Music Lovers Flock to Lafayette, LA, for Festival International de Louisiane
Drawing thousands of spectators each year, the event features performers from around the world.
People who love going to see live music are no doubt familiar with the names Coachella, Lollapalooza and SXSW, but there’s one under-the-radar gem that’s worth noting: Festival International de Louisiane in Lafayette, Louisiana.
For starters, the annual spring festival features musical performances by artists from around the world, and it also spotlights art, food and the region’s Francophone roots. Possibly best of all, the five-day festival offers free, non-ticketed admission — anyone is welcome.
A Global Experience in Downtown Lafayette
“What makes the festival unique is that it’s in a downtown setting, so it’s not at a fairgrounds or a park — it’s intertwined with our businesses and environment. There are no gates, no fences, it’s just wide open to the public and requires no tickets,” says Scott Feehan, the festival’s executive director. “We have a pretty large footprint — we just transform downtown into this international mecca — there’s music on several stages and food at every corner. We make our downtown a global experience, and the fact that it’s so wide open and available to the public, people can come and go as they please, is one of the things that makes it unique and adds to the overall ambiance of the festival.”
The festival was the brainchild of Herman Mhire, a local artist, author, educator and curator who became the festival’s conceptual visionary and founding director. In 1987, Louisiana’s economy was suffering due to an oil industry downturn. The idea of the festival began to take shape as a way to boost cultural tourism and the overall economy in the Lafayette region while also celebrating the diverse music, art and cuisine of the area.
Now, 35 years later, the festival is going strong. In fact, it’s a platform for cultural expression and exchange, and the opportunity to create local, sustained economic growth has only gotten stronger.
A Link to Acadiana’s Francophone Heritage
“Festival International is a great depiction of the food, music and culture we are known for and gives our visitors an opportunity to become immersed in our culture,” said Ben Berthelot, President & CEO of the Lafayette Convention & Visitors Commission. “In addition to the economic impact, Festival International visitors always leave as great ambassadors for Lafayette Parish and Acadiana after experiencing the joie de vivre and international flair that have become synonymous with festival and our area.”
“We have really strong ties to our Francophone heritage and roots because of the Acadians who came here, so (festival founders) reached out to our sister cities all over the world and said, ‘We want to do this cultural exchange — send us your artists, your musicians, your food, and bring your civic and business leaders’ — and that’s how they got that first celebration off the ground and it’s just grown from there,” Feehan says. “We’ve held true to that fundamental concept of our relationships with our sister cities.”
The festival has also achieved its goal of boosting the local economy. “There are so many initiatives that are wrapped around what we do, it really gets deep and complex on the economic development side, there are so many different angles,” says Feehan. “We could talk about hotels and tracking merchandise booths, and last year we had people from 336 different cities around the country, 30 states and 12 different countries. Half of the money generated from the festival comes from outside the city and a third from outside the state, and when the average amount spent is around $25 per attendee, there’s a significant impact to the economy.”
A Spotlight for Cajun and Creole Culture
Over the past three decades, the festival has transformed Lafayette, a city that is imbued with Cajun and Creole culture, into a stage for the world, one that for a week every year not only welcomes the world to Lafayette but draws hundreds of thousands of visitors.
Festival International draws over 300,000 people to celebrate its diverse lineup each year, making it the largest outdoor international music and arts festival in the United States. The festival features artists from 25 to 30 countries, but also includes local talent. “We make it a point to highlight some of our local talent on the same stages as the acts from around the world,” says Feehan. “It’s also a family-friendly event, so you can have tens of thousands of people watching big artists from the other side of the planet. There’s just a lot in it for everybody.”
In one day, you may see a troupe of Rwandan drummers, people in traditional costumes from France playing ancient folk songs on historic instruments, drummers from Japan and a rock group from Ukraine. The festival is also rich in performers of regional Louisiana styles of music: zydeco, Cajun, jazz, blues, Creole, “swamp pop” and others.
Food vendors bring the flavor with a regional menu, too, with a backbone of Acadian classics: French pastries, boudin, jambalaya, shrimp étouffée, beignets, po’boys and crawfish. Art activations are happening simultaneously, and a local visual artist is tapped each year to produce the official poster for Festival International.
The Scène des Jeunes activates the festival for the younger set, including crafts, musical instruments, theatrical performances and a playground, taking over the campus of a local Catholic school so kids have their own space.
Lisa LeBlanc is a Canadian singer-songwriter with Acadian roots who has performed at the Festival International de Louisiane numerous times. The Francophone artist, best known for her “thrash-folk” style, has released five acclaimed albums, the newest of which is a disco album released in 2022.
“As an Acadian from New Brunswick, I have a deep fascination with the connection between Louisiana and Acadians in Canada. As soon as I came to Lafayette, I was instantly drawn to traditional Cajun music. I love discovering new bands and learning about the repertoire and the rich culture that is so unique to this place,” says LeBlanc. “I’ve been to the festival as an artist many times and loved it so much that I decided to come back just as a tourist at least twice. I have so many incredible memories of meeting amazing humans, discovering new music, laughing, dancing, eating the best food, drinking one too many daiquiris and having the absolute best time.”
This article was sponsored by Lafayette Convention & Visitors Commission, Lafayette Economic Development Authority and One Acadiana.