Howe's Bayou? (or "Me-o-my, love that crawfish pie..")

Appulsing its path through the sultry, breathless air beneath the eldritch shadows of leaning, moss-hung trees on the bayou, stubborn strains of Cajun music still cut to the heart of folks headed for the fais-dodo, (which is what Cajuns call their spirited and absolutely necessary dance-gatherings. There's a fais-dodo at the Woodstock Community Center on August 21st which will feature the utterly authentic Cajun sounds of Louisiana's Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys..)

Vital ingredients in these steam-venting frolics include violins, guitar, steel-guitar, drums, accordion and swamp-nurtured rhythms which stretch all the way back to Picardy. Leads and solos switch about in traditional treatments of the music with the wild, anarchistic precision of contesting energy levels. You play till you sag and someone else picks up the pace, mustering the vocal force to be heard over the fury of sound. Music doesn't come any more exuberant or exhilarating than Cajun in full flight.

Waltz and Two-step, of course, are other featured forms of Cajun, along with some American influences from hillbilly to jazz, which filter into the French-toned and country-simple vocals of the long-grass bayou. The most authentic of Cajun performers also carry the exotic and migrant legacy of people who have maintained their certain essence through the rugged and fascinating historical twists which brought them to Louisiana.

Cajun, we know, is a corruption of Acadia, a name which became attached to eastern Canada when a wave of immigrants began arriving from Normandy, Picardy and Brittany in the earliest 1600's. The origins of the term "Acadia" itself, which was applied to a part of Nova Scotia (as L'arcadia) on the Gastaldi map of 1548, are more difficult to trace. Is it coincidence that the Benjamites who found refuge in the Arcadia of Greece later yielded to the pressure of new migrants from the east and moved into Europe to become known as the Sicambrian Franks? History is packed with such little puzzles and some of them contain quiet and powerful secrets which seldom get fair play in the official record.

For instance, to digress for a moment from the origin of Cajun to the origin of Vietcong, how much attention is usually paid to the mass migration of 1,100,000 peasants from their ancestorial villages in the north of Vietnam to the south of that country- a move engineered by the CIA's Saigon Military Mission in the mid-1950's? This all-but-silent chapter in the murky history of the creation of that conflict which ate the 60's, coupled with edicts of the newly-installed President Diem gave some master manipulators the conditions for a cynical excuse for a war in Southeast Asia. When the disenfranchised rice farmers of the south were reduced to banditry against the Diem-favored villages, they became labeled "the enemy" or "Vietcong"- this had less to do with politically articulated movements, such as Ho Chi Minh's democratic Vietminh, whom we originally armed, than with sheer survival in a cultural/economic system gutted with sly intent. That quiet forced migration of Tonkinese, most of whom were boated or airlifted under CIA control, created the so-called Vietcong and the roots of the war.

The Cajuns were also "created" by manipulations such as the founding of Montreal by the Paris-based secret society Compagnie du Saint-Sacrement and a number of other odd and unsung schemes of history far too tangled to pursue here. (If you really want to know about the failed plot to cede all of Canada to the Knights of Malta in 1630, what are you doing reading a music preview?) Anyway, Canada was only one leg of the Cajun saga and when England seized control of Acadia in "New France" during Queen Anne's War in 1713, it was either join the Brits in the fight against their former countryfolk or move on again. Their new gypsy-drift became a hard and decimating trek south, looking for hospitable digs in the eastern U.S. before they finally found a welcome among the French and Spanish of southwest Louisiana around 1756.

From this date, they've managed to root their traditions into southern soil, retaining their sense of music and adjusting it- like their cuisine- to the new surroundings. The patois spoken today has probably changed less than the rest of the French language. The music passed down in Cajun homes was somewhat bastardized in favor of more "pop" leanings when it was first recorded in the late 20s but it held on and emerged later in the recordings of Cajun legends like Shuk Richard, Joseph Falcon, Harry Choates, Little Yvonne Le Blanc, Nathan Abshire and others.

Cajun music has never really registered in the mainstream but its influence has long been apparent in some American popular music and Zydeco pockets have more recently sprung up all over the world.

Steve Riley inherits the flow directly from Cajun great Dewey Balfa, who was, in fact, was his connection to songsters Jay Unger and Molly Mason, who are presenting the group at the Community Center.

"We had Dewey come up and teach at our (Ashokan Field Camp music & dancing Workshops) a number of years," Molly Mason explained. "Jay knew him since the 70's and Dewey told us- 'There's this kid. He's really good. He's been playing with me and learning from me for a long time and I'd like to bring him along.' I think Steve must have been about 19 at that time, so, it's been a few years but- it was Dewey who kind of got Steve out into the world with Cajun music and now he's taken off with his own care er."

In fact, the Mamou Playboys have played numerous U.S. & foreign venues since forming 5 years ago and received as many awards for their first Rounder record, including Album of the Year from the Cajun French Music Association. Their 3rd Rounder album, released in June, Trace of Time, contains a song written by Unger & Mason which they had performed at a tribute to Belfa in La. shortly before his death last year.

To give a bit of flavor, another tune on the album (which is superb & solid Cajun Realtime) urges us to gather kindling "Pour faire bouillir des tourloulous" meaning "To boil some sand crabs" or "ouaouarons" (bullfrogs) or "‚crevisses" (crawfish) or "cocodrils" (alligators). Or, oh yum, Marie, break out that special sauce!

Besides accordion and guitar, Riley is also a fiddler, one of 3 in a band chock full of Cajun background- including David Greely and Peter Schwarz, who also studied with Balfa as did guitarist Kevin Barzas.

A page full of Louisiana telephone numbers didn't help reach anyone in the band and this seems to be their first local appearance, although Mason pointed out "they've played Quebec and the Northeast a little bit but not real close by." Maybe Howe's Caverns. Maybe not, though, because Howe Caverns (which were called “Otsgaragee” before ol' Lester Howe ‘discovered' them in 1842 and began beckoning tourists the following year) were not exploited by his contemporary, Joseph Howe of Nova Scotia, who founded the Acadian journal in 1827. And, then, if they had played the caverns (and they can still scoop Paul Horn on this gig) their vibes might have shimmered the ceiling and summoned sufficient frogs to call that lovely cave, Howe's Bayou....

Okay, I'll apologize, if you'll unwrinkle your nose. Dancing shoes are recommended.

-Irv Yarg