Mama Rosin Explodes the Myth That the Swiss Got No Grit
Mama Rosin is breathing new life into Cajun and zydeco, and this from a group an ocean and a continent away from the music’s origins in southwest Louisiana.
Mama Rosin may be the best rock ’n’ roll band you’ve never heard of. In part, that’s because until June, the band had never released a record in North America. It’s also because Mama Rosin often isn’t even considered rock ’n’ roll. One look at the covers of the band’s albums explains the story.
The band’s second album, Brule Lentement, released in 2009, features a silk-screened red chili against an all-white background, the band’s black-scripted name printed just beneath it—a tribute to, and mirror image of, the Velvet Underground’s first album with Andy Warhol’s iconic banana cover.
A vinyl ten-inch released last year, titled the Sao Paulo Session is an homage to the ‘80s post-punk band the Gun Club’s Miami record. Its cover echoes Miami’s, with Mama Rosin’s, rather than the Gun Club’s, three band members standing in front of a palm tree and beneath a bleached green-blue sky. The back cover of the Sao Paulo Session replaces the Christian cross hanging mysteriously on the original with the percussion instrument the triangle. The title of Mama Rosin’s latest record, Bye Bye Bayou, references a song of the same name by New York’s punk-rock legend Alan Vega, of the band Suicide.
The Velvet Underground experimented with rock ’n’ roll amplification, the Gun Club with punk interpretations of the blues, and Alan Vega with demented rockabilly. Like those bands, Mama Rosin, who are from Geneva, Switzerland, take an old form of music and bend it in ways that have rarely been done before. With the references to red chilis, triangles, and bayous, it may come as no surprise that Mama Rosin’s styles of choice are Cajun and zydeco music, genres that for much of the last five decades have existed outside of Louisiana as little more than historical documents, continually facing the threat of eternal obscurity.
It’s not easy to describe exactly what Mama Rosin sounds like. Anyone who tries often ends up seemingly at a loss for words, particularly those who aren’t. A quick tour of past reviews turns up descriptions that read, “explosive fusion of trashy transatlantic zydeco and garage rockabilly ‘n’ roll” or “the consanguineous Creole derived Zydeco folk of the swamp, and drunken, loony voodoo blues… with a twist of wired country gospel.”
“Everybody thinks differently about what we are,” the band’s 30-year-old accordion player and singer, Cyril Yeterian, said. “We’ve been put in all categories that exist.” “We are in the miscellaneous vinyl back,” said Robin Girod, 32, Mama Rosin’s guitarist and singer. “From really authentic traditional Cajun to klezmer to jungle klezmer,” Yeterian said. “There’s been everything.” “Black voodoo music we have seen in Germany,” added Girod.
Mama Rosin’s website describes the band as “Louisiana swamp grooves meet New York’s CBGB white heat/white noise.” What all of these frustrated attempts at categorization make clear is that no other band sounds quite like Mama Rosin.
“We consider ourselves a rock band, not a Cajun band,” Yeterian said. “The goal of Mama Rosin has always been, let’s borrow this traditional music from Louisiana—Cajun, zydeco, blues, et cetera—and let’s mix it with this raw punk energy. Mama Rosin has always had this lineup of accordion and guitar. We tried it the garage way.”
“But in the garage scene, the hardcore garage fan never considers us as a band really garage, because we are banjo, accordion,” Girod said. “We don’t have [simply] guitar, bass, and drums,” Yeterian said.
In addition to the accordion, Yeterian plays fiddle, guitar, and triangle. Girod also plays the banjo. Drummer Xavier Bray also plays the harmonica. Each one of them plays the frottoir, a giant, metal washboard that straps over your shoulders.
Since 2008, Mama Rosin has released four records under its own name and taken part in several collaborations. Most recently, and only one year after its last record was produced by indie blues-punk superstar Jon Spencer, leader of the band the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Mama Rosin sent garage bands around the world into a spell of dizzying envy by recording an album with Mick Collins, who as leader of the Dirtbombs and the Gories is one of the crowning figures of contemporary garage rock. The collaboration, a zydeco project titled Broadway Lafayette, will be released next year.
“That’s not an easy music if you’re not raised with it,” said Collins, who grew up in Detroit but spent summers in Louisiana. “It’s not an easy music to duplicate. And not only were these guys not raised with it. They weren’t even raised anywhere near the culture. To hear them in the studio and crank up and start playing, it was amazing. I said to myself, ‘Wow, these guys are actually a zydeco band.’ There’s no barrier between them and zydeco.”
Collins isn’t the only musician to have taken notice of Mama Rosin. The band has been asked to collaborate or tour with some of the biggest acts in England (the contemporary folk band Bellowhead), Germany (the pop band Wir sind Helden), and Finland (the rock band 22-Pistepirkko). This past spring, the Cajun world came calling, too.
I first met Mama Rosin in April in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, a few days before the band played two shows at the Festival International de Louisiane , an annual Francophone celebration of southwest Lousiana’s homegrown culture that takes place in Lafayette, the heart of Cajun country. In the festival’s 15 years, Mama Rosin is only the second band that comes from outside the area and plays Cajun or zydeco music to be invited to take part. (The French Cajun band Vermenton Plage was the first, about ten years earlier.)
In addition to the festival appearances, Mama Rosin booked three more shows in the area to make for its first ever tour in the United States. It would take the band from Breaux Bridge to Austin, Texas, and then back to Louisiana, to Lafayette, for three more performances including the festival ones. The week would be a test to see how Mama Rosin’s own take on the genre fared on the genre’s home turf. It would be a test of the band’s authenticity, of its credibility—no small matter for a band whose reputation hinges on that.
Mama Rosin looks as much like a rock ’n’ roll band as they sound. Girod has a wild mane of brown curls and thick sideburns, and he wears fashionable skinny jeans with, alternately, black Converse sneakers and brown leather boots. He’s also rock-star handsome, as every band wants its front man to be.
Yeterian also wears the skinny jeans, and when he sings, his dark wavy hair hangs in front of his face, blinding him. He has the frontman’s musician look, too, though his run sensitive. As Steve Riley, the most well-known accordionist playing Cajun music today, said, “He’s the prettiest accordion player I’ve ever seen.”
Bray is as slim as the other two, but at 40 he’s a decade older and has a hairline to prove it. For gigs he often dresses more old-fashioned than Girod and Yeterian, in slacks and a vest. He’s rarely seen without a hand-rolled cigarette. He is the quietest of the three, with the least command of English, but his expression comes alive once he gets behind the drum set.
Breaux Bridge’s Café des Amis was a fitting place for the band’s tour to begin. On that particular night, out-of-use fiddles and melodeons, the squeeze-box accordions most often used in Cajun music, covered the room’s exposed-brick walls alongside an art show of wide-ranging Christian crosses. But most appropriately, and much like the Cajun music fan base in general, Café des Amis’s packed house consisted largely of sexagenarians. Among them was the venue’s owner, Dickie Breaux, whom one local referred to as “the godfather” of Lafayette Parish.
It’s no coincidence that the town we were in shared the godfather’s surname, or that the first lady of Cajun music was the early-20th-century musician Cleoma Breaux. It’s common for towns in southwest Louisiana to have the same name as the people you meet there, and for those names to have a historical significance related to Cajun music.
The next day, on my way to meet the band at the Eunice, Louisiana, home of Joel Savoy, the head of Cajun music’s premier label, Valcour Records, and the son of one of the most famous accordion makers in the world, Marc Savoy, I had to drive for miles through long stretches of flatland dotted with rice and crawfish farms and through a town named Savoy.
When I spoke to him, Savoy referred to the region as “this culture that exists completely independent of America in America.” I couldn’t argue. With the prevalence of spoken Cajun French, the dynamic variety of crawfish-dinner preparations, and the heightened atmosphere of Saturday morning alcohol-infused dance parties, there remains a strong sense of a world removed from the rest of the United States.
Cajun music first broke through nationally at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival, when Louisiana natives Gladius Thibodeaux, Vinus LeJeune, and Dewey Balfa played on the same stage as Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. As Savoy, who won last year’s Best Regional Roots Rock Record Grammy for his work on the Band Courtbouillon’s self-titled album, said, “Until the sixties, Cajun music existed exclusively here, behind this Iron Curtain. Nobody had ever heard of it outside of Louisiana.”
The music had a mini explosion in the decade or two that followed. The archival record label Arhoolie began to release recordings by Cajun artists that would become the music’s definitive albums, filmmaker Les Blank directed a documentary about the genre, and Cajun music festivals began to sprout worldwide. Bands such as Beausoleil achieved crossover appeal, as did zydeco artists such as Zachary Richard and Buckwheat Zydeco, all of whom still perform today. Though there have been attempts to update the forms for a contemporary audience since then, the success has been limited. Whereas zydeco music has grown to incorporate R&B and hip-hop, often with bracingly painful results, Cajun music has remained stagnant. Now when a Cajun band tours the world, its audience is made up largely of that first generation of fans.
“Cajun music today consists of a traditional repertoire with a few handfuls of originals by various people that have kind of become standards,” said Savoy, 33, who along with his parents and brother tours as the Savoy Family Band, the Cajun equivalent of country music’s Carter Family. “For the most part it’s the same songs all the time, done in very similar fashion. It’s like old time music.”
It wasn’t always this way. Cajun music is traced back to the mid-18th century when the British, during a particularly volatile moment in its history, banished French-speaking Acadians from their home in Nova Scotia for refusing to take an oath to the king. Drawn to the French settlements of Louisiana, the Acadians—the word “Cajun” is derived from Acadian—migrated south, to an area alternately ruled by the French and the Spanish and that would soon be bought by the United States.
Around that time, the Haitian revolution led to an influx of a number of Haitians, who mixed in with the already sizeable black, or Creole, population. Cajun music developed out of the combination of all these different cultures living side by side.
“Cajun music has always been a bastard,” Savoy said. “The way it very started was a product of African and country people picking up this weird instrument [the accordion] and trying to figure out something to do on it, mingling with people who had Acadian ancestry that played fiddles and God knows what else. Eventually from Texas things like the steel guitar came through. In order for the musicians to make a living in the dance halls, they had to play what was popular. If people all wanted to go out and hear Hank Williams songs, the Cajun musicians would play a Hank Williams song in French because the people spoke French. It’s always been kind of a mutt.”