“The music bites, burns and blisters the heart with its cruel loneliness of our Cajun history. Not only the loneliness at the time of our exile, but the later years of poverty…”
Pierre Varnon Daigle
The traditional music of the Cajun people of Louisiana is unique. It is sung in 17th century French and comes in two sizes – toe tapping, crowd pleasing ‘two step’ dances and slow, soulful waltzes, that still echo with the sadness and sense of separation of “Le Grand Dérangement”. (New readers will have to check out last week’s article.)
Over the centuries the performance of traditional Cajun music has evolved from solo singers, to singers with triangles, to singers with fiddles up to its current form with fiddlers, guitar players, triangle players and accordionists.
The Cajun Triangle or “’Tit Fer” (Little Iron) is not the chrome plated confection tinkled nicely at primary school concerts. It is a sprung steel instrument made from the busted tines of tractor drawn rakes. It is played vigorously with a steel bar and a set of substantial muscles! Without any amplification a good ‘tit fer’ player can get hundreds of dancers up on their feet and moving.
The Cajun Accordion is not a big red shiny plastic thing with an over indulgence of piano keys down one side and zillions of buttons down the other. That is a Piano Accordion and most Cajun musicians avoid them …although they are played with great enthusiasm by Louisiana’s Zydeco musicians.
Zydeco has a tradition of its own originating in the 1920’s when black musicians started mixing Cajun tunes with blues and Creole ‘La La’ songs to produce a heavy, stomping dance beat. Now zydeco bands include drums, electric guitars and the ubiquitous ‘frottoir’ – a steel rub board worn on the chest and rumoured to be able to stop a .38 bullet! The name Zydeco is a corruption of “Les haricots sont pas salé” (“The snaps beans are not salted”) – an old time Cajun tune.
Traditional Cajun dances are known as “Fais Dodo” or “Go to Sleep!” Young Cajun couples, anxious not to miss out on the fun, would take their babies to the dance and stick them in a back room, along with the coats. They would then tell them to ‘Fais dodo!’ while Mum and Dad got down to some serious dancing.
The Cajun accordion – a.k.a the melodeon – is a neat wooden thing about the size of a shoe box with 4 ‘stop’ knobs on the top, 10 melody buttons down one side and 2 bass buttons on the other. They were first brought into Louisiana by German settlers in the 1870’s. With a simple diatonic layout, i.e no sharps or flats, and lots of volume, they were quickly taken up by Cajun musicians who developed their own lively ‘chank-a-chank’ style of playing. Although the first instruments were imported, local musicans soon started to produce their own, establishing a sound and style that is now a signature of Cajun music and the heartbeat of a proud culture.
As their 17th century French heritage might suggest the Cajuns have rather unusual names. Doris, Didier, Gladdie, Sady, Agnus, Narciss, Angelais, Camey and Alexis are all current favourites – and these are just the men.
The British have a strange knack for taking other people’s musical traditions, giving them a polish and then selling them back. It happened during the 20’s and 30’s with Dixieland jazz, in the 50’s with rock ‘n’ roll and in the early 60’s with blues as demonstrated by groups like the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds. That process continues today with cajun and zydeco music. There are a number of zydeco and cajun bands operating in Britain and numerous clubs where you can both hear them play and learn how to dance ‘cajun style’. Some of these bands have even played in Louisiana. Not surprisingly St Margarets has its own Cajun band, the Crane River Cajuns, who proudly boast that, like the original Cajuns, they too live on a bayou. It just happens that theirs flows into the River Thames.
Cajun and zydeco music in action…
Buckwheat Zydeco burning it up on Australian TV
One of the greatest Cajun Bands – ever! The Balfa Brothers with Nathan Abshire. The word ‘negresse’ is a term of endearment.
— from Martyn Day