All The Rage In Cajun
The Swamp Couldn't Be Cooler Than Balfa Toujours.
By Mari Wadsworth
FEBRUARY 7, 2000: IT'S BEEN A long time since the Balfa Brothers exploded on the horizon of traditional music, like a long-tailed comet swaying to the rhythm of a six-string and fiery twin fiddles. Their 1965 Cajun revival, heralded by the landmark album The Balfa Brothers Play Traditional Cajun Music, is long gone but still not forgotten by those touched by its warmth and light.
But as we've said, that was a long time ago. Not so long ago, in 1992, legendary fiddle player Dewey Balfa joined his brothers Will and Rodney in the great beyond, and out of the musical tributes paid at his passing, one thing became clear: the Cajun tradition had actually gotten younger with age.
At the forefront of the Balfa family musicians these days is daughter Christine, who together with husband Dirk Powell and cousin Courtney Granger form the familial core of Balfa Toujours ("Balfa Forever"), a young band hailed by some Louisiana critics as "the future of Cajun music."
Their most recent album, 1998's La Pointe, couldn't bring the music any closer to home. Recorded on vintage analog equipment in the living room and kitchen of the Balfa-Powell home, on four acres in the Bayou Teche region of southwestern Louisiana where Christine's family has hailed for seven generations, it's both an homage to the father and uncles who mentored them, and a testament to the vitality of the music the band is writing today.
The mix of traditional, family and original songs exudes a maturity that can't be manufactured. This is songwriting that knows its roots, with a soulfulness, even in its most playful moments, that transcends mere technical mastery. Though the Balfa Toujours résumés would impress even the most academic of critics, the beauty of this band is what you can't see: it's the kind of playing that evolves rather than being learned; it embodies understanding as well as knowledge. It's as much about the relationship between musicians as the music itself, with ongoing conversations between accordion and fiddle, for example, or vocals that veer often into improvisation in live performance.
"Cajun music is emotional and energetic music," Balfa agrees. "It's heartfelt and not highly cerebral, so there's a lot of room for interplay between the musicians. We really have fun and smile at each other when the interaction reaches its highest level. At that point, we all know intuitively what the other players will do before they do it. Reaching that place, being somehow relaxed but wound up at the same time, is perhaps the most enjoyable and rewarding thing about the music. When it crosses over to the listeners and dancers, we're reminded what life is about."
That continuity between music and culture is something these young musicians have embraced, and in addition to a demanding international touring schedule, they've developed programs that emphasize the history and culture of Acadian Louisiana, the roots of which go all the way back to Celtic France.
For her part, Christine, with back-up from Powell and Granger, sings about 80 percent of their songs in Cajun French. "Of course, English is also prevalent here and almost everyone is bilingual," she says. "So we do our share of both. It is important to us to keep the French alive, because it's a unique and important means of expression."
All of their originals are in French, "partly because of our feelings that the language and culture must not merely be preserved but given new life," Balfa says, and partly because "we want to expand the use of French in Louisiana, particularly in how it's used artistically."
"We use it to express our feelings (and) things that are unique to our generation that have not been said in the language before," she says.
While the liner notes for La Pointe include the songs in English, one suspects there's a lyrical style that's lost in the translation. Balfa concurs. "There's certainly a lot of word play in Cajun songs, particularly the older ones. Many lyrics have double meanings, most often having to do with not-so-subtle symbolism for situations involving members of the opposite sex. This is often lost in the translation, or simply not recognized for what it is.
"One example is the song 'Saute Crapaud,' which means 'Jump Toad.' The original song was feisty and blatantly sexual, but the meaning has been lost so that now it's taught to children as a cutesy folk song. Even the famous song 'Les haricots son pas sale,' which means 'The green beans aren't salty,' has multiple meanings. The shortened version of that title, 'Zydeco,' has gone on to become the name of an entire musical genre in Louisiana. The Cajuns love word play; it has been a part of the culture for a very long time, and apparently will be for some time to come," she says.
Such word play tends to hover close to the realities of everyday life rather than lofty or complex sentiments, though. Songs about love, or more specifically about love gone wrong, sidle up close to others celebrating the rascally side of human nature -- what Balfa calls "the kind of thing that would be said with a wink."
The Acadians were a hardy people, exiled to cross the North Atlantic in 1765, only to endure starvation, guerrilla warfare, rampant disease and imprisonment before landing in the relative peace of the long, winding banks of the Bayou Teche, which Balfa describes as "basically a slow moving river."
"The word teche is a local Indian word for snake, and the bayou does wind around, a bit like a snake," she says. "Old cypress and live oak trees border the bayou, many of them hung with Spanish moss. In general, this part of Louisiana is very flat and mostly dominated by fields, either for cane, rice or cattle."
It's a climate and landscape that permeate the culture and capture the imagination. "The music, at this point, just seems to be in the air here," Balfa says. "It fits the country roads, the old wooden houses, and the cattle that gather beneath the live oaks in the fields."
Which isn't to say it hasn't endured its own rash of conflict between corporate and local culture, a condition increasingly pockmarking the modern American landscape. "The larger cities have been expanding and are being taken over by the same chain restaurants and stores as the rest of the country," she continues. "But the rural areas still have a wonderful and unique feel to them, just as they did when I was growing up. The sunlight in the afternoons still takes on a hazy golden color that seems to make the green of the trees glow. It's a special and very striking place."
While historically this pulsating music constituted a time to relax and take comfort, Balfa says, "Like everything else, this changes with time...My father Dewey, for example, took an old song he learned from an American Indian fiddler -- a member of the Coushatta tribe -- and to honor him he wrote the words, 'The Cajuns of Louisiana have a great respect for the Indians. They know that the Indians deserve great credit for their contribution to America.'
"Some of our lyrics deal with the racial problems we've encountered, and the fact that everyone seems to think they can buy happiness in this day and age. So there is a wider range [for intellectual discourse] within the tradition today."
Being labeled "the future of Cajun music" is a large bill to fill, but Balfa's demure Southern voice is neither inflated nor intimidated when she responds, "We're pretty much in the center of the tradition. Though it might be thought that bands on the cutting edge actually represent the future, the fellow who said this about us was referring to the fact that we were keeping the core of the tradition alive. We don't see ourselves as progressive, but we don't only play the music of the past. Our point is that the music belongs to the present, to the generation who plays it at any given time, and in that sense it's no more one generation's than the next's. We just strive to play music from the heart and soul, because that's the way we were taught and that's the way our heroes played.
"We don't try to change, but we don't try to stay the same. That does make us different from many bands these days, who tend to go for something new as a goal in itself."
So what does a young traditionalist listen to in her free time? "Many different kinds of music," she says. "Of course we listen to Cajun and Zydeco fairly often, but we also like a lot of old country and younger singers like Gillian Welch and Kim Richey. Dirk, my husband, grew up playing Appalachian folk music, so we listen to that. We like George Jones, Lenny Kravitz and Bach.
"We're also fortunate to have met many wonderful musicians [while touring] around the world, and we often listen to CDs we've acquired from them...from the Mexican fiddling of Juan Reynoso to the Irish button accordion playing of Dermot Byrne. Needless to say, there's quite a diverse collection in our house!"
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