All in the amin
Kenny Mathieson talks to Christine Balfa, the latest champion of Cajun music’s most famous name.
if Cajun music has a motto. then it surely has to be ‘laissez les bun temps muler' — let the good times roll. The vibrant exuberance of this musical outpouring of the Louisiania French has travelled well beyond the borders of its home province, as the presence of Scottish bands like Deaf Heights Cajun Aces and Boogalusa will testify.
Christine Balfa, leader of Balfa Toujours, admits she has been surprised by the extent of interest in the music in the UK, but there is a much earlier Scottish connection. The French immigrants who ultimately settled in Louisiana were displaced from their original province, then called Acadia, in 1755, which subsequently became Nova Scotia, and took on a rather different musical heritage. The Acadians wandered south. settled in Louisiana, and the name became corrupted to Cajun.
Cajun music evolved over generations, but took on what we now consider to be its classic form with the introduction of accordion to the string band line-up in the 1920s. As the commercial possibilities ofthe music began to emerge, so too did its star names like accordionists lry Leieune and Nathan Abshire, and, above all, The Balfa Brothers.
Just as Eddie Leleune (who tours Scotland in September) has cam’ed on his father's legacy, so it has fallen to Christine Balfa to take up the weighty mantle of her father, Dewey Balfa, following his death in 1992 (the other Balfa brothers, Will and Rodney, died in a car crash in 1979). Balfa Toujours, with Christine's new husband, accordionist Dirk Powell, Kevin Wimmer on fiddle, and drummer Mike ‘Chop’ Chapman, are on a massive 32-date tour of Britain and lreland to launch their New Cajun Tradition album. and carry on the Balfa legacy.
‘As in other folk musics, Cajun music is passed down from generation to generation, and it’s all by ear — neither the music nor the words are written down. 1 always knew i would play music in some way. but I had no real idea that i would make a living from it, or that i would be able to carry on the Balfa band. it kind of fell together after my father’s death, and it seemed the natural thing to do, and it turned out that we have been busy enough to make a living from it.‘
in addition to being a great musician, Dewey Balfa was a tireless promulgator of the music, a responsibility Christine acknowledges as one she has to live with.
‘At first i was a little intimidated by that until i realised that all I could really do isjust be myself. i was raised by him and i picked up a whole lot of his ways, but if i let myself feel that kind of responsibility it just puts on extra pressure. if i think about that too much it's not a positive thing, but of
course, i do feel that way, and l certainly feel it is really important to keep our culture alive, and also developing.
‘Our music still has the same feel as when the Balfa Brothers wrote music, and maybe when my great grandfather wrote music, but our songs are about today. We want to play traditional music, but not music that is static, like in a museum — we want to be true to the roots, but also to play the way that feels
‘We want to play traditional music, but not music that Is static like in a museum.’
natural to us, and that expresses our feelings today. My father always said that tradition is preserved one generation at a time, and that is what we are trying to do.‘
Cajun music is ﬁrmly established on the world music map, and those vibrant, ecstatic two-step and waltz rhythms and high, emotive vocals have become part of the common musical cunency, whether
Balfa Touiours: Cajun two-steppch
played in the straight traditional manner by groups like Balfa Toujours and the great Bcausoleil, or in a more commercial fashion by musicians like Jo—El Sonnier or Steve Riley.
Along with its close neighbour, zydeco, a music which grew out ofthe old-time la-la style in the black community and was established as a form by the work ofthe legendary Clifton Chenier after World War ll, Cajun is the quintessential sound of Louisiana. it is a classic response to the hard times and suffering of the Acadians, ajoyous negation of the worst the world can throw at them, but incorporating a deep sorrow — Dewey Balfa likened it to their equivalent of ‘the blues sound of the black man, the sound of deep hun' -- within its infectious rhythms. Above all, though, it is a music for the feet.
‘We love playing live,‘ Christine Balfa confirms. ‘and most of all we love playing for dances, which is also very much part of the tradition. We rarely do concerts at home, because people always want to get up and dance to this music.‘
Balfa Tnujours play a! The Rallies Hall. Glenmthes. on Tue I . The Lemon Tree in Aberdeen on Wed 2. and M uckj' M ulligan 's in ["th on Thurs 3.
38 The List 28 Jul-10 Aug 1995