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1050 KVPI is keeping the French Cajun language and culture alive in Louisiana

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

There's a little radio station in south Louisiana. It's been on the air for nearly 70 years, doing everything it can to keep alive a dying language. That's Cajun French. On Saturday mornings, it broadcasts live French music from inside a venerable bar - sadly, no songs from the music of B.J. Leiderman, who writes our theme music. During the week, the radio station opens the phone lines for native French speakers to swap stories and reminisce. NPR's John Burnett has the story.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: It's Saturday morning at Fred's Lounge in the town of Mamou, which sits among the rice fields and crawfish ponds of what's called the Cajun prairie.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BURNETT: Inside the red brick tavern by 8:30 a.m., they're already serving Budweisers and bloody marys as couples waltz on the worn linoleum.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BURNETT: A sign reads, please do not stand on the tables, chairs or cigarette machine. Nearby sits a radio announcer named Mike Perron. He anchors the live weekly broadcasts from Fred's Lounge on The Legend - 1050 KVPI.

MIKE PERRON: (Speaking French). All right? All right, guys, back to the bandstand.

(SOUNDBITE OF ACCORDIAN PLAYING)

BURNETT: Perron is a city councilman, retired auto body repairman and part-time DJ.

PERRON: Today, we are at Fred's Lounge on Sixth Street in Big Mamou. I start at 9 o'clock, and then I finish it by 11 o'clock. I do my sponsors mostly in English, but I do some in French. But the people over here - a lot of them don't understand all the French words, so I do it in English, too. We call that a Franglais - little bit of French, little bit of English. That's how we call that over here.

BURNETT: The live radio feed from Fred's began in the 1960s with a local educator named Revon Reed. Now his son Seth Reed comes here almost every Saturday morning.

SETH REED: We dance. We drink. We have a good time. And this is the only bar that's still old-fashioned, old-school. Nothing has changed since it was built. That's what I love about it. They still have the same urinal from back in the '40s and - that's in the bathroom.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BURNETT: The Acadians or Cajuns descended from Roman Catholic French Canadians who were expelled from the Nova Scotia region by the British in the mid-1700s. They made their way to the bayou country of south Louisiana, and here they thrived, preserving their culture and folkways. But a number of factors worked against the language. Cajuns were punished for speaking French in school. Cajun GIs left the region to fight in the world wars and learned English. The discovery of oil ushered in more English influences, and television further diluted the language. Radio is part of a broad movement to save Cajun French from extinction.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BURNETT: Eight radio stations in southern Louisiana still broadcast partially in French. KVPI, located in Ville Platte, does more than any other - news, weather, talk, a swap shop, even obits in French. This year, the station won a uniquely Louisiana award.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "LA TASSE DE CAFE")

CHARLIE MANUEL: All right. (Speaking French).

BURNETT: While the Saturday morning Cajun music at Fred's Lounge is internationally renowned, the station's most popular program is a daily call-in show.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "LA TASSE DE CAFE")

MANUEL: (Speaking French).

BURNETT: It's called "The Cup of Coffee" - "La Tasse" to regulars. Here in deeply conservative Trump country, the callers don't talk about abortion or election fraud or the perfidious Democrats. No, they're talking about where to find the sweetest watermelons, what food to bring to the cemetery on All Souls' Day, how to kill maggots under the house and the best squirrel hunting.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "LA TASSE DE CAFE")

MARK LAYNE: (Speaking French).

MANUEL: (Speaking French). And Happy Squirrel Weekend (speaking French).

BURNETT: The station's general manager is Mark Layne, born Martel Ardoin. KVPI signed on the air in 1953. Layne started here when he was in high school, and he's been at the station for 51 years.

LAYNE: We really promote the French language and our French culture. And I want to emphasize Cajun French. There is a bit of difference. Yeah. We have our own little lingo and our own dialect down here, and we're proud of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY TOOT TOOT")

ROCKIN' SIDNEY: (Singing) Don't mess with my toot toot. Don't mess with my toot toot. Now, you can have the other woman. But don't mess with my toot too.

BURNETT: Floyd Soileau, record producer, book publisher and Cajun personality, is giving a tour of his record store and museum in Ville Platte.

FLOYD SOILEAU: This guy here gave me my biggest worldwide hit - Rockin Sidney, "Don't Mess With My Toot Toot." Yeah - biggie, biggie.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY TOOT TOOT")

ROCKIN' SIDNEY: (Singing) You're gonna have yourself a case. I'm gonna break your face. Now, don't mess with my toot toot.

BURNETT: Actually, it was Soileau who had the idea for "La Tasse" back in the '60s. He regularly calls in to tell old yarns in French. But now he's in the minority. Most scholars speak English. In fact, most of the French speakers you hear on KVPI, like him, are old.

SOILEAU: Sadly, a lot of our Cajun French listeners have passed on. And some of the young people are trying to pick up on it. But it's not coming fast enough. It's going to be a thing of the past, unfortunately, I guess. As my age group goes on, I'm afraid it's going to be tough to keep it going.

BURNETT: The Cajun patois in Louisiana continues its steep decline. The American Community Survey on language estimated the number of French speakers at about 77,000 in 2020. That's down from 136,000 in just a decade. Barry Jean Ancelet is a renowned folklorist and professor emeritus at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette. While he acknowledges that native French speakers are passing away one by one, he's heartened that young musicians, for instance, are composing songs in French and Cajun culture overall remains robust.

BARRY JEAN ANCELET: Are you going to tell Danny Benoit, who makes the best gumbo in the world, loves to hunt and fish, goes out dancing to Cajun music and zydeco and, you know, has a big family, all the other stuff, and he doesn't speak French no more - are you going to go tell him he's not Cajun? I wouldn't do it. And if you do it, I would duck 'cause he still feels profoundly Cajun.

BURNETT: In other words, language is only one measure of a culture. If you visit south Louisiana, it still feels profoundly Cajun, especially if you tune your amp dial to KVPI 1050.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "LA TASSE DE CAFE")

UNIDENTIFIED CALLER: (Speaking French).

MANUEL: (Speaking French).

UNIDENTIFIED CALLER: (Speaking French).

BURNETT: John Burnett, NPR News, Ville Platte, La.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.