Corey Ledet Zydeco’s Médikamen Brings Creole Language To The Party
Corey Ledet is a prolific musician and songwriter who’s always been invested in traditional music of his family’s native Lousiana, but with his latest album, Médikamen he takes things a step further by writing and performing completely in Kouri-Vini, the Louisiana Creole language. He recognizes this as part of a journey to reclaim his family’s language, since it’s not one that he grew up speaking. Like many of his generation and those since, Corey Ledet grew up with many valued elements of Creole culture, but the language had begun to fade. He’s taking decisive personal steps to reintroduce it in his life and hopes to inspire others to do the same.
Médikamen was recorded at Dockside Studios in Maurice, Louisiana, engineered and mixed by Justin Tocket, and produced by Corey Ledet and Louis Michot. Special guests on the album include Germaine Jack, Anders Osborne, Kermit Ruffins, and Grant Dermody and it arrived via Louisiana’s Nouveau Electric Label. I spoke with Corey Ledet about his personal choice to immerse himself in Kouri-Vini, the help that he needed and received from others to make this journey, and the high-energy atmosphere that makes the album “medicine” for the soul, as its title implies.
Americana Highways: I understand that you have recorded and released many albums, but this one is particularly special and important to you.
Corey Ledet: For me, this is probably my favorite album thus far.
AH: When did you start thinking about this album? What was on your mind?
CL: I would say I started thinking about it maybe two and a half to three years ago. The main thing that has been on my mind the past three years, now, is learning my family’s language, which is Lousiana Creole, but they call it Kouri-Vini. That’s the language that my dad speaks, my grand-parents, my great-grandparents, and all my cousins. They all grew up speaking it, but when I was born, I was in a generation where the parents didn’t want the kids to know what they were talking about. So they didn’t really teach us. Then a whole generation of people in my age range, and after my generation, haven’t been able to pass the language down. So it’s almost an endangered language. I think there are less than 10,000 people who speak it today.
Those are the older people, in their 70s and upwards, and that’s probably it. People are getting more interested in it now, which is very cool. I’ve always wanted to learn the language, and lately my dad has been showing me stuff, but also my cousin, Mr. Herbert Wiltz. He’s a native speaker and he’s actually been teaching me to read and write it. That’s even better because I can not just hear it, but actually see it. My friend Jonathan Mayers from Baton Rouge, helped co-write all the songs on the album, and he’s a great big help and inspiration as well.
In my life, I’ve found that life sends you on different routes at times, so I thought, “What better way to learn the language than by writing my music in this language from this point forward?” With every album that I create, there’s more of the language that I’m learning. I’m forcing myself to learn it, and of course, when I go play shows, I have to sing it and know what I’m singing. That was the main thing on my mind.
AH: That’s incredible. That’s really holding your feet to the fire and forcing yourself to do something. You’re taking a leap and have to learn it if you’re going to release it to the world.
CL: Right. It’s not a completely foreign language to me, but like any language, if you don’t use it, you lose it. This forces me to use it at some point each week.
AH: I love the fact that you’re going to learn how to write it, because that’s another way to make sure that you can help pass it on to others.
CL: That’s one of my plans. Once I’m fluent enough across the board, I’d be willing to help others learn the language. That’s part of the reason for me.
AH: I assume that the older people in your life would be very open to this approach that you’re taking, but what was their reaction like to your plans?
CL: I told a couple members of my family and they said, “Are you sure you want to do that?” But after I told them why, they said, “Oh, that’s a good reason. That’s going to work.” Then they were excited.
AH: In cases with some languages that have less speakers, schools can help try to keep the language alive, but that’s not the case here, so it really must be about self-motivation within families to reach the younger generations.
CL: Yes. I’m also hoping that other Creoles would be into learning their own language. We still have a lot of stuff that’s part of our culture as Creoles. We have the food, we have the music, but the only thing that we’re missing is the language and we’re getting away from it. We don’t want to lose our identities, so I hope making this music will help other people jump on-board.
My dad grew up during a time of language immersion, where they spoke it in the house, but it was also a time of Americanization where people wanted to fit in. Speaking Creole would make people feel ashamed and less-than. That’s part of the reason that they didn’t want to teach the younger kids. Yes, this is America, but we need to be able to speak our Creole.
But also, my dad moved to Houston, which is where I was born, and there was only a small pocket of people who spoke the language. But I just think it’s the coolest thing to be bilingual. I’m choosing to speak my family’s language, but a person could learn any language they wanted to learn and it would be cool. To speak another language can be useful.
AH: Do you think things are more open now for people being bilingual and having multiple cultural identities in America?
CL: I think the generations to come are starting to show more interest. If we can keep this going, it’ll only get stronger.
AH: The other thing about this album is that it doesn’t sound old-fashioned at all. You’re not an old-fashioned guy, from what I can tell. You know a lot about tradition, but you’ve always brought a lot of modern feeling to your music. Was that something that you were thinking about?
CL: I think that’s just me, in general. I try to create a balance. I’m a huge fan of the older stuff, but we’re not in that world anymore, so we kind of have to be where we are. At the same time, it comes back to culture. You don’t want to completely Americanize yourself. If you come from a rich culture, wear it on your chest. You should bring along your tradition and culture, but adapt to the times.
AH: How did you choose to write these songs in terms of the music and the lyrics? You mentioned working with some other people on lyrics, but did you work with anyone else on the music?
CL: I had some different melodies in my head, and I had a couple of songs that I just kind of recorded in my little home studio as ideas. But it is a little bit different because of working with a different language. The cadence of it all flows differently than English. Trying to make a song work in a different language is something that you really have to wrap your mind around. It’s a cool challenge. You can say something in English to a certain beat and it flows right, but then when you switch it to another language, it might not flow, it might not be in time, and it might not sound right. You have to figure out a way to make it work.
AH: Did you listen to older Creole music in order to write your newer compositions?
CL: It definitely was an inspiration because a lot of the older stuff was all Creole or all French, because those were the languages that they spoke back then. It’s always going to be an inspiration to me. It’s a big deal for me.
AH: Are there other musicians who you can go and listen to play and sing, and they are singing in Creole, or is that something you’ve had to develop on your own?
CL: There are not very many. There are a handful, but very few, that still do that. You can still listen to a lot the Cajun bands singing in French. There are very few Zydeco artists who sing in Creole, but they sing in English. English has dominated everything these days.
AH: So, musically, the tradition might be there, but the lyrics are in English?
CL: Right, yes.
AH: Was it difficult for you to learn, not just how to speak, but to sing in Creole? I feel like you make some really intricate vocal choices on these songs.
CL: For me, it was more about rhythm, since I’m also a drummer. If I can find the rhythm, I’m not really worried about how to execute something. Whatever it is I’m trying to say, as long as I’m on top of that beat, and actually singing it, that won’t bother me.
AH: Have you performed any of the new songs live for people yet?
CL: Yes, and so far, people are really liking it. I played last week, and played basically the whole album, and everyone was enjoying it. There were a couple of older people in there, and they were just smiling at me, because they knew what I was saying! The younger people didn’t know what I was saying, but you could see in their eyes that they were thinking, “Huh. I wonder what he’s saying.” Maybe just by doing that, they’ll learn something.
AH: From my outside perspective, I think the language sounds really dramatic and energetic. They way that you present it in the music, anyone could listen to the music and enjoy it, even if they didn’t understand the language. But it’s good for them to then be curious about it.
CLZ: I appreciate that. Also, the title of the album is called Médikamen, which translates to “medication.” So, based on what you said, I truly believe that music is medication. It can really set the mood for a person. If music is happy, it commands you to be happy. It puts you in a good mood. It’s like at the end of the year when people start putting on Christmas music. Why? Because it puts you in a good mood. Music is medicine and it heals your soul.
AH: I definitely agree with you on that. On some of the tracks, you include some conversational elements leading into the songs and little extras. Was that important to you?
CL: When you’re playing on stage, you’re with your guys and having a good time, and you have the audience, and you’re feeding off their energy. That’s how I wanted to do this album. You can do everything in the studio these days, where you’re cutting and pasting, and that might be more convenient, but that energy won’t be captured. It sounds almost robotic, like a computer is doing it. So we played live in the studio and captured that. You can hear the difference.
The little ad-libs in between the songs and during songs came from us playing the songs, feeding off each other, feeling good, and everyone being happy. We were basically just jamming. Somebody might say, “Heyyy,” and we’ll keep it in there, instead of trying to make things clean and perfect.
AH: A conversation leads into “Vayan Fenm.” What were you all talking about?
CL: That was me and Jonathan. We were going back and forth. “Vayan Fenm” is an amazing woman. So we had been playing some songs already, and the tape was still rolling, so I jumped into it. It was spur of the moment, but I was asking him, “Hey, do you have an amazing woman?” And he was saying, “Yes, I have an amazing woman! Do you have an amazing woman?” I said, “Oh yeah, I got me an amazing one, too! Alright, let’s sing about them!” And then I just kicked into it. That wasn’t planned. It just happened!
AH: Do you get a sense that conversational elements are common to Creole musical tradition when playing live?
CLZ: Definitely. I think the best performances are those when you interact with the crowd. It just makes it a big party. You’re at a gig, and it’s your job, but if you do that, you turn it into a party.
AH: I have to say that’s what this album is to me. It sounds like a big party. The energy is like that, and I appreciated that so much. I know that you’re working with all these traditions and trying to bring them forward, and that’s a serious thing, but you also make sure to invite the audience to the party.
Thanks very much for chatting with us, Corey Ledet. Find more information on his website here:
Enjoy our previous coverage here: REVIEW: Corey Ledet Zydeco is a Celebration