Preserving Mamou: Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys pay tribute to their predecessors

Posted: Thursday, October 28, 2004

In the heart of Evangeline County, 35 miles northwest of Lafayette, La., the prairie town of Mamou (pop. 3,194) is often called the "Cajun Music Capital of the World."

French is the language of choice; the Cajun Music Festival is held every September; thousands attend Mardi Gras every February for gumbo, parades and revelry; and the Saturday morning Cajun scene at Fred's Lounge is still broadcast on KVPI (1050 AM) in nearby Ville Platte.

This is the land that spawned the legendary Balfa Brothers, Alaska Folk Festival guest artists in 1980. But in the early '80s, around the same time that Steve Riley was learning to play his accordion, Cajun music was not considered "cool" among the majority of young people in southern Louisiana.

Now, it's well-entrenched again, and Riley, 35, is one of the torchbearers. He's the second cousin of legendary accordionist Marc Savoy and a protégé of Dewey Balfa himself. His band, The Mamou Playboys, is considered one of the best Cajun bands in the country.

They play Centennial Hall at 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 29, before heading to Ketchikan for two shows. This is their first trip to Alaska in 17 years as a band.

"I've always loved the music, and I love the older generation. I never had a conflict," said Riley, from his home in Lafayette, about his early days.

"But you get this kind of attitude down here sometimes," he said. "People say they can't stand it. They can't wait to graduate and move away. Those people all end up moving back, because they realize how great this place is."

Friday's show is 21 and older and will include Cajun food and a beer garden. Tickets are $20 at Hearthside Books, Rainy Day Books and the Observatory.

Local salsa instructors Heather Haugland and Antonio Diaz will lead a free Cajun dance lesson at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Centennial Hall. They will also teach a Cajun dance class from 7-8:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 28, at the Juneau Dance Unlimited studio in the Scottish Rite Temple, at the corner of Fourth and Seward streets.

Cajun dances include the two-step, the waltz and the jig. The moves are generally high-energy, bobbing and herky-jerky - lots of lower body work with some turns from the upper body. One distinguishing characteristic of Cajun dancing, Haugland said, is that dancers move counter-clockwise in a large, racetrack-shaped circle. Dancers add moves, while flowing with the rest of the crowd.

The Mamou Playboys released their ninth album, "Bon Reve," in 2003. Their previous two records, "Bayou Ruler" and "Happytown," were an exercise in pop experimentalism. "Bon" is a 17-track collection of traditionally inspired homages, sung in French, to their predecessors.

The title track is a tribute to Canray Fontenot, a Creole and Cajun fiddler who died in 1995. "Never Another Chance" and "Musicians' Paradise" were originally written by Belton Richard, the king of 1960s "French swamp pop." "The Life I Thought I Wanted" was originally written by New Iberia's Touchet Brothers. "Come, Jilie," was inspired by a Civil War poem collected by guitarist Sam Broussard's great uncle. "Prison Blues" and "Savoy Song" date back to 1934. The rest of the album touches on Hank Williams, Cajun French storyteller Marion Marcotte, Cajun waltz legend Lawrence Walker, Ville Platte fiddler Austin Pitre, Louisiana dancehall champions The Lafayette Playboys and old-time Creole fiddler Carlton Frank.

"We've gone though a lot of different phases and a bit of experimenting with songwriting and different things," Riley said. "We're at the point now where we want to play traditional music, because we all feel that's what we do the best.

"A lot of people down here in Louisiana, when they think traditional, they think about music the way it was played in the '30s and '40s and '50s," he said. "(Fiddler) David (Greely) spends a lot of time in the archives here at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, and he digs up a lot of old recordings. We're always finding new stuff from there. I think we're traditional and innovative at the same time, and I think a lot of that comes from the guitar's role in this band."

Guitarist Broussard grew up in south Louisiana, but hit the road when he was 19. He joined an acoustic Louisiana quartet called Manchild, which signed to Capitol Records. He played with artists such as Jimmy Buffett and Michael Martin Murphey, before returning to south Louisiana.

"He can do just about anything he wants to do," Riley said. "He plays slide, he can sound like a steel guitar, he plays regular, he plays acoustic, he can flatpick. He can cover a wide range of sounds, and it's all very much steeped in southern Louisiana. You have to do that in this band. We cover a lot of ground musically."

Greely, fiddler and saxophonist, grew up in Baton Rouge and was turned on to Cajun history after playing with Dewey Balfa. Greely is now well-known as a songwriter, researcher and scholar of old songs. Drummer Kevin Dugas began playing at 16 with Cajun accordionist and vocalist Belton Richard. Bass player Brazos Huval of Breaux Bridge (pop. 6,157) started as a fiddler and saxophonist in the Huval Family Band, before picking up bass for Zydeco artist Horace Trahan.

"The guys who came before us meant a lot to us," Riley said. "We hung out with them, we played music with them, we loved the way they played and we learned how it was in their time. They were the ones who laid the path and we're just continuing down it."

"We're just doing what we want to do, just playing the music that we grew up with," he said. "We're a product of now, not the '30s and the '40s."

Riley grew up in a musical family. He learned to sing when he was 3. Savoy and Dennis McGee, another of the Cajun giants, would routinely play at his grandparents' home. His grandfather knew all the musicians in town and is often credited for helping bring Mardi Gras back to Mamou. His great uncle taught him his first song, "Jump Little Frog, Your Butt's On Fire," when he was 7.

At the age of 13, he acquired his first accordion, a cheap German model. He mastered it within a year, and got an expert model, built by his second cousin, Savoy. (The Savoy-Doucet Band played the Folk Festival in 1988.)

Around the same time, he met Dewey Balfa, who asked him to be the backup accordion player in his band. Riley played with Balfa until his death, in 1993.

"(Dewey) was such a great musician, and he was also a great spokesman for the culture and the music," Riley said. "He played Cajun music at a time when people in Louisiana didn't appreciate their culture and their language and what was different about them. People were coming in from outside Louisiana and trying to Americanize southern Louisiana and make it like the rest of America.

"Thanks to people like Dewey, they turned around people's thinking and made them realize that this culture we have, that we've worked to develop for so many years, is cool. Now things are still intact down here, and people all over the world are interested in Cajuns and our way of life. And bands are interested in the music, and more than just going to town and playing dance halls and raising hell."

• Korry Keeker can be reached at korry.keeker@juneauempire.com.



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