To most of us, playing the accordion can often seem a deceptively simple task.
In fact, even though I know it’s a tricky instrument to master, when I see one being employed by an accomplished musician, I can’t help but be reminded of that old Firesign Theater gag: “How to play the flute? Well, you blow in one end and move your fingers up and down the outside.”
Louisiana native Steve Riley is aware that the complexity of his chosen axe is usually seriously underestimated by folks who’ve never picked one up and tried to squeeze out a recognizable tune.
“You know,” he says with a chuckle, “I actually think it’s one of the strangest instruments on the planet. Visually, it seems like it would be easy to play, but it’s not.”
According to Riley, who for the past two decades has fronted The Mamou Playboys, one of the most famous and acclaimed Cajun bands in the world today (The Washington Post even calls them “one of the finest Cajun bands in history”), there’s a big difference between the type of accordions used in Cajun music (which he specializes in) and its relative Zydeco (which he digs but is not known for).
“In Cajun music, you want to use a ten-button diatonic model. In Zydeco music, you’ll hear the piano-style accordion a lot. Clifton Chenier, who pioneered what we know as modern style Zydeco, was a master at playing that style of accordion.
“But the ones we use feature a seven-note scale that’s pushing and pulling.”
For those “accordion-challenged” readers out there scratching their heads at this lingo, Riley explains the difference in layman’s terms: “It’s kind of set up like a harmonica with a bellows. In other words, one button pushed in gives you one note, but if it’s out, it give you another note. On a standard accordion, that’s not the case. Each note on ours is different coming and going, so that makes it even more weird!”
Yet, Riley never let such weirdness preclude him from becoming one of the most notable Cajun accordion men in the business. Turns out, his unabashed adoration for the instrument charted his career path.
“I think what fascinated me so much about them as a child was just that they’re really dynamic, powerful and percussive instruments,” he continues.
“I mean, in this music, the accordion dictates the rhythm and the tempos of the songs — the feel of the whole band, really.”
Riley came to the instrument —and the life of a professional, touring musician— naturally, by virtue of his Louisiana upbringing. Raised in that fabled hotbed of dance-oriented, festive folk and blues, as a child he witnessed firsthand many of the 20th century’s legendary Zydeco and Cajun artists (including his cousin, the great accordionist Marc Savoy).
That was back in the days when iconic players and singers such as Dewey Balfa (whose immensely respected band Riley famously joined at the tender age of 15) could still be found performing for regional crowds at the parties and dances which help define the character of the Gulf Coast.
From those humble roots, and studies (both formal and informal) with notable mentors such as Balfa, Belton Richard and Walter Mouton, Riley would eventually come to be an icon of the genre himself — as well as a major influence on an entire new crop of Cajun musicians, both traditional and progressive.
When queried about his impressive standing in the Cajun music world, Riley acknowledges the praise humbly, but rejects the idea that he might have dreamt of such notoriety at the start of his career.
“Well, it’s nice to know I’m considered that. (laughs) Did I aspire to it? No, not really. Not at all, in fact. The Mamou Playboys started 20 years ago this year, and you know, back then I didn’t even plan to play music for a living. But, it’s what I love to do more than anything else in the world. I just love playing with this band.
“In our 20 years together, I think we’ve made some good records and stretched out a bit as far as the music itself is concerned. There’s now a whole younger generation of musicians coming up behind us. I would say that we’re not the older guys, but we’re in the middle for sure. (laughs) A lot of the true older guys have passed away or are no longer playing, so I guess we are slowly turning into elder statesmen after all.”
When he makes reference to “stretching the music out a bit”, he’s not kidding.
While The Mamou Playboys (named for the French-speaking prairie town where Riley grew up) are infinitely capable of laying down some of the most authentic, traditional Cajun dance hall tunes you’d ever kick up your heels to, they are also credited with helping push this genre beyond its fairly rigid confines.
Much like the newgrass movement of the ‘70s saw young, open-minded musicians adding elements of rock and jazz into traditional, purist bluegrass (and in turn, subtly aligning themselves with the psychedelic subculture), Riley and his bandmates’ balance their own recognizable and inclusive songwriting style with both time-honored standards, and a reverence for long-forgotten Cajun tunes.
These “lost” numbers are often given fresh and inventive arrangements recasting them as newly-minted standards for the next century. To Riley, it’s that diversity which is at the heart of his band’s longevity and success — and he traces that approach directly to his tenure in the Balfa Brothers.
“Dewey’s band moved me the most as a child,” he recalls. “They had things I wanted in this band: great singing, great songwriting and harmony vocals. To me, that was cutting-edge Cajun music. We modeled our group after that, and in the early days, did a lot of Balfa Brothers’ material. We still do. But as time went on, we started writing our own songs and coming up with unique arrangements to old songs.”
“Our fiddle player David Greely —who I started The Playboys with— is great at digging up older songs from the archives at the University of Lafayette. We re-do them our own way. This upped our creativity a lot and kept things going. I think that’s why we’re still together and people still like to hear us — we continue to come up with new material and keep things fresh.”
Along the way, they’ve won or been nominated for all sorts of awards both large and small, and toured perhaps farther and wider than any other Cajun band. Europe is a strong market for them, as well as —surprisingly enough— parts of Asia.
“We went to Japan once,” Riley recounts, “and when you’re in a place that foreign and far from home, you can have doubts that you’ll go over well. But after our performance, this group showed up backstage and it was a Japanese Cajun band! They sat down and played some Cajun tunes for us, and it was pretty amazing. It was definitely the strangest French I’d ever heard. (laughs) I didn’t expect that.”
Riley credits the worldwide acceptance of his brand of exuberant, Gulf Coast R & B as a testament to the universal appeal of feel-good, family-oriented music that uses traditional instruments and often tells an historic tale while raising a ruckus.
I asked Riley about a quote from a journalist who had commented, “When Cajuns go out on the weekend looking for a band that will recharge their pride and identity, they find it in Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys.” What was it in particular about this music that seemed to have the potential to renew someone’s sense of identity?
“Well, down here in Louisiana, Cajun music is everywhere: weddings, festivals, funerals, dance halls on the weekends — it’s just a huge part of everyone’s life,” replied Riley. “It’s what helps people get through the hard times. There’s such a rich musical heritage in this particular part of the world. It’s really unlike any other place I’ve ever been.
“And dancing has always been a huge part of this culture. Before there were public dance halls, this music was played at parties in people’s homes. A Cajun band in those days didn’t have drums or sound systems or any of that. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, they had an accordion, a fiddle and a triangle. That was all there was!”
According to Riley, the appeal of Cajun music and dance hall culture (which still thrives in Louisiana and Texas) remains the same as it did hundreds of years ago.
“It’s just a good way to blow off steam,” he reckons. “Back in those days —and even now— you had a lot of blue collar people there who work hard during the week and play hard on the weekends. We provide that release for them, that outlet.”
The Mamou Playboys’ reputation for bringing a strong dose of Gulf Coast culture with them wherever they appear is something Riley, Greely and their bandmates (including famed guitarist Sam Broussard, fiddler/saxophonist/bassist Brazos Huval and drummer Kevin Dugas) pride themselves on. The accordionist says their background and festive repertoire makes it easy for them to turn most any type of venue into a La.-style dance hall.
“The places get transformed, and people eventually wind up dancing! It just makes you want to move.”
What: Cajun Dance Party with Steve Riley & The Mamou Playboys
Where: Charles H. Morris Center
When: 6:30 pm, 8:30 pm, 10:30 pm, March 21
Cost: $20 at www.savannahmusicfestival.org or by calling 525-5050.
Sponsored by: Connect Savannah