The Balfa Brothers Play Traditional Cajun Music

Balfa Brothers, The

album cover

A Landmark of Cajun Music

When the Balfa Brothers of Mamou, Louisiana, light into a zippy Cajun two-step, what transpires is stately and unflappable dance music made with the polite manners of old ladies sitting around a sewing circle. That's not a knock: In great Cajun music, everyone sticks to his or her knitting. The fiddles handle their woeful, seesawing melodies, the guitars are strummed in straightforward, unremarkable fashion, and the percussion—which comes from the triangle and the washboard—defines the tempo in efficient, nothing-fancy strokes.

The Balfas are masters of this clockwork interdependence, which gives the simple odes of traditional Cajun music a juiced-up exuberance. Listen to this family band keep time, and what you hear is more than careful execution. You hear great spaces between the notes, moments where it seems everyone breathes at the same instant and then leans back into the groove with the same amount of elbow grease. Building on this unity, the brothers Dewey, Will, Rodney, and Harry bring extraordinary lightheartedness to nimble waltzes and songs of devotion.

The Balfas grew up hearing traditional Cajun music—their father, a sharecropper, sang the songs of his French ancestors almost daily, at a time when many French-speaking settlers in southern Louisiana spoke English in order to assimilate. Dewey and his brothers played small dances and local affairs until 1964, when they were invited as a last-minute replacement at the Newport Folk Festival. They caused a sensation, but it wasn't enough to land the group a record deal.

Dewey Balfa knocked on the doors of small record companies throughout the region, and was twice turned down by Swallow Records owner Floyd Soileau, before Soileau agreed to record a tryout single. That led to Play Traditional Cajun Music, which was released in 1965. Amazingly, despite the album's success and the group's stature as key preservers of Cajun culture, it took nine years for Swallow to record a follow-up, The Balfa Brothers Play More Traditional Cajun Music. Both volumes are included on this disc, which is the text from which all the Cajun artists that surfaced during the Cajun revival of the 1970s and '80s—from Wayne Toups to Michael Doucet and BeauSoleil—learned the craft.

Genre: Folk
Released: 1965, Swallow (Reissued 2005)
Key Tracks: "'Tit galop pour Mamou," "Chère joues roses," "Family Waltz," "Madeleine," "Enterre-moi pas."
Catalog Choice: Legends of Cajun Music
Next Stop: Michael Doucet and BeauSoleil: Bayou Deluxe
After That: Various Artists: J'ai été au bal (DVD and/or CD)
Book Pages: 41–42

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