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They’ve got fiddle rhythm


The new album by Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, Bon Rêve, has been called "the Sgt. Pepper of Cajun music." After beginning as a traditional Cajun band 15 years ago, Riley and the Playboys veered into experimentation. Riley acknowledges that the previous two albums "jumped all over the place, but this one is pretty cohesive."

            Bon Rêve is supposed to be a return to a traditional mode. But the Beatlesque diversity of sound on the album reveals that if you try to go home again after being out in the world, you will bring a little of the world back with you.

            Not that Cajun music is some pure musical form that cannot be sullied. Far from it. When pressed to describe the sound of an old-time Cajun dancehall band, Riley draws a distinction. He cites Walter Mouton and the Scott Playboys as emblematic of the Breaux Bridge/Lafayette sound, which employs drums and steel guitar and has more of honky-tonk feel.

            He contrasts that with the more rural sound of the Mamou area, which originally used no drum kit and an acoustic guitar carried the bass line. The Balfa Brothers are representative of this sound and it was the starting point for the Mamou Playboys.

            I ask Riley if some of the Playboys' music could be called "swamp pop."

            "That was just '50s rock 'n' roll," he says, "but then you'd hear an accordion in it somewhere. There were a lot of regional hits and some national ones, like Phil Phillips' 'Sea of Love' and Fats Domino's 'Walking to New Orleans.' The Beatles pretty much ended it."

            But it lives on in southwest Louisiana; one of the bands that Riley plays with when he is home is the Little Band of Gold, anchored by legendary swamp-pop drummer Warren Storm. The soul of versatility, Riley also sits in with a band called Racines ("Roots"), which includes Balfa Toujours' Kevin Wimmer and Charivari's Mitch Reed, both players from more strictly traditional bands.

            Steve Riley began playing the single-row accordion (standard 10-button Cajun model) 22 years ago at age 13. About a decade ago he started playing the three-row "Italian" accordion; you can hear it on "Jamais une autre chance" from Bon Rêve.

            One difference between Cajun music and most zydeco is the interplay of the accordion and the fiddle (the fiddle is often absent in zydeco bands). They may double up and play the melody together, have the accordion take the rhythm and the fiddle lead, or reverse it. All of this can happen in the course of one tune. But, says Riley: "If I'm holding the accordion, I'll kick off the tune."

            Riley is also an accomplished fiddler, and he and David Greeley, the co-founder of the Playboys, play together on several tracks of the new album. Recently, on National Public Radio some alt-folk know-it-all said that, "the fiddle is not a rhythm instrument."

            When you hear the Cajun twin fiddles you will realize how seriously wrong that is. Cajun fiddlers play two strings at a time, producing both a drone and harmony, with one player taking the lead and the other rhythm. It is, to put it mildly, a stirring sound.

            Intrigued by his surname, I asked Riley about his heritage. He said that both his parents were French speakers. His mother's people came directly from France and his father's from Canada, but "the Irish have been in Louisiana for a long time. Some of the great Cajun players were Irish, like Dennis McGee."

            Riley has toured in Ireland and likes Irish traditional music, but doesn't know the tunes. I allow that you can only do so much in one life, and he says, "Well, I still got time."

            The Playboys have toured in French Canada and his voice brightens when I mention Quebecois band La Bottine Souriante. "We had a great time playing with those guys," he says. Knowing that the Acadians became Cajuns in the 18th century, I asked if the two bands knew the same traditional tunes.

            After a pause, Riley said softly, "No, we had to teach each other our own tunes."

Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys will appear Saturday, June 5, at Harmony House, 58 East Main Street, Webster, at 8 p.m. Esther Brill will lead a dance lesson at 7:15 p.m. Tix: $10. 533-1616