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Monday, November 14, 2011

The Balfa Brothers, "The Balfa Brothers Play Traditional Cajun Music"

The Balfa Brothers
"The Balfa Brothers Play Traditional Cajun Music"
Swallow (1965)

1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die

Sometimes things are just better the way mama used to make them. It's almost impossible to forget traditional American music forms, thanks to the active preservation efforts of institutions like the Smithsonian. But modern artists who record their own versions of classic styles often leave an imprint, whether it be a guitar solo or some sound effect, the final product ends up being fundamentally different from its inspiration. Change is fine and results in exciting new music, but you can never go wrong by keeping it simple.

This is the argument Moon uses when praising The Balfa Brothers, a Louisiana group that made a name for itself playing traditional Cajun music. This recording is in essence what you would hear at a social gathering 200 years prior to the album's 1965 recording. The brothers learned the standards and how to play a variety of traditional instruments from their father, a sharecropper in Mamou, LA. Leader Dewey plays fiddle, as well as brother Will, Burkeman plays the triangle and washboard, Harry plays accordion, and Rodney plays guitar and provides lead vocals. I could swear that there is a bass guitar in "La Danse De Mardi Gras," but aside from that, modernity is cast aside.

As you may have inferred from the previous song title, and as is appropriate for a traditional Cajun album, the language of choice is French. This is a definite plus for non-French speakers. I enjoyed bobbing my head to the cheerful waltzes, but I looked at the English translations in the liner notes following my listen and had to shake my head at the blunt lyrics. For example, from "Indiana on A Stump":

The Cajuns of Louisiana
have great respect for the Indians.
They know that the Indians
have an important place in America.

On the bright side of things, "Indian on A Stump" was also my favorite track to listen to, and it displays the simplicity that Moon loves. There are no virtuosos among the Balfa brothers, just five guys chipping in equally. The fiddlers aren't Charlie Daniels, and the violins work in harmony with each other. Rodney's guitar playing is among the most basic you'll hear in any recording. It's generally just a strummed chord. No progressions, just the one. The accordion of course makes its appearances, but my favorite instrumentalist on this album is Burkeman. Washboards and triangles seem like instruments that need to be overstated to be noticed, but Burkeman keeps rhythm with the board and adds a subtle texture with the triangle.

The Balfa clan helped revitalize Cajun music during the '70s thanks to this recording and appearances at the Newport Music Festival. It's been a while, but just like soul is undergoing a "revival now," Cajun will stick around for a comeback.

INTERESTING FACT: The brothers' hometown, Mamou, despite having only 3,500 residents as of the 200 census, is regarded as the "capitol of Cajun music."

Parlez Nous A Boire by The Balfa Brothers on Grooveshark

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