisiana cuisine—gumbo and jambalaya as well as pecan pies. This love of sharing her passion for Cajun food brought her to publish her first cookbook, the award-winning title The Savoy Family Kitchen: A Family History of Cajun Food, through Kitchen Press, Scottland, in 2013.
“For a long time,” she concludes, “I was pleased with the image and the reputation I had created for myself of this picturesque, totally kitsch version of ‘white trash’ like camouflage dresses, curlers in my hair, plastic pink flamingoes in the garden and wood plaque Elvis clocks. I earned the title ‘The Queen of White Trash Cajun’ (FROOTS Magazine) and enjoyed that for several years, but then a Greek blues magazine called me ‘The Princess of Cajun’ and it struck me. I thought about my family, my parents, and I thought, ‘Well, yeah, I should be.’ I’ve got a long way to go before I feel like I really deserve that title, a lot of work to do if I’m ever going to measure up to it, carrying with it all it does about how amazing my parents are, but it’s good to have a strong goal in mind.”