Band Performs Cajun Music While on Tour at Ramapo

By DONALD IRONS
On February 20, 2017

Photo by Michael Pacheco

As part of their tour across the east coast, Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys stopped at Ramapo to perform their infectious Cajun music.

This genre of music is rooted in the ballads of the French-Speaking Arcadians of Canada, who migrated to southern Louisiana. This eventually formed the Cajun culture known today.

The two featured instruments of the genre, the Cajun accordion and the fiddle. These instruments were taken up by the charismatic Steve Riley and the Creole-influenced Kevin Wimmer during their opening act filling the Sharp Theater with the harsh, forward-driving melodies and the simple, yet refined harmonies that Cajun music is well-known for.

After their spectacular opening, the band took it down a notch by playing what Riley referred to as “old fiddle tunes.” After a quite lengthy tuning session for the fiddles ­– because as band guitarist Sam Broussard put it, “they care” ­– the audience was enamored by the sound of the classic instrument. Clapping was heard throughout the theater alongside occasional nodding and even the rare but amusing sight of audience members dancing in their seats. People were having a good time and that mood persisted throughout the night.

The rest of the first half of the performance was made up of Cajun tunes, all evoking different moods and emotions, yet still retaining that fast paced, driving rhythm and beat of the first two songs. From the blues rhythms present in “Bars of Prisia” to the light-hearted nature of some old Cajun drinking songs from the Prohibition, the music was diverse in spite of it all stemming from the same genre.

In between songs, Riley would often talk about some of the history and culture behind the Cajun people and their music. A brief lecture was given about the history of the Cajun accordion, how it originated in late 1800s Germany and difficulties of purchasing during the Cold War when the Soviets’ Iron Curtain fell over East Germany and Berlin, causing the Cajun people to make it themselves.

Traditions of the Cajun people were also discussed, in particular their practices during Mardi Gras in southern Louisiana and how they differ from the celebration held in New Orleans. This allowed the audience to understand the music in new ways, to see its roots in history, culture and other conditions. Such talks were wonderful, and were sorely missed in the second half, when the band decided to head straight into the music without much discourse in between. Not that it was bad – the song “Malcolm’s Dream” might have been the best one they played all night.

When the concert concluded, Riley thanked everyone for coming and showing their support and interest in Cajun music and culture. As the audience exited the dark theater and was exposed to the bright light of the lobby, whispers could be heard about the performance. Most loved the fast-paced and vivid rhythm, while others found it difficult to get accustomed to the French lyrics. Nevertheless, the Grammy-nominated band demonstrated the universal joy of music through a genre originating in the bayous of Louisiana. 

dirons@ramapo.edu

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