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Mama Rosin’s Spicy, Sonic Stew

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Mama Rosin is well aware of that history, and they played off of it that night at Café des Amis. One of the songs the band played was the upbeat dance tune “The Pine Leaf Two-Step”, by the contemporary local Cajun band the Pine Leaf Boys. Mama Rosin had recorded the song on its Brule Lentement album, but changed the lyrics and roughed up the rhythm and the beat. The song was still unmistakably Cajun, but it sounded just as much like rock ’n’ roll.

It was as though Mama Rosin had been one of those local bands Savoy was talking about who had to play Hank Williams songs in the forties and rework them for its audience—except when Mama Rosin first recorded its version of “The Pine Leaf Two-Step”, called “Le Pistolet”, there was no audience clamoring to hear the song; hardly anyone outside of southwest Louisiana even knew of its existence. It was as though Mama Rosin was fictionalizing a culture and a community. As it turns out, they were creating a foundation for a future culture and community, for an entire audience.

“The Pine Leaf Two-Step” isn’t the only Cajun song Mama Rosin has reworked. On Bye Bye Bayou, the band turned the folk classic “Sittin’ on Top of the World”, which had been covered by southwest Louisiana’s Hackberry Ramblers in 1934, into a tumbling blues. On Brule Lentement, it took on Rufus Jaganeaux’s early-‘70s Louisiana swamp pop hit “Opelousas Sostan”.

Two years later Mama Rosin released a 7-inch single of “Porte en Arriere”, “a totally fucked up, very punky” version, as Girod described it, of one of Louisiana’s most famous songs. But most notably, on its first album, Tu as Perdu Ton Chemin, in 2008, it transformed an old Cajun standard called “Mama Rosin” into an epic narrative, changing the lyrics and renaming the song
“The Story of Mama Rosin”.

“The original has two accordions, a pedal steel, a rock ’n’ roll guitar, and a double bass,” Girod said. “It’s not a two-step or a waltz. It’s something else. It’s a bit of a rumba. It’s a crossover of a Cajun and a Caribbean record.” “It shows how Cajun music can be mixed with other influences,” Yeterian added. “It fits really well for us.”

Indeed, if nothing else, Mama Rosin’s canon of work is awash with a variety of stylistic influences. In the winter of 2011, the band simultaneously released three singles, all of which maintained Mama Rosin’s trademark sound while experimenting with other forms: South American cumbia, Jamaican mento, and American soul. The band’s latest record, Bye Bye Bayou—Director’s Cut, which came out in June on Canada’s Bonsound label and adds three new songs to 2011’s “Bye Bye Bayou” (while removing two others), shows the influence of Brazilian psychedelia (“Seco e Molhado”), Jonathan Richman’s Modern Lovers (“Down from the South”), and African tribal rhythms (“Jungle Book”).

“Do you know the first album of Dr. John, Gris Gris?” Yeterian asked when I brought up the African influences evident in Mama Rosin’s sound. “It’s one of our all-time favorite records. For us it’s the perfect mix of the early psychedelic era of the sixties and the very roots music of this Cajun and New Orleans jazz style. [People] always say, when we’re explaining Cajun music,

“‘Oh, it’s kind of country music.’ And we say, ‘No way. It’s not country at all.’ Cajun, yes, it’s white. But zydeco is black. And all this comes also from Africa, all this South, all around the Gulf of Mexico. It’s the same history about music. It’s the mixture between white people and black rhythm and Indians and melodies, et cetera. We couldn’t fall into this big pot of music without considering the voodoo African tribal side of it, and we love it.”

“They are a sort of retro band,” Jon Spencer said of Mama Rosin. “They’re playing in a way a kind of traditional music. But they’re smart enough guys to be aware that the thing that does make them different—and what makes any band special—is what they can do that nobody else can do. They draw heavily upon this music, which is foreign to them, but they create something that is true to themselves with it. They have their own voice.”

Girod’s own voice has the rasp of the Clash’s Joe Strummer, but he sprinkles his punk earnestness with the phrasings of Clifton Chenier, the great zydeco originator in the ‘50s who shouted “Et tuoi” with the same unbridled passion Iggy Pop first did “Come on.” Yeterian sings in the same high pitch of the singers found on Cajun music’s early recordings, made in the ‘20s and ’30s. He finds inspiration for his accordion playing there, too.

“Cyril’s got his accordion amplified, and he’s got it distorted, which is really cool,” said Riley, who has his own band, Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, and is also a part of the Grammy-winning group, the Band Courtbouillon. “The accordion used to sound that way on those old recordings because they’re old analog, overdriven recordings. He goes for that tone and that amplified sound.”

In this sense, Mama Rosin is different from other contemporary Cajun bands, which seem intent on trying to replicate the genre’s classics note for note, chord for chord. These bands are arguably too close to the music to radically alter it. They still live among the first generation of traditionalists who continue the struggle to keep that sound alive; everyday they drive by the green metal signs that are cemented into the sidewalks of so many southwest Louisiana main streets, declaring the towns’ names and serving as a reminder of the genre’s progenitors and the respect those names are due.

Joel Savoy’s father, Marc Savoy, for example, is the leading local Cajun music historian, commonly referred to as “the single person most responsible for the survival of French Cajun music.” Joel’s brother is a member of the Band Courtbouillon, and also leads the Pine Leaf Boys, currently one of Cajun music’s most successful bands. To break new ground in a genre, the band Sonic Youth, who did so with punk rock in the ’80s, sang that you had to “kill your idols”. That act gets a lot more complicated when those idols are blood relatives.

This might explain why local Cajun bands try to make music that sounds the way it had if you had been sitting on a shaded porch in Lafayette in 1930 without ever having heard of the Velvet Underground, the Gun Club, or Alan Vega. Mama Rosin, on the other hand, appear more interested in distilling the music as they initially experienced it, on a spinning piece of vinyl with all of the scratches and pops and hiss and distortion that comes from the original, flawed recordings, with all of the false starts and wrong notes and raw spontaneity found there.

“The story is we were big, big Cajun and zydeco fanatics, but fanatics of the old stuff, the records from the fifties [and before],” Girod said. “And we met the young sons from the Savoy family in France. And they were so happy, because when they come to play Cajun music in [Europe], it’s only old people [who go to see them]…. So they invited us to spend Mardi Gras with them in Eunice, close to Lafayette, in 2007…. When we were back in Switzerland, we just realized, we can play Cajun music around the table in roots style as friends.

“But if we want to make something different with that, we won’t do the same as they do down there, because it’s a bit sterile, it’s a bit cliché, and it’s always the same things. The accordion player only plays with the high notes and never uses the bass, and you can do a lot of good stuff with the bass. At that time we found Mama Rosin, really. We decided we want to be inspired by that music, because we know it well, probably better than all the people in Europe, but we want to go far away. That was the goal.”

Switzerland may be most famous for its refusal to muddy its waters during World War II by choosing a side. That stance helped create a stereotype that has been hard to shake and has taken on other forms in a culture well known for its wealthy banks and well dressed bankers, for its five-figure-priced wrist watches, and for the former number one tennis player in the world, Roger Federer, who is so perfectly coiffed on the court that he regularly features the fashionista Anna Wintour among his entourage at matches.

“The Swiss have this reputation for being clinical and overly scrubbed without any actual grit of their own,” said Matt Verta-Ray, who recorded Mama Rosin’s Bye Bye Bayou album and is a part of the Broadway Lafayette project. Verta-Ray, who grew up in Canada, also has his own experimental rockabilly band, Heavy Trash, with Jon Spencer. “I think there’s a thirst among people like Canadians and Swiss to relive, to understand what’s gritty about somebody from [the American South].

“If you grew up in Clarksdale, Mississippi, with blues all around you, there’d be no contrast between what you grew up listening to and what came out of your fingers. But if you’re in Saskatchewan or Nova Scotia or Geneva there’s something missing. You feel a need to have some connection with something real and earthy.” If that’s true, then Mama Rosin is not alone in their country. Switzerland also happens to be home to one of the world’s most famous underground record labels, Reverend Beat-Man’s house of trash blues, Voodoo Rhythm Records.

Beat-Man, as he is known to his friends, is a scratchy-voiced, balding, middle-aged music geek. He’s also a force of nature with a well source of unlimited energy. He fronts his own garage band, the Monsters, and when he’s not on tour with them, he’s often on tour by himself, as a one-man band, simultaneously playing guitar and drums in the trash-blues style his label is known for.

“You can find a Voodoo Rhythm Records t-shirt in every town that we play,” Girod said during our first interview in Breaux Bridge. Fifteen minutes later, a couple from Quebec entered the restaurant with the husband wearing exactly that. “What did I tell you?” Girod said, laughing. “It’s true. It’s crazy.”

Voodoo Rhythm Records is based in Bern, Mama Rosin in Geneva, but the two cities are less than a two-hour’s drive apart. Shortly after Girod and Yeterian’s 2007 trip to Louisiana (Bray joined the band in 2009), Mama Rosin came to the attention of Reverend Beat-Man. “They were in their twenties. They looked like a gang of hip-hop kids, but they had an accordion and a triangle and they were playing punk,” Beat-Man said. “It was just like at a flea market, when you aren’t actually searching for something, but there it is—the treasure you’ve been looking for, for so long.”

“All the Mama Rosin story started by being signed by this label,” Yeterian said. “The Beat-Man said, ‘Hey guys, I want to release something from you.’ We thought, We have to go to the electricity.”

Mama Rosin released its first two records on Beat-Man’s Voodoo Rhythm label. “It’s not 1930 anymore,” Beat-Man said of Mama Rosin’s sound. “It’s the [21st century] where everything is changing. There is so much going on on this planet that your head almost explodes. With the love for Cajun music and the mess in your head… [Mama Rosin] plays music like that, exactly like that.”

As it turns out, Voodoo Rhythm Records is not the only well respected underground record label in Switzerland. In 2009, Girod and Yeterian started their own, Moi J’Connais. The name comes from the Cajun expression meaning, “Yeah, I know,” as in, “Don’t try to fool me.” You can hear the phrase on almost any of the great, old Cajun and zydeco records. One of Moi J’Connais’s first releases was a collection titled Hypnotic Cajun & Obscure Zydeco .

It includes lesser known tracks from some of the great names of the genres: Lawrence Walker & the Wandering Aces, Clifton Chenier, Boozoo Chavis. Moi J’Connais has also released a collection of Italian folk songs, an album by the exotica musician Eden Ahbez, and most recently the early recordings of the underappreciated female Boston garage duo Mr. Airplane Man. Other releases have crossed over into calypso, Mississippi country blues, and ‘60s psychedelic rock. Last year, Moi J’Connais was named the country’s best record label by a Swiss culture organization. Girod and Yeterian used the prize money to open a storefront in Geneva called Bongo Joe. It opens later this month.

“We wanted to show our influences not only through our own music, but also with this label,” Yeterian said. “We started with this little compilation of songs we like. And now we are growing.”

The Swiss government has also shown great support for the band, having sent Mama Rosin as representatives of the country’s artistic offerings to China (“The people in the audience were screaming,” Yeterian said. “We felt like the Beatles”) and Poland in the last two years.

“Switzerland is very small, and the government tries to help Swiss underground music,” Beat-Man said. “My band the Monsters played at CBGB’s years back, and the Swiss embassy showed up to party with us. The same in Argentina, they showed up and they were more drunk than we were. Switzerland has a bad name in the world because of the banks and Nazi gold, but it’s different in Switzerland. The people can talk with the president, and the underground talks with the upperground.”

Still, there are disadvantages that come with being from Switzerland. “When a band comes from abroad, like the US, to Europe, people get excited about this,” Yeterian said. “If a Swiss band comes to the US, it’s not the case.”

That might explain why only ten people showed up to Mama Rosin’s show in Austin—eight if you don’t count the two members of the opening band.

The shows in Lafayette were far more successful. The night after the concert in Texas, Mama Rosin shared a bill at a club called Artmosphere with Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys. Despite Mama Rosin not going on until well after midnight, the house remained packed for the band’s entire set, split evenly between couples dancing two-steps and others dancing, as Yeterian called it, “rock ’n’ roll”.

The show included a cover of Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Run through the Jungle”, which happens also to be on the Gun Club’s Miami album. Near the end, Mama Rosin played “Wivenhoe”, off of Bye Bye Bayou, a song about the band’s fans in a small town in southeast England and the bond Mama Rosin has formed with them.

“Wivenhoe” has a guitar solo for which Girod uses a pedal he refers to as “the story of love and hate.” The pedal has only one sound, complete distortion, and Girod’s never quite sure how loud it will be. At Artmosphere, it sounded louder than the Velvet Underground ever had. To close, Mama Rosin broke into an extended version of the zydeco standard, “Bon Temps Rouler”. The room shook from all the dancing. Even Riley stayed for the whole show, something he hadn’t done for another band in years.

“I’ve never seen a band interpret the music that way,” he later said. “I mean, just so raw. It was real, it was catchy, it was hooky. I’ve been playing Cajun music a long time. It’s not too often someone comes around that has such a fresh new take on the whole thing.” He added, “I wouldn’t mind touring with those guys. I wouldn’t mind my band opening up for them. I think it’d be great for Cajun music. I think it would turn a lot of young people onto it. They’re young, They’ve got that young energy. They’ve got a look about them.”

Riley’s response was echoed by the thousands of people who caught Mama Rosin over the next two days at the festival. Both a local paper and the public radio program The World did a story on them. Savoy, who booked the band’s first show of the tour, at Café des Amis, but who hadn’t seen them live until then, was equally impressed. “I’ve never put out a band that’s not from Louisiana on Valcour,” he said, but “we’re talking about doing something next October.”

“[Cajun music] has to continue to evolve and change to fit. Otherwise, it’s never going to appeal to any new group,” he said. “It has to be able to attract new audiences. If the audience dies, then the music’s going to die. And the guys from Mama Rosin are the best example of this that I’ve ever heard. They just happen to be from outside Louisiana, but they’re doing things with Cajun music that I think can inspire a whole new generation of people to find out about it, go back and listen to where it comes from, and then keep it alive and keep it breathing.”

After the couple from Quebec had arrived at Café des Amis on that first night and told Mama Rosin that they had rearranged their vacation in the American South to make room for the Mama Rosin show, Yeterian jokingly said to me, “We are stars, you know?” Then, more seriously, he added, “No, we are discovering it. It’s cool. We really feel it in our heart. The tour is already a success when you discover that people came from Quebec to see you.” 

Perhaps the best evidence of the tour’s success came on a late Sunday afternoon after the band’s last performance at the festival and of the tour. Mama Rosin couldn’t take more than ten steps through the grounds without being stopped and complemented by the festival attendees. The three of them were in a hurry to get to a bayou boat ride that had been arranged for them. They would be guided through the swamps of Lafayette by a marijuana-smoking, Jack Daniel’s and Budweiser swilling, toothless, unintelligible, long-gray-bearded boat guide; it seemed like the biggest gesture of embrace the local community could have offered.

I noted this to Yeterian, and he said, “I’ll know we’ve made it when we come back next year and hear someone cover one of our songs.”

David Gendelman is the deputy research editor at Vanity Fair.

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