By Daniel Garrett
Produced and Engineered by Joel Savoy
Assistant Engineer, Scott Ardoin
Valcour Records, 2008
Christine Balfa, Plays the Triangle
Produced by Chas Justus
Recorded and Mixed by Joel Savoy
Valcour Records, 2008
Feufollet, Cow Island Hop
Produced by Feufollet and Ivan Klisanin
Valcour Records, 2008
Some of us are searching always for something else: we wonder and we wander; we wander and we wonder—and a feeling, an idea, a look, a sound, compels us beyond what we know. Sometimes you cannot go home again—but you do; and if you are lucky, and more importantly if you are wise, both yourself and home seem transformed, different from what you expected or remembered, better. Being neither lucky nor, apparently, wise, I have found the consolation of a little good music: the work of Cedric Watson, Christine Balfa, and the band Feufollet. Feufollet has won over the hearts, minds, and feet of Louisiana locals. Christine Balfa’s work is abstract, solitary, yet refreshing triangle music. In the accordionist and fiddler Cedric Watson’s first self-titled solo album following his collaborative work with several well-established music groups—Dexter Ardoin and the Creole Ramblers, Jeffery Broussard and the Creole Cowboys, and the much admired Pine Leaf Boys—Watson has brought forth music that is the equal to some of the best music I have heard. Cedric Watson’s is a sound that would be recognizable as music anywhere on the planet, even to those who had not heard ever the Louisiana Creole genre called zydeco before: his music evokes folkways, modern life, and timeless rhythms.
Cedric Watson’s music contains taut, ringing, rhythmic, beautifully coordinated instrumentation, including an accordion and fiddle, creating a dance rhythm that sparkles with short bursts of musical phrases, sometimes helped by a yelping male voice or sung French declarations and observations. Watson’s musical companions here, among others, include Jeffery Broussard on electric bass, Chas Justus on guitar, and Anna Laura Edmiston and Kelli Jones singing behind Watson. In his “Cedric Zydeco,” Watson makes the word “oh” carry the kind of rumination that belongs to both rhythm-and-blues and country music. “J’ai Ete Tout Autor Du Pays” sounds African, with its strong percussion and voice; it is a traditional zydeco piece, arranged by Watson, a Texas-born musician who made himself at home in Lafayette, Louisiana.
Zydeco is the music of Louisiana’s Creole people, the Africans, French, Spanish, and Native Americans and their descendants. Zydeco, a music of private life, of rural homes and church halls and dance clubs, drew on the music of its origin time, on blues, waltzes, and country music, and some of those elements still can be heard in it today. Boozoo Chavis and Clifton Chenier made zydeco popular in the mid-1950s; and the first song on Watson’s eponymous album is a Michael Doucet song and the second song is by Boozoo Chavis and the rest are a few zydeco standards, and the remainder Cedric Watson originals, such as Watson’s “Two-Step De Bouki,” which does not duplicate the sound of the other songs. Variety is one of the marks of talent. Listening to Cedric Watson’s album, it becomes fun to identify melody as a singing through the instruments, something charming that speaks and chants.
Cedric Watson is giving new vibrance to zydeco music, a music that has been intertwined with the life of the people of south Louisiana: in Lafayette, it can be heard at the Festival International de Louisiane, and in the Blue Dog Café and the restaurants Prejean’s and Randol’s, where locals lunch on shrimp etouffee or a po-boy shrimp sandwich. Zydeco might be heard at a backyard boucherie (pig butchering and cooking) or crawfish boil, along with rhythm-and-blues, rock, country music, or hip-hop. In New Iberia, zydeco might float through the air at an event at the Shadows-on-the-Teche mansion or a blast of it shot through a car window passing by the men’s clothing store Wormser’s or at Belmont camp. It may lighten the mood after a visit to the Conrad Rice Mill or the Antique Rose Ville restaurant. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear it at the Teche Café and Charlie Broussard’s grocery store in Loreauville, known for its boudin sausage, or in St. Martinville’s Lake Fausse Pointe park or at the town’s okra and pepper festivals. Even in New York, so far away from where the music started, I was able to hear Buckwheat Zydeco and Rosie Ledet, exemplary musicians.
Yet, a test for Cedric Watson is his ability to reach people beyond the local province. The provincial question is often, Is he from here? I heard an educated woman (a librarian) ask that question about a range of people—including a doctor and a homebuilder—and I wondered, What does that have to do with anything? Often the provincial is loved and supported just because it is what always has been known. Often the strange is rejected, despite whatever knowledge and skills come with it. The great metropolitan locales offer greater competition, more rigorous tests of character, knowledge, resources, and skills. In Louisiana, certain institutions are prepared to meet those tests: such as, the University of Louisiana, and Louisiana State University; the New Orleans Museum of Art, and the Ogden Museum of Southern Art; the literary journals Southern Review and Louisiana Literature; the Robinson Film Center of Louisiana, and the Acadiana Center for Film and Media; the film magazine Louisiana Film and Video and the music magazine Offbeat; the New Orleans Opera Association, Baton Rouge Opera, and Opera Lafayette, along with the ballet companies and symphony orchestras in different towns; Lafayette’s KRVS radio and other public radio stations; and the intellectual, political organizations Blueprint Louisiana and the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana. Will the musical work intended to perpetuate folk culture, and the musical work intended to become popular culture, match the highest standards?
I think Cedric Watson’s music is very good, and can hold its own with music from anywhere. Cedric Watson, an entertainer as much as a serious musician, has performed his music in France, Haiti, Nova Scotia, and Spain, evidence of his work’s appeal. It is great to have genuinely beautiful music delivered with so much energy and lightness, though some of the songs are sad and have short, dense (heavier) phrases. “Cochon De Lait” is fast, firm, shimmering; “Tee Black” sparkles too; the traditional “La Valse de Grand Basile,” with accordion and voice, and a heavy drum beat (two beats, space, two beats, space), is likely to appeal to those with a fondness for country music; “Zozo Noir” is gorgeous, and “Ayou T’As Couche?” is good, “Tu Seras Avec Moi” is sad; and you can dance cheerfully to “TexaCreole Two-Step.” “Lala” has a distant echo of the blues, while “La Vielle Chanson De Mardi Gras” might be the rare example of a song intended for a public event that is fun, more than an anthem. There’s nothing wrong with “Ma Chere Grandmere” and “La Valse A Bois Sec,” and the song “Zydeco Du Violon” offers a sound that is an invitation to party.
Christine Balfa’s surprising music pleases me nearly as much as that of Cedric Watson. It is music that makes me think. Christine Balfa’s album, Christine Balfa Plays the Triangle, introduces the listener to music and its contemplation—the music may be more than sound: it may be the perception of, and adaptation to, sound, with a deepening resonance, a kind of trance that envelopes the listener. The Louisiana Cajun musician Christine Balfa, the daughter of fiddler Dewey Balfa of the Balfa Brothers group, has been known to play guitar (with her band Balfa Toujours), but does not play that here. Christine Balfa plays the triangle, and there is no accordion, fiddle or other instrumentation: she is a musician alone, and her music leaves the listener alone with sound, alone with himself, herself; it is elemental. The singular notes in “L’Anse Au Paille” form a repeating rhythm, first light, then somewhat heavier, then light again, and “The Balfa Waltz” has a three-part rhythm, accompanied by a noise that could be a person or a cow (farm life is invoked), and “La Port En Arriere” is particularly meditative. Balfa’s continues and expands a tradition of music made by the descendants of French-speaking settlers from Canada, exiles, who made a home in south Louisiana, Cajuns; and her work here might be called an experiment in sound and culture. How alone, how different, can one be and still belong? There is a piece called “Blues De Port Arthur,” and I cannot say that it sounds like the blues to me in terms of beat, rhythm, or tone, nor did it make me think of Port Arthur, a Texas town I visited long ago; if anything, there might be a closer affinity to jazz, gamelan music, or the work of the ice instrumentalist Terje Isungset—but with all these named possibilities I am reaching, reaching beyond the obvious for some connection to music that is very unique. The songs here—“Valse D’Heritage,” “Tit Fer A Grand-Pere”—do not bore. “Cheres Joues Roses” has a focused but slightly hiccupping rhythm. One might recognize the repetition in this triangle music—“Two Step D’Acadien,” “Blues De Tac-Tac,” “Triangle Club Special,” and “La Valse D’Orphelin”—but there is also amusement, contemplation, delight. So, listen to the quick-tempo of “Bayou Teche Two-Step” and “Pine Grove Blues” and the other songs and you may conclude—beyond your initial shock—that this is a good album.
Feufollet—a name that can be translated as crazy fire: and the much-traveled music band the holds the name is known to have brought Louisiana’s Cajun music into the twenty-first century, with a respect for tradition, a spirit of fun, and an ability to rock. The group Feufollet’s smart, young musicians—Chris Stafford, Chris Segura, Anna Laura Edmiston, Joshua Clegg Caffery, Michael Stafford, and Phillippe Billeaudeaux, with Taylor Guarisco—have developed a reputation as being able to bring the party in a place, Lafayette, where pleasure is usually pervasive but rarely perverse (hey, the religion in much of Louisiana is piously Catholic). I cannot say that I have been as taken with the band’s music as some of its admirers, but Feufollet’s album Cow Island Hop is no disappointment. (I’m always willing to give the benefit of a doubt to musicians who are as likely to mention Rimbaud as Yeats as they are the Savoy family and the band Spoon, though Feufollet requires no special charity.) As with the music of Cedric Watson and Christine Balfa, the music of Feufollet is music of the present, of now: these musicians choose to honor tradition but are more inclined toward improvisation and invention than imitation. Valcour Records has a right to be proud of these talented artists and their albums, which are beautiful in conception, execution, and presentation: the album jacket of Feufollet’s Cow Island Hop features a field with cows, a house, a tree, an airplane flying near the moon, all quite recognizable, and yet somehow surreal. Feufollet’s music, too, has its mystique. I like the uptempo rhythm and dense beat of Feufollet’s “Prends Courage,” and the sprightly rhythm of the song “Cow Island Hop,” and the brassy, countryish “Eunice Waltz” in which Anna Laura’s voice reminds me, just a little, of early Linda Ronstadt, a favorite singer of my own youth. The voices on the album—whether female or male—have character, and seem to embody story and place on their own, whether with the country beat of “Blues De Dix Ans,” the swinging music of “Madame Bosso,” or in the ballad “Chere Bebe Creole.” The band can seem to expand its sound, so that it is easy to imagine a big band of decades past, as in “Femme L’A Dit,” which—to my ears—is a complaint that waltzes. “Chere Beth,” and the lamenting “Sur Le Bord De L’Eau” and the upbeat “Jolie Fille” and “Je M’en Vas Dans Le Chemin” are Feufollet songs that I look forward to hearing again. Now: with the most expectant hope, and the most inquisitive intelligence, I am searching for something else.
Daniel Garrett is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, AllAboutJazz.com, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, Film International, Hyphen, IdentityTheory.com, Muse-Apprentice-Guild.com, Offscreen.com, Option, PopMatters.com, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, WaxPoetics.com, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett’s web log at Blogger.com, focused on culture and society, is called “City and Country, Boy and Man.” He can be reached at the e-mail address D.Garrett.Writer@gmail.com.