Few ambassadors I know can play a guitar and a ukulele, write books or sing and entertain a room packed with toddlers, grade-school children and preteens for an hour.
Unless, that is, you happen to be Johnette Downing, a New Orleans musician and author who can make kids tap their feet and parents snap their fingers to her Cajun/Creole songs flavored with Louisiana gators, possums, gumbo, and red beans and rice.
I met Downing during one of her stops at the Grosse Tete library in June where she engaged us in a concert/book reading performance. “Today is Monday in Louisiana” and “Why the Possum has a Large Grin” were among the reads that contribute to the 13 books and 10 CDs she has authored in the last 25 years.
I’d wondered why a flier dubbed her the “musical ambassador to children.” After watching her engage every child and parent in the room with her workshop, I am convinced that she has earned her diplomatic skills.
When younger children misbehaved or talked out of turn during her presentation, she gave them wiggle room and engaged the children with questions about themselves or asked them to do something silly such as imitating a frog’s croak.
“I think of myself as a big kid. I’m 7. I like the honesty of children, and I like to see them think and laugh,” she said.
Her book and musical tours have taken her to Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Central and North America and the Caribbean.
“I travel all over the world and everywhere I go, they want Louisiana culture,” Downing said. “I like to celebrate and keep our culture alive through music and books. It’s my passion, and it’s what I love. I’m doing it from the heart.”
One of her books, “There was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Bug,” elicited laughs and a few unexpected responses from her Grosse Tete audience.
“There was an old lady who swallowed a slug. It’s a tasty bug,” sang Downing.
My 6-year-old daughter didn’t think so, “Eww!” she replied.
Downing credits her parents with much of her musical interest.
“Music is so natural but we take it for granted,” she said. “Both my parents are from Baker, but we lived in New Orleans and they were musicians.”
Through her international travels, Downing said food pulls people together.
“Food has no agenda. We’re so different but so much the same,” she said.
Some of my own favorite Louisiana dining experiences occurred during my stint as a reporter for The Houma Courier in the early ’90s. While there, I took in loads of culture from along the bayous in Terrebonne Parish, boarded Alligator Annie’s swamp tour vessel, interviewed and visited people in remote areas who spoke with thick Cajun accents, and I ate spicy seafood lunches in some of the best mom and pop restaurants around.
Downing’s work has a way of pulling those memories back to the forefront and reminding us that our state’s culture is remarkably rare, tasty and intriguing.
Chante Dionne Warren is a freelance writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.