For the past eight years, Cajun music aficionados have had a new kind of band to crow about. Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys were hailed from the first as "young Cajun traditionalists," whose music made no concession to humdrum tourist schlock on the one hand, or to commercial pop and country on the other. As recently as 1994, Barry Jean Ancelet, the world's foremost academic scholar of Cajun music, wrote of The Mamou Playboys that "they do it all with straight old-time Cajun music. No smoke and mirrors, no imported tricks." Already, these words were not quite true, for Riley and his band had experimented with Canadian tunes and black Creole zydeco; neither of them, strictly speaking, were "straight" Cajun music. But their latest CD, La Toussaint, moves them further out, incorporating more blues, rock and country licks than ever before.
The key to the changes in The Mamou Playboys' sound is found in the evolution of the group itself - line-up changes in the band as well as the personal development of its members. Their traditionalist phase made sense during its time; the band was founded in 1988 by Steve Riley and David Greely, both students of the great fiddler Dewey Balfa. It was after their respective apprenticeships with Balfa - in other words, straight out of the crucible of the tradition - that Riley and Greely formed The Mamou Playboys.
At first, the band wasn't that concerned with how traditional or how modern they should sound. The first order of business was to get some gigs, pick a name, and get the band established. The name part was a little difficult, Greely remembered. "All the food names had been taken, food and animals. All we were left with was cars, and we didn't want to do that."
Eventually they settled on "The Mamou Playboys," a name that signaled where they were from and what kind of Cajun music they played. "In Louisiana," Riley explained, "music is played different in different parts of the state." In Bayou towns like Lafayette, the music is different from Riley's prairie variety, and the band's name was an advertisement for its style. There was only one problem: the name had already been used by a well-known but defunct local group, and Riley had to get their permission to use it. At the time, both Riley and the drummer for the original Mamou Playboys were in Dewey Balfa's band, so securing permission went smoothly enough. "[Barzas] said, sure, just you've gotta play the music right," Riley said. "He gave me a big talk and everything. Now I'm sure," he added with a smile, "in his eyes we're not doing what he wanted me to do!"
The original Mamou Playboys was a three-generation band, made up of oldtimer Maurice Barzas, his son Vorrance and his grandson Kevin. Kevin Barzas joined Riley's band on guitar, and with the addition of drummer Mike "Chop" Chapman, the Playboys became a quartet. They began playing locally, and soon had gained name recognition on the prairies.
Their popularity brought about a quick change in the band's name. "We thought of ourselves as The Mamou Playboys," Greely explained, "but everybody started calling us Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys." Why the shift in names? "I think because I'd been playing with Dewey around the area a lot," Riley speculated, "people were more familiar with me than with David. It's also a tradition to name the band after the accordion player...but look at Beausoleil. It depends who the guy in the center is, who the frontman is, I guess."
Riley is definitely the group's frontman, the dynamic presence on stage around which the band seems to revolve. It's always been that way, as long as he can remember. "I'm a ham," he admitted, "or so I've been told." He began hamming it up at family gatherings when he was a child, encouraged by his mother's father, Burke Guillory, who first taught him to sing Cajun songs and play the triangle. His other grandparents also helped him learn music. "I'd go to my grandparents on my father's side, they would have house parties where Marc Savoy and Dennis McGee and Sady [Courville] and all those musicians from Eunice would get together and play...and I'd play triangle with them."
Riley's musical experiments weren't limited to social gatherings; he enjoyed playing along, especially in his parents' garage, where he'd open the door to enhance the natural reverb and amplify his little triangle to a deep jangle. "I'd think I was playing a whole set of drums, I guess."
It didn't take long for Riley to move on to another instrument. At age seven, he learned his first tune on the accordion from his great-uncle. Soon after that, however, Guillory died, and with him died Riley's interest in Cajun music.
It took five years for Riley to get back on track musically. When he did, it was largely because of Dewey Balfa. At the age of thirteen, Riley discovered an old record by the Balfa brothers that had belonged to his grandfather. He loved the music so much that he asked his parents for an accordion. "They got me a little cheap Hohner which I played on for a year, and after I showed a little bit of progress, they agreed to buy me a good one." The best Cajun accordions are made by Marc Savoy, who also happens to be a second cousin of Riley's. Armed with a brand-new Savoy accordion, Riley was unstoppable, often sneaking out to play at night when his parents wouldn't let him go. Eventually he met up with Tony Balfa, a nephew of his idol Dewey, and Tony introduced him to Dewey himself.
Dewey Balfa was one of the greatest names in the last generation of Cajun musicians. One of the first players to bring Cajun music out of south Louisiana and onto festival stages, Balfa became a sort of cultural missionary, eager to introduce all who would listen to the muse of Cajun music. Riley, Greely and the Playboys' bassist, Peter Schwarz, all had apprenticeships with Balfa. "In a lot of ways he had so much to do with us getting into the music because he had so much enthusiasm," Schwarz said. "He'd zero in on the younger people who showed any interest. That's the way he was with us."
Riley agreed; Balfa was the man who taught him to play fiddle, but he was also more. "We would spend a lot of time just talking, and he'd tell me about his life," Riley reminisced. A surrogate grandfather and a demanding maestro all in one, Balfa was the one who taught Steve Riley to be Steve Riley. "Because he was my hero, I played fiddle just like him, I'd do all his licks. And he'd say, 'Man, play like Steve Riley!' " At the age of 16, Riley was asked to join Balfa's band.
Like Riley, Greely has warm memories of Dewey Balfa. Greely, whose first love was bluegrass and country fiddle, always wanted to learn Cajun music because he had a grandfather who played it. Far from the Cajun belt in his hometown of Baton Rouge, he had no access to the living tradition of Cajun music. "I was digging into everybody else's tradition but my own," he said. After moving to New Orleans, he made up his mind to pursue his interest in Cajun music, and set up an apprenticeship with Balfa, which entailed a three hour drive to and from every lesson. "He gave such attention to detail and nuance," said Greely of Balfa, "he knew how important they were, even though I didn't. And that would really unlock things. He would make you do this little thing that I thought was insignificant, but once I did it it'd change everything, and his face would light up. And it really made a difference."
It was after Riley and Greely learned their licks from the master that The Mamou Playboys got started. Once they had built up a reputation by playing local dancehalls, the quartet set about making its first album, arough piece of work but certainly an enjoyable listen. "It didn't come out the way we wanted," Riley admitted. "It was really raw." Produced by veteran Cajun musician Zachary Richard in his home studio, the album was limited by the quality of the equipment. "It was a garage studio," Greely explained, "with a really old, funky board and really limited separation." Riley laughed at the memory, and continued: "Zachary would open the door, just like I did when I was young, he'd open the door to get more reverb."
Since those early days, the band has evolved and changed its approach considerably, resulting in the more experimental band that plays today. Through four subsequent albums and numerous tours, the core of the band, Riley and Greely, has remained constant, but the other players have changed. The first to go was Chapman; a schoolteacher by profession, Chapman had a hard time fitting tours into his schedule, and began to miss a lot of gigs. His stand-in was Kevin Dugas, an ace Cajun drummer who was playing with bandleader Walter Mouton of The Scott Playboys, and who had previously backed Belton Richard. "His drumming style is definitely not what we were used to," Riley joked. "It really just messed up our music completely."
Seriously, Riley said that the transition was difficult, but worth it. Dugas is a more versatile and accomplished drummer than Chapman, and he has allowed the band to grow in ways that were impossible before. "It was rough at first," Riley said, "but it didn't take long for things to get better. Kevin can do anything we want to do, you know, he can lay down any kind of groove, any kind of rhythm we want to do. And that's what's nice. It's the freedom to play whatever you want to play."
Since Dugas was used to playing with a bass player, and since The Mamou Playboys had already been using various bass players on their albums, it made sense to get one in the band. Riley knew Peter Schwarz through their mutual connections with Balfa; they had first met years before, on the Mardi Gras music wagon in Mamou, during Schwarz's six-week stay with the master. It made sense for Schwarz to join; although he's not a Cajun, his connections with the Cajun tradition, and with Dewey Balfa in particular, go back to his earliest childhood.
The son of Tracy Schwarz, a well-known folk musician and member of the New Lost City Ramblers, Peter spent much of his childhood learning music. Tracy met Dewey Balfa in 1964, at the Newport Folk Festival, when Balfa formed part of the band that first brought Cajun music to a national audience. Tracy quickly developed an obsession with Cajun music, an itch he just had to scratch. "Every Christmas and any other time we possibly could," Peter said, "we'd go down there. We'd go down there for New Year's a lot and we'd live at Dewey's for a couple of days, the whole family, and they'd throw all us kids on the sofabed in the living room, and there'd just be a non-stop party."
Soon Peter, too, was bitten by the Cajun music bug, largely due to Balfa. When he was 11 years old, his family band was playing at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, which Balfa also attended. During a jam session in the performer's campground, the younger Schwarz decided to play some second fiddle. "To hell with the party and the jam and everything," he said. "As soon as he saw a fiddle in my hand, Dewey sits down beside me and starts teaching me. Right there, when everybody's having a good time." It was the first time he had been given that kind of individualized attention, and he liked it. So he arranged to do an apprenticeship with Balfa.
The relationship between Schwarz and Balfa was obviously very close; when Balfa died in 1992, he left his fiddle, "The Old Man," to Schwarz. Although the fiddle had been destroyed by a drunken reveler at a wedding and had to be rebuilt, it made it to Schwarz's hands safely, and remains a prized possession. It was passed from hand to hand during the recording of Trace of Time, the Mamou Playboys album that immediately followed Balfa's death.
Although he rarely plays fiddle at Mamou Playboys concerts, Schwarz does play it on their albums, and being a fiddler is a big help when it comes to playing bass. When he feels his bass playing is off for any reason, he imagines he's playing the fiddle and figures out what he'd want the bass player to be - a nifty trick if you can manage it.
The latest step in the evolution of The Mamou Playboys occurred about two years ago, when Jimmy Domengeaux replaced Barzas on guitar. "Kevin didn't want to be on the road anymore," Riley explained. "He had too much fun when he was on the road, and he decided he needed to be a family man and get a job around home. And we also wanted a guitar player who could do more, play lead. Kevin couldn't play lead at all. And Jimmy plays more sophisticated, more uptown rhythm, and lead."
The addition of Domengeaux, Dugas and Schwarz has brought with it great musical changes in the band. Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, the musical conservatives, the straight old-time Cajun band who played traditional music rather than the rock and country influenced sounds offered by people like Wayne Toups, Zachary Richard, and even Beausoleil, are no more. Their latest album, La Toussaint, features a lot of original material and a lot of experimentation not found in their earlier work.
One example is Riley's use of the three-row accordion, common in zydeco music but not in Cajun bands. Schwarz sees this as an exploration of the roots of the Cajun sound, hence a return to deep tradition. "We've been able to do a lot of concerts and really start to think about what Cajun music is as a listening music. And also the range of musics that come out of Louisiana, and out of southwest Louisiana, that are really part of the history of Cajun music." Others might see it as more of a lateral move, toward zydeco, a musical form based in the blues that has a lot more in common with rock and roll - and hence with the mainstream - than strictly Cajun music does.
Asked what's behind their movement toward a less traditional sound, nobody talks philosophy or tries to justify the move in any way. Greely and Riley are in perfect agreement about why the shift is happening now, and about what it means. It is the expression of musical creativity on a much larger and more personal scale than the band was previously able to muster. The key was simple enough. "We started rehearsing," Greely said. "We started practicing, instead of just learning songs on stage...and stuff started happening to 'em."
Schwarz added another reason to move on: "We ran through the repertoire of traditional Cajun songs. We've played 'em on stage many times, and what you can do with those songs is just play 'em over and over again." Riley agreed: "I think the important thing now is for us to come up with original material. I don't think we need to do another record unless it's almost completely original material. The more time goes on, the more we develop a sound that's kind of our own."
Working on new material, and spending time in rehearsal, adds a big dimension to the group's dynamic. Suddenly, people's individual musical ideas are being explored in the context of the band. "When we get to rehearsal now," Riley said, "we all come from slightly different places musically. I'll bring a song to rehearse, or just kind of a skeleton of a song, that I've been working on, and David will say, 'Try this.' And everybody just kind of adds what they want, or what they feel should be in the song." Inevitably, this exploration brings in "outside" musical influences. "We needed something more," Schwarz said. "We had desires to hear other things than what we were doing every night. We'd go to a festival in Denmark and hear all this Celtic music, or we'd just be playing with other people and we get these ideas. That's what music is, a creative process."
Riley picked up his point. "We are influenced by different kinds of music, you know. That's what we bring into rehearsals and into our writing. We all have pretty traditional backgrounds, but David listensto some of the most obscure alternative bands. Jimmy's kind of into the seventies, the Allman Brothers. Kevin likes Percy Sledge and Merle Haggard."
The band's latest album, La Toussaint, is the best indicator of where their music is going. While keeping tradition as an important element of their music, and an important theme in even their new songs, they are nonetheless pushing the boundaries of the genre and of their own experience. The album's title song is an example; it's a new song about an old tradition, inflected with new musical touches but essentially Cajun, and it celebrates the living by honoring the ancestors. The melody was written by Schwarz, after he visited a Cajun cemetery in Mamou for the funeral of Riley's grandmother. Mamou is one of the most concentrated Acadian French areas, and the bonds of community are tight. Looking around the cemetery, one thing struck Schwarz: "Every name was French, going back however far. And so much of the music we do, its form, function, everything about it is really a testament to those lives. It's obvious but it struck me at that point and just kind of turned into a song the next week." The tune Schwarz wrote was not influenced only by Cajun sounds. He wrote it during a tour that took them to Denmark, where they heard a lot of Celtic music. "I was hearing a really Acadian- Celtic sound," he said.
When it came time to write the lyrics, Schwarz and Greely discussed it. "I told him about this feeling of the cemetery and about how powerful this message is in the music, people's ancestors. David said, 'Let's call it "La Toussaint" because that's what La Toussaint is about, exactly what it's about.'"
La Toussaint is the All Saint's Day ritual of November 1st, when Cajun families gather in the graveyard to honor their ancestors. When they got into the studio to record the song, they found themselves experimenting with the technology and the music more than they ever have before. "It was really neat to flesh it out in the studio, with the lyric and the singing and bowing a double bass," Schwarz said. "We came up with some really neat ideas purely using the studio as a creative tool to bring out feelings we had about creating that song. That's something we never did before. Very few Cajun bands have ever used the studio to create music. They just go in there to capture what Saturday night's like."
The resulting song has a dark, layered sound halfway between a Cajun waltz and a mournful Irish ballad, with the growling double bass and weeping fiddle punctuated by a loping rhythm guitar behind Riley's gentle vocals, which sound not so much sad as resigned.
The rest of the album is similarly poised between traditional Cajun music and other sounds. It features the band's most traditional-sounding number ever, a pair of waltzes that they got from the Lomaxes' legendary Library of Congress recordings. Riley lays down the easy rhythm on acoustic guitar - a departure from his usual role as frontman - while Greely and Schwarz play the tune on fiddles. "La Danse de Mardi Gras," perhaps the oldest traditional song that Cajuns still play, is given a basically traditional arrangement as well. At other moments, two blazing zydeco numbers from the master Clifton Chenier pick up the pace, featuring Riley on three-row accordion, Greely on swinging fiddle, Domengeaux on lead guitars and Dugas and Schwarz laying down explosive, insistent rhythms. Both zydeco tracks also include guests C.J. Chenier on alto sax and Clifford Alexander on rubboard. A similarly sweaty treatment is given to a two-step by Marc Savoy, incorporating a hot pedal steel lead by guest musician Isaac Miller.
The natural question to ask at this point is what Dewey would have thought of all this experimentation. Riley answered honestly: "I don't think he'd be into everything we're doing, but I think he knows we just have to run with it the way we want to, play music the way we want to, and do whatever we want to do. He might not agree with everything. Me and Dewey at times would butt heads, there was times when we'd hit heads a lot. But I think he'd pretty much be supportive and understand what we're doing."
"We have a luxury that he didn't have," Schwarz added, "which is that Cajun music, traditional Cajun music, is doing so well. There are so many young people playing." Indeed, Balfa's most significant accomplishment was to make Cajun music a safe home for his most prized pupils. It is now secure enough that they can go out exploring, without worrying that they are leaving their home unprotected. Schwarz continued: "They're buying more Cajun albums [in Louisiana] now than they ever have, their children are taking lessons. There's always a posse of young guys when we're playing back home, watching Steve's fingers and watching everything that's going on. So we can branch out. The keys are safe."
In fact, Schwarz can tell you exactly where the keys are. They're with Christine and Nelda Balfa, Dewey's daughters, and a band called Balfa Toujours. "Balfa Toujours is really the keepers of Dewey's keys," he says. "They're oriented so much towards Dewey's specific style and how he felt about the music. And it's great. They're writing songs and they're doing original material and yet they're doing it very strictly on Dewey's guidelines, and it's good to see that happen." When he's not playing with The Mamou Playboys, Schwarz performs with Balfa Toujours, and members of the latter band are frequent guests on the Mamou Playboys' stages and albums - Christine Balfa, particularly, has toured and recorded with The Mamou Playboys regularly.
There is one experiment that the band has thought about at length without coming to a definite decision: performing songs in English. "I go back and forth on it," Greely said. "Sometimes we do these concerts, people are all sitting there, looking at us, listening, hanging on every word, and they don't understand a single one of them. And it frustrates me a little bit, you know? I wish that I was communicating with those people." On the other hand, as Riley pointed out, when you start writing songs in English you become a small fish in a big pond, a fact of which Greely is keenly aware. "If I'm gonna write in English I have to measure up to my heroes. I don't know if I have the guts to do that," he said.
More importantly, both Greely and Riley wonder what would happen to their music. "It's hard to sing English to a Cajun beat," Greely explained. "It just sounds really clunky. French words go a lot better; it's French music. It's not just the language itself, but the music is influenced by the language." Riley agreed. "If we start singing English," he said, "the music is gonna change."
Although they can't be sure whether English language songs will ever make it into The Mamou Playboys' repertoire, they're all excited about what they can predict. Recording an album, they said, really galvanizes the band to practice and perform and create, so they plan to record again soon. "We're hot and heavy after another album now," Greely said. "We're working on material, we're writing." Greely also wants to improve his saxophone and fiddle playing. For his part, Riley wants to keep writing, recording, and "constantly expanding my stage wardrobe."
Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys have a rigorous touring schedule that takes them all over the world. That schedule just gets busier next year. "I'm really looking forward to going places we haven't gone to before," Schwarz offered. "We're getting to play places for more general audiences than we've been able to before, and it's really fun to get 'em into our music."