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Local curator talks art, disability

January 1, 2018

LAKE CHARLES, La. (AP) — Wearing khaki pants, a plaid dress shirt and tortoise-shell glasses, 31-year-old Paul Dufrene’s taste in clothing doesn’t exactly match his taste in music, which he described as “hippie chic.”

“I’m sort of a straight-laced guy, but I like hippie culture — like, true hippie culture,” Dufrene said.

Diagnosed with Friedreich’s ataxia as a teen, Dufrene now uses a wheelchair full time. He sat in the middle of his records room surrounded by about 1,500 vinyls — a testament to his life-long love of collecting.

Dufrene has found success over the last several years compiling weekly music mixes on his Mixcloud blog “Platter Playlists,” which features folk songs from the 1960s and 1970s.

His account, at close to 2,000 followers, was recently nominated for Best Online Music Show by Mixcloud’s Online Radio Awards — news that “dumbfounded” him, he said, considering the other nominees had at least 20,000 followers each.

Dufrene said he reaches his largest audience through Los Angeles-based music website Aquarium Drunkard, where he posts Louisiana-themed playlists on his blog “Maison Dufrene” and country music by female artists on his blog “Country Soul Sisters.”

Judging from his online persona, one might picture him as a bearded hipster in skinny jeans and a printed T-shirt, but there’s a reason for his seemingly conventional personal style.

He said it goes back to when he first watched “Quid Pro Quo” — an offbeat black comedy about a semi-paralyzed reporter. He said seeing Nick Stahl’s character in a wheelchair, with his frumpy style and nerdy good looks, gave him the courage to transition to a wheelchair during his senior year of college.

“I looked at him and thought, ‘I could pull that off. I could do that it,’” Dufrene said. “It took several days, but I convinced myself that I was okay with that idea.”

Dufrene, diagnosed at 14, said that growing up few of his classmates at St. Margaret Catholic School and St. Louis Catholic High School knew anything was wrong, apart from watching him strain to walk down a flight of stairs now and then.

But in college, he said, the symptoms worsened. Because of this, he transferred his sophomore year from the University of New Orleans, where he was studying film, back home to McNeese State University.

He said once he started using a wheelchair, life got much easier. He described walking with his condition like being the “drunkest you’ve been — you’re body is kind of doing that all the time.” But with the wheelchair, walking was no longer an issue.

With new wheels, a fresh new look and an English degree, Dufrene packed up his things in 2010 and headed to Philadelphia to room with a friend, also in a wheelchair. He got a job at the Social Security Administration and fed his growing vinyl collection out of record-store dollar bins.

In late 2012, an illness brought him back home to Lake Charles, where he started online blogging in earnest and had a “short-lived country show” on McNeese’s KBYS radio station.

He said things started looking up in 2014 when an opportunity arose to help others with disabilities through a job at Southwest Louisiana Independence Center.

He recalled getting called into the interview for SLIC the day after Mardi Gras, following an unfortunate incident with a car wheelchair ramp and a group of curious vermin.

“I had stayed out until like midnight, and I accidentally left the ramp to my car down,” Dufrene said with a laugh. “All of the neighborhood animals must have gotten in there and peed all over the car. So they called for me to come, and there I was cleaning out the car. I’ll never forget that.”

Despite the bumpy start, Dufrene said working at SLIC has been a great experience. Among other duties, he’s in charge of circulating donations such as walkers, wheelchairs and bedside toilets to people in the community.

“A lot of hospitals around here release patients, and they don’t have anything,” he said. “So what we do is take donations and turn around and give them to people who need them.”

He works there 8 a.m.-2 p.m. three days a week, which leaves room for water therapy twice a week at Our Lady Queen of Heaven Family Life Center — as well as blogging and collecting.

Dufrene not only collects music; he also collects film. In his living room, a shelf stocked with films from The Criterion Collection abuts his couch. He has been known to insert sound bites from old movies at the beginning of songs on his weekly mixes.

He said film and music have long been his life’s passion, as well as a source of comfort and purpose as his disease worsened.

“It doesn’t take anything physical out of me to sit and watch a movie, so I watch a lot of movies. And the only physical part of putting on a record is doing this,” he mimicked setting a vinyl on a turntable.

He lamented that many great songs have been forgotten with time, and that young people often only listen to what’s trending. He said the world needs more curators to rediscover good music for present and future generations.

“I could stay in the ’60s for the rest of my life and never come to an end,” Dufrene said. “I’m constantly hearing music that I never knew existed.”

He said his goal is to introduce people to music they’ve never heard before, or to familiar songs in a way they’ve never experienced them, like a Japanese version of “Hey Jude” by The Beatles.

For a while, he said, curating was a personal thing, a way to cope with his physical limitations and stoke his nostalgia. But he said now it’s about his listeners.

He said he corresponds over email with fans in Europe and enjoys getting free merchandise in the mail — most recently a record from a listener in England.

He said he received “a bunch of emails” in September 2016 when he went three weeks without posting his weekly mixes because of a prolonged hospital stay — he had burned his legs while cooking ramen noodles.

He said that was the moment he realized people were counting on him for his blog posts.

“It was a really good feeling,” he said.

He said his plan for the future is to keep posting, collecting and helping others, both through his music and through his job at SLIC.

Like Nick Stahl’s character in “Quid Quo Pro,” who gave him the courage to climb into the wheelchair and rock the professor look, he hopes he can encourage others going through similar trials to find their passion, and the strength to reach outside themselves.

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