In April 2014, public radio program American Routes along with the U.S. State Department, the National Endowment for the Arts and lots more folks sponsored the first-ever tour of traditional Louisiana Cajun artists to China.
Joel Savoy, Jesse Lege & Cajun Country Revival (Nadine Landry & Sammy Lind of Foghorn Stringband) bundled up along with Nick Spitzer of American Routes and Cajun filmmaker Connie Castille to tour China and to showcase American Cajun culture to Chinese audiences. The group toured through Beijing, Guangzhou, Harbin, Shanghai and Nanjing.
“I searched everywhere,” Spitzer said. “The Pine Leaf Boys have played in Hong Kong, but as far as we can tell, no Cajuns have toured the mainland.”
Spitzer, professor of American studies and anthropology at Tulane University (where Routes is produced), conducted oral-history workshops and lecture on French Louisiana cultures during the trip as well.
The performance tours are “Part of a larger package that’s focusing on American community-based culture and creativity,” Spitzer said. “We’re going to China and showing them we’re not all Hollywood (film clips) and Broadway (recordings), and we’re not all common-denominator Clear Channel rock ‘n’ roll.
“We have all these community-based traditional arts that play into culture preservation, tourism, pluralism, diversity, democracy without a big ideological (statement). We’re not flying a flag in front of it. We’re just saying, ‘These are the people.’
“It has immense effect … because China has historically been focused on, ‘Who are the peasants? Who are the average citizens? What about the farmer?’ So we’re bringing them that. ‘What about the Cajun farmer? What about the truck driver?’ I find it very exciting.”
“I guess it’s sort of a new version of cowboy diplomacy,” Spitzer said. “It’s not George Bush-style shoot-’em-up. It’s real cowboys, real Cajuns, real gospel music, real jazz.
“I think it’s what we’ve got to offer the world, and it’s what the world wants from us. And I think it can help us recover some of it here at a time when the whole country seems so divided and alienated. I feel like sometimes we have to almost go abroad to remind ourselves of who we are in the world.”