Putumayo Presents Cajun can be a fine starting point for the new listener. Rather than an historic survey, the compilation is dedicated to contemporary Cajun artists whose material represents the genre as it exists today. Cajun has made a remarkable resurgence especially over the past fifteen years, a formidable comeback for a music that hovered close to extinction just forty years ago. More remarkable if you consider that Cajun today is more widely popular than at any time in its history. With half of the 12 songs leased from Rounder’s roots-music catalog, the listener is assured of benefiting from other people’s good taste in the zesty Southwestern Louisiana music. Although just listening to this would make any one want to head out to a real Cajun dance club.
As to how the beginnings of this music traveled with the Acadian people after they were displaced from their homeland by the British, for a quick and chilling outline of the “Grand Derangement” read the liner notes. The extensive liner notes offer a well-informed summary of the history of Cajun music and provide an interesting description of each track and performing group.
Cajun music is first and foremost known now as the Cajun’s preferred music for dancing, their music powering the weekend gatherings called bal de maison , or house dances. On the weekends, people could get together and bodies temporarily freed from the rigors of hard manual labor could use energy to perform reels, jigs, polkas, square dances, mazurkas, and waltzes. While most selections on this collection are upbeat dance music, with lyrics sung as always in traditional French, one song represents the Cajun waltz.
David Doucet’s eerie dark “Balfa Waltz” provides a glimpse into an occasional brooding melancholy, the mood carried by his lyrical intonation over the modal chords picked out from his steel-stringed acoustic guitar. For most dance music in the pre-electric days, the rhythm was supplied by items easily at hand, wooden spoons clapped together or rake tines bent into triangles, and each in their more modern form is still in regular use. The singers tended to pitch their voices high to be heard above the din of the gatherings and the sound of hard soles hitting the wooden dance floors. When accordians appeared in Louisiana in the late 1800s, they could be played loudly and became a mainstay in Cajun music. Today, the accordian and the fiddle are the two primary lead instruments in Cajun music.
“L’Oranger” (or “Orange Tree”) by Marce Lacoutre features full instrumentation by fiddler Michael Doucet, accordianist Errol Verret and percussionist Billy Ware. Typically, Cajun music was (and still is) dominated by male performers. The women developed “home music”, a form whose complex melody or lyrics sung a cappella made up for the lack of accompaniment. In this adventurous arrangement of an old drinking song, Marce joins her transcendent voice with a sterling instrumental background.
Expansive Cajun dance music shows up steadily on the tracks. The slightly droning twin fiddles, pumping, skipping accordian and exquisite singing on “Les Tracas de Todd Balfa” by Balfa Toujours is hard to beat. Balfa Toujours (whose name means “Balfa Forever) honors the memory of Dewey Balfa with their name. Over time, Cajun came to be poorly regarded, becoming nearly synonymous with “poor white trash”. “Cajun” as a word began as a derogatory slurring of “Acadian”, a bit similar in intent in the South as pronouncing “Nigra” for “Negro”. As a music, Cajun was dismissed as rather boisterous “chanky-chank” music. The culture and music already isolated geographically, each were increasingly marginalized even in its own geography. By the late 1950s, Cajun was close to extinction until Dewey Balfa took the stage at the Newport Folk Festivals and tore into his knee-slapping, rhythmic two-steps and delicate waltzes, winning the hearts of the festival-goers.
An outside interest in Cajun developed, albeit by a rather small specialized listening audience. Soon after, Cajun music was introduced to a much wider welcome by a rather unlikely vehicle. The traditional sound of Cajun was slightly altered for a recording. The end result was that Cleveland Crochet’s “Sugar Bee” was a smash in the first year of the 1960s, although this crossover first-ever Cajun hit was actually most un-Cajun, being styled with a slight rock and roll backbeat and performed in most un-Cajun English.
To my way of thinking, Chris Strachwitz with his small Arhoolie record label did much to keep Cajun music available to people outside of Louisiana in the ‘60s and ‘70s. He kept Cajun records in print and available to the interested public and was constantly in motion promoting a variety of music performances and festivals dedicated to regional music. Additionally, he almost single-handedly saved the much funkier but Cajun-inspired zydeco music from languishing into extinction by searching out Clifton Chenier and renewing the musician’s career. An interest in searching out the Cajun influences in zydeco helped spread Cajun’s reputation. In the early ‘70s, Doug Kershaw popularized Cajun fiddle in his blend of Louisiana-spiced country music often heard on the AM radio. With a little continued attention here and there, when nurtured and nourished by people who honestly cared for the music, Cajun music continued to revivify. Today, most Americans at least can recognize Cajun music immediately and the music is the most popular it has ever been. Musicians young and old have returned to Cajun, people have returned to Cajun dance clubs, music festivals dedicated to Cajun are opening and blossoming, and active newsgroups and internet sites are spreading the message even farther afield.
Putumayo as a record company began as a way to introduce people to great contemporary world and folk music. Over 160 releases later, the company is still faithful to that original mission while staying upbeat about it. From the beginning, Putumayo has maintained a social conscience they continue to act upon. In the liner notes of their releases, Putumayo typically nestles a list of the causes the company supports financially together with a descriptive paragraph—a gentle reminder these causes are worthy of even more support. Therefore, I don’t really mind if Putumayo insists on being holistic and includes a regional recipe in the liner notes, especially if it happens to be a good one like the one for red beans and rice with this Cajun release. To my way of thinking, if my family has a meal or two centered around red beans and rice we might have a little extra moola to throw to some of the causes that we happen to share with Putumayo.