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Cajun Music So Old, It’s New: Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys are like Dominos in Time
America may soon learn that Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys are to Cajun music what the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? is to old-time country and bluegrass revival. Their latest album, Dominos (Rounder), draws on a broader repertoire than is typically heard on Louisiana dance floors and shows that this band, more than any other, simultaneously summons Cajun roots while pushing the music into the future. The album title invokes a perfect metaphor: respectfully feeling the weight of prior era Cajun masters—many of whom have been personal friends and mentors to the band members—while leaning on the future generation of musicians by setting the standard for new interpretations for the genre. Furthermore, they are possibly the only Cajun band who performs equally as well to a dancehall audience in their hometown of Lafayette, Louisiana, as they do to season-ticket holders at the finest performing arts theaters.
It all comes from their historically and culturally expansive perspective on the music. Listening to band members David Greely and Steve Riley talk opens a window on “race relations” in the South. “If you want pure White Cajun music, you have to go all the way back to France,” chuckles Greely, the band’s fiddler and most prolific songwriter. “Cajun music is so full of Black influences it’s like Café au Lait. You can’t separate it anymore.”
Riley—who says the band name includes his name because of a Louisiana tradition that puts the accordionist in the limelight—started singing at age three and playing accordion at age seven, learning from his grandfather and great uncle in his birthplace, Mamou, Louisiana. Riley’s family was immersed in a community of musicians who eventually became legends in Cajun music, so growing up he played with many of them in various living rooms. By the time he met Greely at age eighteen, Riley had already been playing with legends Dewey Balfa, Marc Savoy, Denis McGee, and Sady Courville.
David Greely took up the fiddle after seeing a band with a fiddle player open up for Black Sabbath. His family got excited and he soon found out that his Cajun grandfather had been a fiddler. “My dad kept buying me these Cajun records I didn’t like,” remembers Greely. “Finally when I was about 30—at a low point because I was only playing music for money—someone told me about the Balfa Brothers. When I heard that, I went ape shit. It was the best music I ever heard. It had heart, soul, and feeling. It wasn’t like playing bluegrass where you try to get as hot as you can or Texas style fiddling where you learn a million tunes. It was about releasing your emotions. That’s what got me. After I heard that, that’s what I wanted to do. And it’s the only thing I have done ever since.”
The band’s sound is defined by a combination of respecting the traditions they learned directly from the elders of the field and interpreting music in their own personal and heartfelt way (along with impeccable playing). Listeners might be surprised to find out the length they have gone to master the traditions. “None of us were raised speaking Cajun French,” explains Greely, “but we always want to make sure that everything we do—from our lyrics to our liner notes—is in authentic Cajun French. I became quite fluent in Cajun French, because I did not feel qualified to play this music unless I understood the language. That is one of the things those people worked so hard to hand down to us. Cajun music is the major way that our language is being passed down today. It constantly impresses me, when I see a kid on the dancefloor, who I know doesn’t speak French, but knows every word to one of our songs! And we always have meaningful experiences when we do an entire concert in French in Canada or France.”
Wanting to please their down-home audiences as well as exploring and reinterpreting less-exposed aspects of Cajun music, the Mamou Playboys have to strike a delicate balance. They see their relationship with Cajun audiences as alive. “We know our position,” says Greely. “We know that our job is to lead, as if we’re dancing with the audience. And they don’t always want to follow. I remember playing in Eunice, Louisiana and this guy comes up and says, ‘I aksed you to play the Kaplan Waltz three songs ago, and you never played it!’” Greely recalls with a smile. “Next thing I know, I see him walking out the door gesturing wildly and visibly pissed off.”
“It often seems like the majority of Cajun fans think that real Cajun music is this certain sound,” says Greely. “And what they are talking about is a Cajun dancehall band from the ’60s or ’70s. I feel like they’re passing this huge body of variety and depth through the eye of needle. There is so much more that is so gorgeous, and full of poetry.”
“We try and balance it by playing some of what they want to hear, but also playing what we think they should hear,” chimes in Riley. “I used to have the attitude that I’m gonna play what I want to play and you either like it or you don’t. That’s how the old musicians treated me. Now I feel like I want to play requests more than I did back then. Maybe the requests are getting better.”
“I used to be annoyed by how conservative Cajun audiences were,” says Greely “They only wanted to hear what they were familiar with. But I came to realize that this stubbornness is the reason we’re still here. Certain songs that we played emptied the floor at first. We played them for a year, and eventually people started dancing to them!”
“We’re turning our audience around,” says Riley. “Now there are these hard core dancehall standard audiences that come up requesting a cappela ballads! The sad thing is sometimes we can’t do it for them because we can’t remember the words,” he jokes.
One such a capella song, “Les Clefs de la Prison,” came from a 1934 recording of a fifteen year-old White girl. “If you listen to the music of that family, the father sings this very French style with a big voice,” Greely describes. “It’s very European sounding, but still haunting with a Ralph Stanley sort of scale. Then you listen to the girl and some of her songs could be very Black and Creole. It’s interesting to see this younger generation feeling free to integrate the music around them. That era was really fascinating.”
An important link between that era and the Mamou Playboys is Denis McGee, a White fiddler who had one foot in France. He performed with Black accordionist Amédé Ardoin, who had one foot in Africa. In the 1930s the two sharecroppers played dances throughout Southwestern Louisiana and went to New Orleans to make records. “Steve knew Denis,” explains Greely. “That’s like knowing freaking Abraham Lincoln!”
“If we Cajuns hadn’t met the Creole people, our music would sound much more Celtic like the Eastern Canadian stuff,” explains Greely. “And that’s why we have so much of a blues influence. The heavy backbeat is because of the Creole influence.”
“We were raised by the likes of Dewey Balfa, the ambassadors of this music,” explains Riley. “Growing up on stage with people like that you get a sense that there is a bigger world. Cajuns and Creoles have just been hanging out together musically and culturally for hundreds of years.”
Two blocks from Greely’s house is a library that houses rare Louisiana books and music. He came across an out-of-print book from 1940 titled Louisiana Creole Dialect which contained five poems written by a slave from St. Martinville before the civil war. Greely and Mamou Playboys guitarist Sam Broussard (whose great uncle coincidentally wrote the book) were so moved by the poems that they began writing melodies for them. On Dominos, David includes the fourth song in the series, “Marie mouri (Marie Has Died).” “I was afraid of that poem because it was so personal and the image of losing a loved one was so crisp and clear in that song,” says Greely. “But finally this melody came to me.”
“I’ve made songs out of nowhere, but I’m more comfortable working with some seed that comes from the past. A little bit of melody, a story, or lyrics,” says Greely. “These poems are perfect for me. They are a lot more satisfying than just making up something.”
On “Rivière de temps (River of Time),” Sam Broussard shows listeners what modern Cajun music can be. “Sam’s a real songwriter,” explains Greely. “He sits in airports for hours on end writing in notebooks. He came up with this song that is completely fresh and still talks about the same issues we all deal with.” The song’s unique chord changes and bilingual lyrics comment on the very experience of being a modern Cajun musician.
The album’s repertoire is rounded out with lesser-known songs by legends of Cajun music including D.L. Menard, Amédé and Bois-Sec Ardoin, Denis McGee, Nolan Dugas, Slim Doucet, and Varise Conner.
“We try to do songs that haven’t been covered by other Cajun bands,” says Riley. “It’s just new and refreshing for us and the audience to hear a new version of an old song they haven’t heard in a while. We keep stumbling across these great gems. It surprises me how we are still doing that, still finding great tunes.”
“It’s always been important to me and to this band to have a strong base here in Louisiana, because that is what’s real,” explains Riley. “There is nothing greater than playing down here for our people. The people down here own us. When it becomes about you, you’ve lost it. We are just a part of something that’s bigger than us. We have a lot of respect for it. We just try to keep it real and be true to it.”
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