by Daniel Garrett
Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, Grand Isle
Produced by Charles (“C.C.”) Adcock
Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, 2010
Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys,
Best of Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys
Compiled by Steve Riley, David Greely, and Sam Broussard
The accordion, fiddle, and French language that distinguish Cajun and Creole music can be heard on the album Grand Isle by Steve Riley and the Mamou Plays, Louisiana Cajun musicians who have taken Cajun tradition in hand and transformed aspects of it: accordionist and singer Steve Riley, fiddler and singer David Greely, guitarist and singer Sam Broussard, bassist Brazos Huval, and drummer Kevin Dugas. The band performs in Louisiana towns such as Breaux Bridge, Eunice, Henderson, Lafayette, Lake Charles, Mamou, Opelousas, and—in Australia and Japan, and in different cities in Europe and the United States. The music of Cajuns—French immigrants who first settled in Canada before being exiled anew, finding their way to Louisiana—is shaped by both sorrow and joy; and the band’s musicians have listened to different kinds of melodies and rhythms. In the compositions of Grand Isle, some of the songs have a vintage sound—partly due to how they were recorded—but there are also rhythms and tones that would be familiar in rock music, as in “Dancing Without Understanding,” which brings to mind the Eagles. The singing in the churning “Chatterbox” is puckish and punkish, and the band turns “No Regrets,” the Edith Piaf song, into a grand, lamenting country ballad. The music of “Waltz of Sorrow” has a clarity that prevents emotion from being cloying; and in “Honest Papas Love Their Mamas Better,” the singer declares, “They live, they laugh, they love. It makes their little world seem better.”
On the jacket cover for the album Grand Isle, there is a photograph of a bird soaked in dark, drowning oil; and as oil has been one of the major industries—alone with agriculture and seafood—in Louisiana, the besieged bird is an image that resonates in both life and art. In the Robert Flaherty film Louisiana Story (1948), a film accepted as a classic, we see a Cajun boy in a canoe, with a pet raccoon, going through the lakes and marshes of Louisiana, encountering the threat of nature (an alligator) and an encroaching oil industry. The boy is welcomed by the oil rig workers, who are amused by him, but life in the area is disrupted when there is a rig accident. Can the tradition of the boy’s simple Cajun life, in which travel is often by foot and boat, and food (rabbit, fish) is found in the rough, survive the encounter with great machinery and the profit motive? Should it? Tradition is useful, though it is not always known, respected, or utilized; and yet it does not address every question. Tradition can be a great foundation, but the house—or civilization—to be built is new, ours, to be made out of the materials we can afford, or must find, for the very particular life we have been living or want to live. What happens in the old film is one story, one of an infinite number. Human beings have told stories to befriend, to turn strangers into family and community, and to distract and entertain, and to teach lessons in how to live; and some of those stories have been told in film and some in books and some in music—as in the work of Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys on the musical group’s song collections Grand Isle and Best of Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys—with some of the better-known stories forming many of the traditions that have bound us.
Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys have a song “This is the Time for Change,” which Riley said was inspired by recent events—natural and manmade disasters—in Louisiana. It may be a serious song, but something in it reminds me of the fairground—and yet, in the song, Riley’s voice has the grain of age—it is drier and thinner, but has more authority than in the past. The once sweetly goofy-looking boy is now a dignified man. He has done work he is proud of, he has a family, he has traveled, he knows both the price of things and their worth—and he knows what can be lost.
Love might be lost. Culture might be lost. They must be praised or mourned, as the situation requires. “It’s Lonely” has a downbeat rhythm, and might be a crying in your beer or slow dance song. “Pierre” is voice, fiddle, and beat; forceful and intimate, vintage and burning. The songs “Grand Isle” and “Lyons Point” commemorate real places. The singing in “Too Much,” about current events, seems slurred and then one notices that certain words are given clear emphasis; and the song’s rhythm is propulsive.
How many people know the music of Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys; or are likely to learn of it? Often people lament that the music industry is in a crisis, and that music criticism is as well: the multiple sources for finding and commenting on music make it hard to identify and push a few artists forward and up, for the industry to self-select its preferred stars, allowing them fame and wealth, leaving others to struggle vainly to achieve the same. More music is available and known by smaller populations, but fewer musicians are loved by all of us. The real loss has less to do with fame or money than with a leveling of standards and a reduction in shared culture. Who are the artists who have mastered their craft, able to produce lasting art; able to signify the important emotions and ideas in the culture, for now and in the future? When Rolling Stone magazine published its “Artists of the Decade” list (Issue 1094/1095: December 24, 2009-January 7, 2010), it named Bruce Springsteen, Radiohead, Kanye West, Beyonce, Arcade Fire, M.I.A., Jack White, and U2; and while not a bad list, containing as it does a certain diversity and predictability, it raises question. Are Springsteen and U2 reflexive listings, part of the magazine’s desperate affirmation of the established white male rock tradition with which its editors identify? Are Arcade Fire and M.I.A. really the best in their fields, or simply the most attractive at the time the list was made? Where are the assessment, accomplishment, and representation of European-classical music, and jazz, blues, country, folk, dance, and traditional international music to be found?
Similar questions could be asked when recent year-end lists were assembled and presented, such as those in New York magazine (December 13, 2010) and Time magazine (December 20, 2010). Nitsuh Abebe, a writer whose work I have liked, acknowledged that “It’s harder and hard to say what defined the year. It depends on what music you follow,…” and “I spent most of the past year listening to music more like a normal person than a critic, which means my favorites are odd ones—as particular as yours,” before announcing a list that included albums by Vampire Weekend, The-Dream, Sleigh Bells, Big Boi, Male Bonding, Janelle Monae, Quadron, Kanye West, Das Racist, and Robyn (New York). Is it no longer possible to expect a critic for a respected and read publication—with time, money, and other resources—to be able to research, sample, and be discerning enough to present a more comprehensive list than an ordinary music listener? That may compliment the taste of readers—placing their pedestrian tastes on the same level as his—but it is, definitely and undeniably, an abdication of critical responsibility. It is more shocking to see the “best music” list by Claire Suddath in the old and revered establishment publication Time: it includes the work of Kanye West, Arcade Fire, LCD Soundsystem, The National, Drake, Sufjan Stevens, The Black Keys, Yeasayer, Big Boi, and Beach House—and no classical music, opera, jazz, or serious experimental music in the American tradition. I know that I miss hearing classical music on the radio, and being able to read about it in general interest magazines—even though it is not my preferred music listening. The narrowing of what is considered worth comment in major publications excludes not only certain tastes but certain people and possibilities. That does make a resource such as the internet more important for individual explorations, but it also means that national culture—the culture we all share—and the conversation we have about it have been impoverished.
When Cajun and Creole music are celebrated, they are likely to be praised for their connection to American roots, as if the past were their only justification, as if the music had little to say to lives being lived today. However, I am bored by most notions of authenticity, which among some people—small-minded lovers of the local, and small-spirited connoisseurs of international cool—seems to indicate that to be deep, real, or sincere one has to refuse access to the knowledge and resources of modern life. One is compelled to embrace the confinements of tradition and reject the possibilities of freedom. The funny thing is that is hardly ever the way music or any art works or has ever worked, whether it is classical, modern, or folk: it is influence and incorporation, as much as original inspiration, that defines the creation process for almost any enduring art worth knowing—art takes, and it transforms, giving back something different. Just ask any good musician. Ask Steve Riley. While celebrating the Cajun culture out of which they come, Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys have not turned a deaf ear to the other music being made in the world; and it is possible to hear those influences in Best of Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys.
On the thirty-one song anthology Best of Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, there are traditional songs, and songs by Marc Savoy, Belton Richard, Canray Fontenot, Lawrence Walker, Dennis McGee, Lionel Cormier, as well as the band’s own compositions. Its collaborators include Jean Arceneaux (alias, Barry Ancelet, a University of Louisiana professor of Francophone Studies, who contributed album notes), and Zachary Richard, Christine Balfa, Roddie Romero, Paul Senegal, Billy Ware, and Sonny Landreth. The album’s artwork is eccentric, featuring a painting by Olin (Leroy) Evans, a portrait of a feast attended by different colorful and strange figures, including musicians, some masked. The first song on the album, the French-language “Tiens bon/Hold On” is an invocation of heritage, and some of its lyrics can be translated into “Hold on to your language, hold on to your beautiful song,” and warn “It’s comfort that presents the greatest danger.” The first time I heard the anthology, I thought the music perceptibly communal—a music of conversation and complaint, and of celebration and dancing. There are songs of poetic longing, of flirtation, dancing, drinking, sexual temptation, love, pride, resolve, romantic disloyalty, misery, divorce, exile, poverty, prison, and heaven. It is music with the particular density of southern music, and the agile movement of many different kinds of folk music; and it bears relation to other regional music (Creole music certainly, but possibly bluegrass too) and also to more acclaimed country music and rock music. “Liar,” which has a great rhythm and ferocious emotional tone, is about professional and personal competition; “All Saints’ Day” is focused on honoring the work and knowledge of one’s ancestors and expressing grief and joy; charity and revelry are referred to in the “Mardi Gras Song”; and “Come, Jilie” is a man’s attempt to seduce a woman, Jilie, into risking cold, rain, and mud to come to his prairie home. Clifton Chenier’s song “Zydeco Is Not Salty” acknowledges the idea that the word zydeco refers to someone saying in Creole French that “the snap beans are not salty” (apart from this, there is also the idea that zydeco is related to African words for a praise song that can be danced); and it is the last song on the retrospective anthology.
Producing a career retrospective does something for an artist—makes vivid his development and standards, his achievement; and usually it both disciplines and invigorates. That explains some of the energy to be found in the songs on Grand Isle, by Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, an album that takes a look at the American south, particularly Louisiana, and features an Allison Bohl photograph on its cover of an oil-smeared bird, referring to the year 2010 oil-drilling catastrophe that threatened wildlife in the Gulf area. “We don’t put out an album unless we have something to say,” Steve Riley told musician-writer Dege Legg of the Independent Weekly (“Stepping Out the Box,” January 26, 2011), of the band he formed when he was 18.
“It’d been five years since they made a record,” said C.C. Adcock of the album Grand Isle, produced by Adcock, who has performed with rock-and-roll pioneer Bo Diddley and zydeco master Buckwheat Zydeco and previously produced the Riley/Mamou Playboys controversial recordings Bayou Ruler (1998) and Happy Town (2001). (C.C. Adcock has been known in the last few years for his work on music for the Louisiana vampire series on HBO, “True Blood.”) Regarding the Riley/Mamou Playboys work, Adcock expanded, “I think things had become a little stale from constantly touring and just the monotony of what it’s like to be a working, touring band these days, which is harder and harder to do—there’s not a lot of people that can do it and still make a decent wage.” Adcock and the band focused on the quality of the songs, as they worked to achieve something different. “The design is like a south Louisiana vinyl listening party; no two records ever sound the same no matter how drunk you get,” guitarist Sam Broussard told Dege Legg.
On Grand Isle, in “Dancing without Understanding,” Steve Riley makes a point of cultural difference (there are differences between and within regions, including differences of language and perspective). Yet, the question is, Do we use our differences to separate us, to inspire contempt or dismissal, or, with affection and respect, to enrich each other? In the production notes by C.C. Adcock, a copy of which was given to me by the band’s publicist Rachel DiGregorio, Adcock acknowledges that in the song affirming Cajun heritage, “Dancing without Understanding,” Riley, the band, and Adcock used musical references to the Thompson Twins, Ah-Ha, and the Wilburys as well as Henley of the Eagles—a common popular heritage.
Of course, the music of Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys is personal. It is founded on recognizable emotions; however, the examination of emotion could be even more acute, more exacting—in a word, more modern. Whereas the accordionist Riley wrote “Dancing without Understanding” with songwriter-scholar Jean Arceneaux, and alone wrote “There is the Time for Change” and “Lyons Point,” guitarist Sam Broussard wrote “Pierre” and “Au Revoir”; and fiddler David Greely wrote “Grand Isle” with Broussard, and Greely wrote “Too Much” with Arceneaux.
In “Chatterbox,” a song inspired by a memorial for a good-time girl, had the writing and producing participation of Quintron, known for eccentricity and for inventive drum machines and whom Adcock calls a New Orleans “garage-punk-pop guru.”
There is a back-and-forth rhythm in “This is the Time for a Change” that made me wonder if someone was using a rub-board; but, apparently, in the song John Friedli plays bongos, Jon Cleary organ, Derek Houston saxophone—with Kelli Jones and Emma Young playing pattycake. I did notice the two-step beat of drummer Kevin Dugas in the song, and there is something festive about the song, but hearing it, I did not think immediately of the Caribbean (Adcock cites Eddy Grant in his notes; and Riley has spoken of ska).
The musical mood becomes melancholy with “It’s Lonely,” written by Camey Doucet. “No Regrets,” the Piaf song written by Michel Vaucaire and Charles Dumont, suggested to the band years ago by music executive Seymour Stein, is the kind of thing the band could do more of: it has a beauty impossible to miss. I am reminded that though women are mentioned in the band’s lyrics, there is not much perceptible femininity in the band’s music—and women, and work by or associated with women, sometimes adds something both sensitive and whole. (You can hear femininity, or something like it, in the music of Frank Sinatra, Sam Cooke, Elvis Presley, and Al Green; and that is part of their complexity and power. They do not seem to be missing anything. Even men in groups, such as the Beatles or the Rolling Stones—whether sentimental or perverse—can seem complete: they refuse no part of their humanity, not the anger or the tenderness.) Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys come close to something as elemental in Morris LeBlanc’s “Waltz of Sorrow,” which Adcock calls a “haunting Acadian waltz. All of the bittersweet stacked harmonies set to that Balfa Brothers strum—accordions and fiddles dovetailing. Tremolo and an electric baritone slide guitar adds an extra low and lonesome whine—like some 18-wheeler blowing down I-10, east of Lake Charles, past the Welsh exit. Classic.”
The song that gives the album is name is, of course, “Grand Isle.” Fiddler David Greely told musician-writer Dege Legg, “I used to camp out in Grand Isle, romping in the surf, daydreaming about becoming a marine biologist, watching dolphins coming up for air from the old Caminada Bridge. It was a funky paradise without any Dairy Queens or McDonald’s. I was sad beyond measure when they fouled it up. I kept thinking, Why can’t we have nice things?”
There is a seriousness of tone in much of the album Grand Isle. I might have preferred crisper production, less vintage, and more sensuality (sensuality may be one of the differences between Creole and Cajun music—Creole music, as made by people of color, has more sensuality). The lyrics of the fast-tempo “Too Much” were inspired by the oil spill. “Honest Papas” is an old song previously recorded by the beloved New Orleans musician Fats Domino, an African-American.
I know that some people remain wary of American southern culture and southerners, particularly regarding history and morality. Good manners—especially when they are expressed selectively—are not an excuse for deception or dishonesty; and personal greed is not a final justification for tribal discriminations and exploitations. It may be important to point out that despite the south’s peculiarities, some of its difficulties are national rather than regional. Its apprehensions and conflicts and fears are shared. I was reminded of that when I saw again Steven Spielberg’s Amistad, a film that I had been ambivalent about when I first saw it in the late 1990s (for its presentation of the African savage—merely savage when the film opens, then nobly savage at the film’s end), but a film that I appreciate more now for how it raises questions of responsibility, theft, liberty, and justice: Africans who were working and taking care of their families are kidnapped, imprisoned, and transported by boat to the Americas, and they escape their chains on ship and rebel and try to return to Africa but fail, finding themselves in the United States on trial for murder of the ship’s crew. Do they have rights or are they property? What is the original crime, murder or rather enslavement? The film enriches the story by referring to the importance of African and American ancestors and the best hopes expressed in the founding of the United States, and the ideal of family unity and restoration, and the example of Christ as savior and sufferer: it places important ideals against horrible facts. In suggesting the commonality of ancestor worship among Africans and Americans, the film provides a bridge for humanity, for the recognition of mutual dignity. However, in the film, at a formal presidential dinner, a representative southerner threatens civil war, if the Africans are freed. The threat of southern revolt—and the northern fear of that revolt—maintained the bondage of Africans for decade after decade. Southerners must come to terms with that: privately and publicly. There is a very small beginning in that direction in the recording of “Pierre,” inspired by a poem by an enslaved African. The album Grand Isle ends with “Au Revoir,” a sad goodbye, written by Sam Broussard for his mother’s funeral.
Daniel Garrett grew up in Louisiana, before moving to New York, and as a boy enjoyed reading, drawing, music, walking in nature, and he worked on high school and college publications; and, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, he is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Offscreen, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. “I have been interested in diverse cultures always—absolutely, consistently, deeply, happily, profoundly, thoroughly,” says Garrett, who originated two internet logs: one focused on culture and social issues, “City and Country, Boy and Man,” and one focused on books, “The Garrett Reader.” He has been writing a novel, A Stranger on Earth.