[23 November 2004]
Vocalist, and guitarist Christine Balfa comes from solid Cajun music ancestry. Her father, Dewey Balfa, made his name in the seminal Cajun band The Balfa Brothers and Christine cut her musical teeth while touring with him across the United States and Europe.
Thus, Balfa Toujours are more than a band; they’re carrying on the tradition as cultural ambassadors. Before the band played a note, Christine Balfa made clear that Balfa Toujours planned on teaching the audience about Cajun French life as manifested in the language and culture of the group’s southwest Louisiana home.
Equally qualified to assist, the rest of the band includes Christine’s husband, Dirk Powell, on accordion and second fiddle and Kim Wimmer, a former Dewey accompanist, on lead fiddle.
The power trio began with a lively version of Powell’s self-penned “Le Two-Step de Bon Café (The Good Coffee Two-Step)”. Powell described the tune as typical “Home style Bayou Music”.
The three projected a rather rustic appearance; their musical instruments showed signs of wear and the performers all wore blue jeans over their black footwear: no cuffs, hems or fancy stitching. They performed energetically, as if playing a hot Louisiana dance gig rather than a sit-down show in a former Czech Slovak social hall. That was the point of course—to show Eastern Iowans what it would be like if they ever went down to a Lafayette roadhouse on a sweaty Saturday night in the middle of summer.
Balfa Toujours played more than a dozen numbers, mostly up beat two-steps, but also managed a few languid cuts. There were several musical highlights, including three swinging twin fiddle tunes that featured fast-paced dueling between Wimmer and Powell while Balfa rapidly struck a ringing brass triangle.
Later Powell demonstrated the art of fiddle sticks. According to Powell, in the old days one didn’t just sit and listen to music, one participated. An easy way to do this was for a person to beat on the top of the fiddle strings with two pointy sticks that resembled fat shish kabob skewers while the other person played. Demonstrating, he and Wimmer created ebullient music together using just the single instrument.
The band’s choice of selections nicely represented the sociological and ethnic diversity incorporated by Cajun culture. They included songs by American Indian and African American Cajuns as well as European and Canadian forebears.
Balfa Toujours also played many of the good time tunes one would hear at gumbo festivals, Saturday night fish fries, and house parties. One such tune was a drinking song that went by two names, “My Dear Old Husband” and “The Drunk and His Wife”. Powell and Christine translated the lyrics to the audience and commented on the silly chauvinism expressed—the song is a call and response duet in which the husband commands his wife to prepare him a huge meal. The wife says he will die if he eats too much and he responds saying that he’d be better off dead, provided someone remembers to pour whiskey on his grave every now and then. The wife complies and cooks for him. Balfa noted that there was a saying that went, “a Cajun man is happy if he has a jug in one hand and a cup in the other”. A sentiment hardly reserved for Cajuns.
Along this line Balfa spoke several times about Cajun humor. When Powell broke a string while borrowing Balfa’s guitar for a number, Balfa used the time to tell a shaggy dog story, one of the many Boudreaux and Thibodaux yarns that Cajuns tell about themselves in a self-deprecating manner. One day Thibodaux spotted Boudreaux heading back from the fishing hole. Thibodaux asked Boudreaux how many he caught. Boudreaux said, “If you can guess, I’ll give you both of them.” “Is it five?” asked Thibodaux. “You’re off by four,” Boudreaux replied. The comedy lay as much in the telling of the tale as its contents, as Balfa narrated the story in a corny, Bayou dialect.
The band played the obligatory encore with an audience participation number, “My Madeline”. The crowd showed its appreciation by singing the title back to the trio in chorus. While Balfa Toujours didn’t burn the house down, they did an excellent job of providing some cross-cultural communication by bringing hot Cajun music and an informative, warm, and funny stage show to Cedar Rapids.