By Marie Labrecque, Montréal, Quebec
If there has ever been an artist who embodies linguistic duality, it is Zachary Richard. This singer-songwriter/poet from Louisiana came out last year with Last Kiss, his first English-language album since 1992. Richard’s prolific journey has included a lot of back and forth between two languages. His career took off with the release of an English-language album in 1972, continued in French from 1975 to 1981, and then shifted back to English for a decade. In 1994, after playing at the World Acadian Congress, he was passionately inspired by his cultural heritage and once again took up writing in French. The success of his double-platinum album, Cap enragé, led to two more albums of French songs.
Alternating from one language to the other was not something he planned to do, says the singer-songwriter. “Everything happened very organically. There was never any strategy. I followed my instinct and the opportunities that presented themselves. I don’t have any linguistic bias. For me, English and French are communication tools that I try to master with as much sensitivity and grace as possible.” The language used in Zachary Richard’s songs comes naturally to him, first and foremost through the melody. “One sound ends up distinguishing itself from the others, and in my mind I can tell whether it’s in English or in French. That’s when I know which language the song needs to be written in.”
Richard describes himself as “a bilingual,” a term he borrowed from some young Franco-Manitobans. “My identity makes it easy for me to cross linguistic and cultural barriers. There’s no conflict, in my heart or in my mind, between these two cultures. I’m fully immersed in both. It would be a bit easier if I were unilingual because my choices would be clear. But at the same time, my bilingualism gives me so much. These two Louisianan cultures are extremely vibrant and sustain me both personally and artistically in an extraordinary way.”
Like most of his generation of Cajuns, the singer was raised in an English-speaking household. However, he spoke French with his unilingual grandparents. “As a child, I was very intrigued by French culture; I found it very alluring. I was a Francophile. At school, we took French courses and it was really easy for me because I already knew the basics. When I was young, half of the people in Louisiana spoke French, so we were always surrounded by the language. Of course, when I started to write, I was influenced by the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. I was a typical American. But there was also Cajun music, which I discovered later in life. The Cajun music tradition is very much alive, and all I had to do was walk across the village to find an accordion player who taught me how to play the old songs.”
Preserving this heritage is very important to Richard, since “the rate of assimilation is close to 100%.” In 1996, he helped found Action Cadienne, an organization dedicated to promoting the French language and Louisianan culture. “When you’re a Francophone in a minority environment, it’s a daily struggle for the survival of the language.” However, he insists on the fact that “you can be an advocate for the Francophone community and still sing in English. It’s a fundamental part of my identity.”
Richard acknowledges that Quebec is the reason he’s able to have a French-language career in North America, and believes that communities like his have something to offer Quebecers. “You have to remember that we, as French speakers outside of Quebec, represent two thirds of North America’s French-speaking population. It’s our job to appeal to the English-speaking community and turn them into Francophiles. What would really make me happy would be if Quebec learned more about the situation of minority French-speaking communities.”
Credits: Julien Faugère