Born and raised in South Louisiana, Kylie Griffin was surrounded by the rich Cajun and French Creole culture of the region: food, language and, most importantly, music. Her grandparents spoke fluent French and ultimately exposed her to Cajun and zydeco music, a genre native to southwest Louisiana.
When Griffin decided to become a music educator, she stayed close to home and currently teaches at Dozier Elementary School located in the small town in Erath, just south of Lafayette. One of her main goals is to promote and preserve the Cajun and Creole culture of Louisiana in her classroom. “It’s something that I do because I feel like it’s what I need to do,” she says.
According to Griffin, there has been a noticeable lapse in the preservation of Cajun and Creole culture from her grandparents’ generation to her own. “I feel like our culture has just been slowly taken away from us, and we’re paying the price,” she says.
This is due to several factors, one being that in 1921, the new Louisiana Constitution banned speaking French in all public schools. The mindset at the time was to Americanize people as much as possible, shaming and ridiculing those who had other backgrounds and spoke different languages.
This was summarized best by President Theodore Roosevelt, who infamously said, “Any man who says he is an American, but something else also, isn’t an American at all. We have room for but one flag, the American flag. … We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language … and we have room for but one sole loyalty and that is a loyalty to the American people.”
Griffin explains, “Our grandparents’ generation was abused and made to feel stupid for the language that they spoke and that trickled down through the years. Growing up, we would hear French here and there, but we spoke mostly English, but we spoke it with an accent…[so] we were also made to feel stupid. It was like English wasn’t good enough.”
Throughout her career, Griffin, who was recognized as a Yamaha “40 Under 40” music educator in 2023, has dealt with her strong desire to assimilate while also promoting her background.
Griffin earned a bachelor’s degree in music education at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, and after teaching music for nine years, she felt that she “just about peaked” and was ready for something new. This led her to return to UL Lafayette to pursue a master’s degree with a concentration in cultural music — the only college to offer such a program at the time (circa 2011). She studied accordion and French music, deepening her understanding and appreciation of the genre and culture. She also learned some French.
From there, Griffin started incorporating what she learned into her classroom. She introduced French songs to her elementary school students, noticing how much of an impact this had on the community.
Griffin recalls, “I started hearing stories from the community members who were so moved. Grandparents would cry when their 4-year-old grandchild would go home and sing the same French songs they sang when they were 4.”
She adds, “Everyone in South Louisiana is hurting, regardless if they realize it or not. Our future generations aren’t going to know what it means to be Cajun and Creole. They’re going to think it’s just a novelty.”
Through learning and teaching cultural music, Griffin found her calling. Her love and appreciation for her own culture along with her background in music and music education fuels her passion to protect and preserve the culture for future generations through music.
Two summers ago, Griffin along with her husband, Gregg, and another district music educator, started Petits Cajuns, a Cajun and Creole music camp. Several of her students had accordions and fiddles from family members and expressed an interest in learning how to play them. At the camp, students learned these instruments as well as the music and songs of their ancestors.
Three of these students wanted to continue their journey of cultural musical awakening beyond the summer camp. In 2021, Griffin started the Bayou Tigre Steppers, the state’s first school-sponsored, student-led zydeco group. This year, the group consists of eight middle school and high school students. Anyone who’s interested can join the Tigre Steppers, and each student selects an instrument: bass guitar, electric guitar, drum set, rubboard (aka washboard/scrubboard), triangle and, of course, the accordion. There are also a couple of keyboard players.
The Tigre Steppers is a family affair with three sets of siblings in the group! “The younger siblings go to the gigs and see their older brothers and sisters performing, and they’re like ‘I want to be a part of that,’” Griffin says.
The group practices at Dozier for about an hour and a half each week. Their very first performance was at a retired teachers association meeting, where they performed four songs. The reception was extremely positive.
Now, the group is starting to perform on larger stages, the biggest being Lafayette’s Festival International. While the Tigre Steppers were not part of the actual lineup, they played at a local business downtown that puts on performances during the festival. Griffin says the group performed a busking set with a tip jar. Not only did her students draw a huge crowd, they received $300 in tips — the kids were ecstatic.
As far as funding, Griffin’s teaching of Cajun/zydeco music falls under the marching and concert band umbrella. While she utilizes the instruments needed for her group from middle and high school band, she also draws some from her own zydeco band, Poisson Rouge, which she started with her husband in 2019.
Luckily, Griffin receives support from the district. When she expressed the need for a soundboard, the superintendent pulled funds from the district level to fulfill her request.
Griffin now has her eyes set on developing a district-wide Cajun/Creole/zydeco program in Erath, the next step being including elementary school-aged students in the Tigre Steppers, which she hopes to do as soon as the 2023-2024 school year.
Along with teaching at Dozier Elementary, growing the Tigre Steppers and continuing the Petits Cajuns camp, Griffin has another big goal: Shifting the focus of music education in Louisiana. She advocates at the state level about the importance of offering different genres of music, whether it be jazz or rock or zydeco. She says that the state is very “band dominated,” meaning that there is a systemic belief that band is the only source of music education in public schools. However, Griffin believes that this path does not create lifelong musicians among all students, which should be every music educator’s goal.
“When a lot of kids graduate from high school, they never touch their instruments again,” Griffin says. She wants to teach students the creativity and freedom to create their own music based on what they learn in their music classes.
“Louisiana’s music culture is so rich with jazz and all these things that come from our state,” she says. “But in our school programs, our kids play mostly western, classical and noncultural music.”
Even with her band background and her love for band, Griffin knows there is a bigger need. “I want music educators and students to realize that being well rounded in music is important and that it’s OK to do things other than the norm,” she says. “And you can use the same band instruments to promote other genres like jazz and Dixieland, and just get outside of the box.”