Note: Following is an interview with Cannes Brulees’ lead singer Cocoa Creppel conducted by One Feather contributor Dr. Honey Dawn Karima Pettigrew, Ph.D.
Q: Wow, you guys rock!!! How did you start playing
CC: Thanks! Living in New Orleans we were surrounded by music growing up. So it’s kind of in your blood. I probably started singing in bands when I was about 12 or 13.We started out like most ‘garage bands’, playing at birthday parties and school dances – that kind of stuff. Eventually, we graduated to playing at local clubs and festivals.
Q: How did you get together as a band?
CC: Gene Bates and I were playing in a Native funk band here in New Orleans. We were playing at local fairs and regional festivals. But, we were both frustrated with the musical direction of the band and felt stifled creatively. So, as we were driving from powwow to powwow, we were singing in a southern style traditional drum group at the time, we’d talk about what we’d do if we had our own group. We’d be venting our frustrations on these trips talking about a different concept for a Native band, a band that would play New Orleans-style music, but with Native themes. The result was Cannes Brulees. We gathered up some musician friends a few years ago and began the road that brought us here.
Q: I notice that Native identity plays a major part in the music that you play. Can you tell me a bit about your background and how you blend culture and traditions into your music?
CC: I’m a member of the United Houma Nation. So, a lot of my tribal history and culture comes out in the songs. I’m also the head singer of a traditional drum group called Southern Connection, so that’s where the powwow influences come from. What we try to do is combine elements of powwow, traditional music, Native history and culture and blend it with our New Orleans rhythm and blues roots. It’s like a musical ‘gumbo’!
Q: Did you always want to be a musician?
CC: Yes. I feel so blessed by God that I’m able to play music, act in movies and help others as a firefighter. I rely on Psalm 37:5 and I thank God every day.
Q: “Powwow Snagging”,”Rosalie Courteau”,”NDN Girl”, and “Frybread Woman” each feature portrayals of Native women. Can you tell me about the important women in your lives and about the origins of these songs?
CC: My people, historically, were a matriarchal society. Women were always prominent. So, decision making, tribal affairs, leadership roles, even warfare, always involved women. Women warriors and chiefs were not uncommon before the Europeans arrived. A great modern chief, Brenda Dardar Robichaux, comes from a long line of Houma women in positions of importance. So women, particularly strong women, role models are something our people have always had and still have today. Rosalie Courteau was such a woman – she fought for civil rights for her people -that’s why we honored her with a song. She epitomizes the Houma woman – Feisty! ‘NDN Girl’ is a song that expresses that unique quality that only Native women seem to have – an allure that’s irresistible. ‘Powwow Snagging’ and ‘Frybread Woman’ are songs in a lighter vein. ‘Frybread Woman’ is based on a dream one of our members once had about a frybread-cooking woman who was chasing after him.
Q: Do songs come to you fully formed or is it a process of creating them? Please share your songwriting strategies. Do you collaborate? What inspires you?
CC: Songs come in all different ways. Some, as you say, come “fully-formed” like the song, ‘Waters of Life’ for example, almost wrote itself. Others are more challanging and take some ‘simmering’ before they’re ready. We usually come up with an idea for a song, research it and then try to come up with a story line and lyrics! Then we’ll put a tune to it. Sometimes it works the other way around and we’ll have an idea for a tune and the lyrics will come later – whatever works! Inspiration comes from all kinds of sources – powwows, traditional music, history, stories, historical events or figures, like our song, “Clark and Sibley” is about Louisiana’s notorious Indian agents.
Q: The Gulf Coast has changed since the recent natural disasters. Has your music changed too? Your vision for the band?
CC: I think the storm changed all of us. I think we appreciate each other a little bit more – family and friends – I think it brought us all closer together as a community. I think it made us think about our lives in ways we never imagined. The rebuilding of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast will take a long time but, we’ll be back. We always come back – just look at the 1927 Floods, the Yellow Fever epidemic – I mean our people have been through tough times before – we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and get back to the business of living. As far as the music goes – yes, I’ve just written a song about Katrina called “After the Storm” about the federal government’s lack of concern and their poor response to my people’s situation. So, some of that Post -Katrina perspective will spill over into the music. Yet, it has not changed our vision. I just think we’re more focused now.
Q: You have been through a lot in your life as a firefighter during Hurricane Katrina. Have you faced any other challenges that caused your faith to grow?
CC:We lost one of our founding members, Gene Bates, recently. Due to that tremendous loss, I think we want every moment to count – so we work hard, keep our eye on the prize and keep making music. The most important thing in life isn’t the fame or the music or the money…it is having a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. We know who the glory belongs to and I praise God.
Q: Do you consider yourselves ambassadors for your style of music? Your culture? Your region?
CC: Definitely. Our mission is two-fold – we want to play music that entertains while it expresses our unique circumstances as southeastern Native peoples, and secondly we want to promote awareness. We want everyone to know that tribes like mine, the Chitamacha and Tunica-Biloxi are still alive and kicking here. We want to get the word out about the ‘hidden nations’ of Louisiana.
Q: Tell me about your band’s plans for the future.
CC: Well, we’re still promoting our first CD entitled, “Raising Cane”. That’s exciting! We’d like to play at some of the major Native festivals like Milwaukee’s Indian Summer Festival, or Gathering of Nations. I’d like to perform at the Native American Music Awards and maybe take home one of those statuettes! We have plans to keep the music going!
Q: What do you think is the most important thing you can share with your fans and audience right now?
CC: I recently returned from serving the people of Haiti after the terrible earthquake. They really need prayers and remind us here to count our blessings.
Dr. Honey Dawn Karima Pettigrew, Ph.D. is the author of two novels, The Way We Make Sense and The Marriage of Saints. She is an award-winning filmmaker and resides in the Yellowhill Community.