Photos and story by Blake Bertrand
Off Ramp Magazine, Southeast Texas Arts Council
Carnival des Cajuns festival will celebrate the culture on April 11, 2015, at the Port Arthur Pavilion in downtown Port Arthur. This feature on Jude Moreau, Groves accordion maker, is excerpted from Off Ramp, the Southeast Texas Arts Council magazine. It is meant to get your appetite up for a weekend of music, food and fun.
Ca c’est Cajun, oui? Jude Moreau kept repeating this phrase while I spoke to him. At first I misheard it as “That’s the Cajun way.” Turns out my mistranslation wasn’t so far off after all. The phrase loosely translates, ‘That’s Cajun, yeah?’ and refers to the can-do, independent spirit of the Acadian people.
Moreau grew up hearing that phrase from his older relatives, and adopted it as his own. That’s why, when he got tired of driving to Lake Charles for every bit of minor accordion maintenance, he decided to at least learn how to tune them himself (tuning an accordion is slightly more involved than tuning say, a guitar). He contacted John Lloyd Broussard and asked him for help. Broussard, or “T-Bruce,” not only taught him how to tune accordions, he also passed on the tools he had left for making them. With the proper gear in hand, Moreau opened up one of his accordions to study how it functioned and figured it out from there.
Since then Moreau has made instruments both for himself and for others. Each one is handmade in his shop, though he is quick to point out how much he relies on others for the custom metal parts and bellows. “You can’t go buy these things at Wal-Mart,” he says, describing his amazement when people call him wanting to buy a specific part from him, as though he simply has hundreds of spares laying around. Still, he is unendingly enthusiastic about both building and playing accordions (traditional Cajun style, of course) and holds nothing back when he speaks of them. Like the man that taught him, Moreau thinks nothing of passing his techniques on to anyone with the dedication to use them.
Jude Moreau began playing the accordion when he was around 20. Though he grew up in a Cajun family, it was a family from way back. His father, born in 1907, lived in a time when Acadians were taught, by force if necessary, that their heritage was something to be shunned. Because of this, his father held his culture in his heart but did not attempt to pass it to his children. Young Jude, however, learned it through osmosis: listening to the adults speak to each other in French and eavesdropping on his father’s radio stations. When his best friend’s parents invited him to the Rodaire Club as a young adult (a Port Arthur Cajun hot-spot long since vanished), Moreau realized he had found his true love. His best friend’s sisters taught him how to dance to the French music there. He began bringing a harmonica and playing along with the bands. One night the accordion player invited him onto the stage. That same man, Timmy Broussard, later put an accordion in Moreau’s hands and said, “If you can play that harmonica, you can play this.” Still later, the very same guy told him, “You can do all that wood stuff, so I know you can build an accordion!” Ca c’est Cajun, oui?
The music Moreau plays is from his roots. “We brought it back to the root,” he says. “Not all the way back, because we added some drums and an electric bass guitar, but it’s still traditional French music.” It’s a fast-paced, driving music, prone to repetitious major scale melodies. The up-tempo nature means even the sad songs generally sound upbeat. It’s no surprise then that Cajun music channels a nearly irresistible urge to its listeners to dance. When Moreau speaks of playing in the Rodaire Club or at Larry’s French Market on Wednesdays when the dance floor was a few chairs pushed out of the way, he doesn’t say his band played a “concert;” they played a “dance.”
The leading instrument in all Cajun music is the accordion. For traditional Cajun (as opposed to other more modernized brands of Cajun music) that’s always a single row, 10 button, diatonic accordion. The instrument draws in air when the bellows are expanded, expels air when compressed, and the four rows of reeds inside (several reeds for each button) vibrate in harmony to create the tone. The number of reeds sounding at once is controlled by four knobs on top of the accordion. This is Jude Moreau’s instrument of choice, the only kind he builds, and he’s gotten so good at it that he once received a call for a custom accordion from a musician in Eunice, Louisiana. “Eunice!?” Moreau exclaimed. “But you got Marc Savoy right there!” The buyer didn’t care. He had seen a Moreau instrument on a video and that’s what he wanted. If you’d like to know how big Marc Savoy’s name is in accordion building, Google “Cajun Accordion.” His name is the second hit.
Jude Moreau is not as big a name in accordion building as Marc Savoy; his music unheard of compared to Wayne Toups. Yet his commitment to the music of the Acadians, played by poor exiles on the porches of Louisiana on humid evenings, is the commitment of a true artist. “Variety is good for business,” he says. “But I don’t do variety; I do this.” And pats his accordion. “My heart is in my roots.”