Un Bal Chez Balfa
Rounder CD 6089
The Alan Lomax Collection: Cajun and Creole Music Vols 1 & 2
Rounder CD 1842/3
This is the debut album from Courtney Granger, a young fiddler from Eunice in south-west Louisiana, and an impressive one it is too. Courtney is the latest in a long line of musicians to bloom from the Balfa family tree, a pedigree certificate of tradition if ever there was one.
Kicking off with an original composition, Le Two-step des Festivals Acadiens, he quickly informs the listener that here is a no-nonsense deliverer of the Cajun groove, with a driving strength and control that belies his sixteen years. Depuis l'age de Quinze Ans, the second selection, eases itself in with two low-tuned fiddles and gradually builds into an accordion-pushed, hypnotically swaying lament of a wandering drunkard trying to find a love to match his teenage sweetheart. As you can probably tell, I like this album a great deal!
Courtney continues with a couple of lesser-known Balfa Brothers songs; the traditional Casey Jones is a humorous tale of this legendary figure to the tune of a fiddle one-step, and the Newport Waltz recounts Dewey Balfa's experience of his first visit to the Newport Folk Festival in 1964.
The obvious influence and style of the Balfa family's music seeps from this recording, (Courtney is accompanied by his aunts Christine and Nelda and his great-uncle Burke on the album) but he is by no means churning out a pale replica of what has gone before. He puts his own stamp firmly on the tradition with a late-night version of Les Barres de la Prison and a storming Domino Two-step, whilst adding to it admirably with strong originals such as La Valse des Grand Miseres. Selections such as Le Two-step de Richet and La Belle de la Louisiane show Granger's eagerness to dig deep for source material, and the old-time medley La Vieille Danse a Balfa/Treville est pas Pecheur exemplifies the power of a fiddle/accordion duet with just triangle for accompaniment.
The album concludes with a driving two-step, Merci, Nonc Dewey, featuring Steve Riley on accordion. This is a relatively new song to an old tune, Don't Bury Me, but is given a new lease of life here as it is pushed through three different keys.
The production is handled admirably by Dirk Powell, who also provides various accompaniment throughout, and the whole album has a well thought out, together feel about it. It's also nice to see a more fiddle-centred project coming out of south-west Louisiana, as most of the younger Cajun musicians seem to be drawn to the more 'macho' accordion! Highly recommended.
This two-volume set of 1934/37 Lomax recordings was originally released as a double album set on the Louisiana-based Swallow label in 1987. The Rounder re-release includes several previously unavailable selections and revised notes by Barry Jean Ancelet, and is divided into four sections across the two volumes.
The first of these consists entirely of ballad singing by the Hoffpauir family from New Iberia. The three daughters of the family open with Six Ans sur Mer, a song with historical echoes of the Acadian exile along the popular shanty theme of weeks/months/years at sea, ending in a sighting of land as conditions become desperate. Both the melody and the singing are enchantingly direct, letting the story come through clearly, and this style continues throughout the sisters' other selections. These concern themselves variously with cautious and incautious courting, humorous ditties and a bluesy rendition of Les Clefs de la Prison, a prisoner's song that turns from a desperate pleading for release by his mother, to grim resignation in his request to be taken for burial in his own carriage; again this is sung with elegant and precise delivery by the teenage Elita Hoffpauir.
Elita's father Julien, proves to be a powerful singer of drinking songs, lullabies and emotional 'complaintes'. Two of these deal with a suitor courting a girl who is considered to be too young to marry at fourteen or fifteen; while weddings at this age were not uncommon, this is still a recurring theme in Cajun songs. Another interesting song is Au Pont de l'Anse, a moral tale about a girl attending a 'bridge dance' against her mother's wishes. Despite her brother's efforts to rescue her, the girl drowns. Versions of this song are known throughout Europe and French Canada, and the moral warnings contained within seem to give them a lasting popularity!
What is remarkable about this agricultural labourer's family is the strength and elegance of the singing, especially, I feel, the more musical quality of the girls. The sheer variety of their repertoire leads Lomax to realise that "... here was a survival of Western European balladry in America quite as remarkable as that of the Scots-Irish ballads of Appalachia."
The second half of volume one, subtitled: 'Fiddles and Accordions' commences with a fairly nondescript waltz by fiddler and guitarist 'unknown'. The next four tunes are by Wayne Perry, an incredible fiddler who was never commercially recorded, despite being relatively well-known locally. He has a particularly strident style and plays three unusual waltzes, one of which is half in 5/4 time, another being rather bluesy. The fourth tune is a one-step, filled with tension by the use of slight dischords and hang-ons. These tracks are real gems and certainly not your average run-of-the-mill Cajun fiddle fare. Apparently Lomax also recorded Perry playing a few Anglo-American tunes, the only one of which I know to have been released was a version of Old Joe Clark on the library of congress recording of 'American Fiddle Tunes' - AFS L6Z. The following three selections by the Segura Brothers are heavily blues-influenced songs with fiddle and occasional guitar backing. Come and Sit on the Cross of my Tomb is a low-down prisoner's farewell, and resembles Canray Fontenot's Barres de la Prison, with its lonesome fiddle interjections. Although the Seguras were not black Creoles but white Cajuns, their sound is distinctly Afro-Caribbean, full of syncopation and blue notes, with the accompaniment played over and over in an isometric pattern.
There follows a true prisoner's song, recorded in Angora State Penitentiary, from Oakdale Carriere, who sings a waltz with accordion accompaniment, very much in the style of Amede Ardoin. Both this tune and the following Bye-bye, Bonsoir Mes Parents, are forerunners of the Valse de Minuit and the Orphan's Waltz, both of which were later commercially recorded and are still heard in dancehalls today.
The final two selections are vocal and harmonica duets. The first, a high plaintive waltz and the second a rambling, irregular blues. The harmonica has rarely been recorded in Louisiana, although it was popular both for its size and its similarity in diatonic scale to the one-row button accordion. It is used to great effect here, creating swaying polyrhythms behind the vocals, while the singer interjects with high yells, making these two of the more full-on and improvised songs, compared to the carefully metered ballads of the Hoffpauir family.
Part 3, 'Ballads, Laments and Drinking Songs', consists of a more modern repertoire than that of the Hoffpauirs. Belle, sung by a Mr Bornu, is a hard-luck ballad covering many Cajun pre-occupations such as exile to Texas and tragic love, and is followed by Jesse Stafford's version of Je Mendors, a melancholy drifting song, again with a strong bluesy feel to it. This has been recorded more recently by several bands in Louisiana and is a great example of recordings such as these becoming a useful thread in the continuity of a tradition.
The other songs which stand out are duets by Lanesse Vincent and Sidney Richard, both appearing to come from a large family of singers. The sad quality of their voices and the minor keys of their songs convey the stories of their songs even without an understanding of the language, although they again tend to dwell on painful subjects.
Part 4, 'Zydeco, Jure and the Blues', specifically covers the Black-Creole tradition. Jure refers to unaccompanied group singing with syncopated hand and foot percussion, both religious and secular in nature. The songs are wildly energetic and many feature harmonies and vocal percussion and punctuation, as well as tunes and refrains that can still be heard today. Jimmy Peter's J'ai Fait Tout le Tour du Pays is an early version of J'etais au Bal, and Joseph Jones' tragic Blues de la Prison carries themes that are further developed in songs such as Canray Fontenot's Barres de la Prison and Austin Pitre's Blues de la Prison. I have to agree with Lomax when he cites La-bas Chez Moreau as one of the most beautiful songs in the collection. A blues lament, it is sung by Cleveland Benoit and Darby Hicks. Alternating between unison and overlapping vocals, both playful and passionate in their delivery, the story again is of a lost love after a promise of marriage - along with some compromising situations at Moreau's, an almost mythical establishment occurring in several songs, right up to the present day.
These Creole recordings are some of the most intense music I have heard from south-west Louisiana, and are an incredible halfway point between the principle musical styles of West Africa and the West Indies, and the throbbing modern Zydeco that is heard today in rural Louisiana.
Overall, a very valuable set of CDs for both the bayou boffin and the ballad browser. It is immensely enjoyable, as well as being an important reference work. Copious sleeve notes and excellent photo's are included, but the information could have perhaps included more updates - I always wonder if any of the descendants of those recorded are still making music?
Jock Tyldesley - 14.12.99
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