Louisiana has always embraced the convivial side of its diverse musical culture. But for all the lighthearted, good-times tunes that fill up the jazz, funk and Zydeco canons, there’s a serious, often somber streak mixed in with the state’s tasty sonic gumbo. And today, no one represents that more than Houma-born bluesman and political activist Tab Benoit.
For the better part of 20 years, Benoit woodshedded around the South, apprenticing with Cajun music pioneers and blues legends alike while building his own devoted following. But it wasn’t until 2003 that Benoit really catapulted to national prominence after founding the Voice of the Wetlands festival and touring and recording with an All-Star Band that included Big Easy titans like Dr. John, Cyril Neville, Allen Toussaint and others.
After Hurricane Katrina, Benoit’s profile grew even more: He starred in the 2006 documentary “Hurricane on the Bayou,” performed at the 2008 Democratic and Republican national conventions, testified in front of Congress and the G-20 climate summit and was awarded the 2009 Louisiana Governor’s Award for Conservationist of the Year.
Folio Weekly: We understand you’re a big fan of Jacksonville, Tab.
Tab Benoit: I started doing the Springing the Blues Festival several years ago, and since Mojo Kitchen opened up, we’ve been playing there on a regular basis with great crowds coming out to enjoy good music and good food.
F.W.: How did you first discover your talent for playing music?
T.B.: I grew up around a lot of people playing music, which wasn’t unusual — it was only unusual to make a living doing it. I had a job as a pilot, but it got to the point where financially, it was better to go play music because people kept asking for it. I’m a firm believer in letting the audience lead you to what you need to be doing.
F.W.: Were you playing one type of music before another? Blues over Zydeco or jazz over country, say?
T.B.: A lot of that music was invented right here, so all of those elements are blended together from the get-go. That’s part of the reason why this place is so tolerant. New Orleans is about the most tolerant city on the planet as far as race, class and religion go. It doesn’t matter what you look like or what your background is — you either cool or you ain’t. That’s a lot easier than trying to figure out all the other stuff.
F.W.: You’ve been doing lots of production work recently. What kind of satisfaction does that give you?
T.B.: I enjoy showing guys that the studio doesn’t have to be this scary, strict, sterile place. My studio is a comfortable house where you can play like you’re playing live. If it’s just me listening, then I’m your audience — keep me interested. And that actually releases the pressure. Because I don’t care what kind of equipment you have — there’s no substitute for good playing. So my thing is to get guys relaxed and feeling the moment, and we just capture it.
F.W.: How active is the political side of Voice of the Wetlands these days? And is the loss of wetlands still an important issue in Southern Louisiana?
T.B.: The erosion is still speeding up, so it’s getting more important all the time. And it’s still difficult to get your voice heard. But the door to do something is always open, and I try to encourage everybody to get involved. Our government was designed for us, the people, to be a part of. It’s up to us to step up — the people in this country are not stupid. But sitting around arguing over party politics is not getting anything done. So if you walk in that door with a little bit of research and lay your knowledge on the table, things can get a lot easier. Louisiana is unfortunately an example of what happens when people let things go and stop being involved.
F.W.: Do you think the area has fully recovered from Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill?
T.B.: If it has, you can thank the people who stepped up and did things themselves. They tried to go and live somewhere else, but there’s no substitute for this place. So, when everybody came back, they were more determined than ever to plant their feet and go, “This is our home, and we’re not taking no for an answer.”
F.W.: How does music play into that identity?
T.B.: Music is what gets everybody fired up and energized. The first people back [after Katrina] were musicians, and once the musicians came back, everybody else wanted to come back, too. Music is a powerful tool, and, man, when it’s used for good, it’s a beautiful thing.