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Steve Riley and The Mamou Playboys

Dominos

(Rounder; US: 4 Oct 2005; UK: 3 Oct 2005)

Is it possible to hate this CD, I mean, honestly despise and loathe it? Of course it is. People can learn to hate anything. In this case, though, there would have to be a history behind the hatred—perhaps your neighbours like to come home at three in the morning and play Cajun music at top volume so that by now the to-and-fro sawing noise makes you want to rip your ears off and carry them around in your palms as Sam Neill did with his eyeballs in Event Horizon, or perhaps you’ve grown up with friends who’ve told you that anything that smacks of country music, even country music in French, is a joke. Perhaps Steve Riley stole your dog. I have no idea. My point is that Dominos seems so plainly and straightforwardly good that there should be no reason to dislike it that doesn’t involve something other than the sound of the music coming out of your speakers.


‘Cajun’ is a corruption of ‘Acadien’, after the French settlers of Acadie who were driven out of their home in the northern United States and fled south, settling in Louisiana. The roots of Cajun music sit firmly in Europe and you can hear them in this album, which is alive with jaunty waltz melodies. Cajun has also been influenced by American country music—the album is alive with two-steps. The music is quick and strutting and the musicians sing in French dialect with an accent that comes across like the melodious, sliding honk of musical swans.


David Greely, the band’s fiddler, does most of the singing, followed by Steve Riley, and then Sam Broussard. Riley is an accordionist and Broussard plays guitar. No one in the band is dedicated solely to vocals and not all of the tracks on Dominos are songs. “Elise”, written by Riley after the birth of his first child, (who appears on the front of the album, sitting on her father’s knee in a white dress) is a quick-paced instrumental piece that gives the accordion, the fiddle and the guitar each a chance in turn to step forward and take control of the tune. “Napoleon B. Frugé” is a medley of two waltzes and a reel taken from the repertoire of Denis McGee, the Cajun fiddler who died in 1989 at the age of 96. He was old enough to have been playing in the years before the accordion began to muscle in on the fiddle’s leading place in the Cajun line-up, and for this track Steve Riley drops his accordion and takes up the role of second fiddle, partnering Greely as McGee once partnered his fiddling brother-in-law Sady Courville. McGee’s other partners included Amédé Ardoin, whose compositions also appear on Dominos in the form of a medley, this one titled, “Ardoin Medley”.


The most appealing tracks, however, are the ones with words. One of the standouts, “Marie Mouri”, is an adaptation of a poem written by a slave named Pierre prior to the American Civil War. The inlay, which is printed in both French and English, translates the lyrics. “Dear little bird. / What are you doing? / You’re jumping. / You’re singing. / Don’t you know / Marie is no more? / Marie has died, Marie has died.” Somehow this is even sadder because we don’t know who Marie is. She’s all the Maries who have ever died, ever died. “Les Clefs De La Prison” is a three-part a capella harmony developed from a 1934 recording by Alan Lomax. The song is so strong that I had to play it again before I wrote that last sentence to make sure that the fiddle wasn’t involved. No, all they do is sing.


This interplay between different generations of Louisianans—a tune to honour a birth, a poem to honour a death, old songs played by a new band, the inclusion of a waltz, “Éspère Jusqu’à  Je Finis De Pleurer”, written by the father of the band’s drummer, Kevin Dugas – is, apparently, the driving idea behind the album. The title was chosen to highlight the way a person’s behaviour will affect the future, as a domino will tilt forward and knock down the one in front of it. A sense of continuity like this must seem particularly important when your French-speaking minority has all the force of the English-speaking U.S. mainstream bearing in on it, but the band has such a substantial bedrock of ability to draw on that they never sound as if they’re straining to get their message across. Dominos is fun. Leave your ears attached to your head and tell the neighbours you’ve got something to share with them; chase down your childhood friends and play this album to convince them that music in French, even if it smacks of country, can be rather excellent.

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By Michael Stephens
31 Dec 1994
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