Traditional Cajun music is a mix of instrumental sounds and styles. It
comes from combining music brought to the southern U.S. state of
Louisiana by early settlers with the sounds brought by later
immigrants. Steve Riley leads one of the most popular Cajun bands in
the U.S., and as VOA's Katherine Cole reports, his new greatest hits CD
is a good place to begin learning about this all-American sound.
"The Corner Post" first appeared on a 1993 album called Trace of Time, but it's also on the new two-CD compilation simply called The Best of Steve Riley and The Mamou Playboys.
Although Steve Riley was only 19 years old when he started The Mamou Playboys in 1988, you wouldn't have known that from listening to his early recordings. At a time when many young bands were playing a progressive kind of Cajun music that mixed new and traditional sounds, Steve Riley and The Mamou Playboys were playing the old songs in the old style. They were so serious about sticking to the traditional approach, there were no English lyrics in "Katherine," or the other songs Steve was singing.
Steve Riley grew up in Mamou, Louisiana, a town where French is still spoken on the streets, and everyone plays music. He began playing accordion as a child, and was something of a prodigy. Steve was good enough to join Cajun music legend Dewey Balfa's band at the age of 15. Balfa mentored the young musician, not just teaching him hundreds of traditional songs, but also how to best perform them on stage. Those lessons paid off.
When Steve Riley and The Mamou Playboys first began playing their own gigs, the band sounded as if they were old-timers. By the time their first nationally-distributed album was released in 1990, the band had already earned the reputation of being one of the best Cajun bands in the country. That self-titled release includes "Pine Point," which also appears on the new double-CD set, The Best of Steve Riley and The Mamou Playboys.
If you thought music so connected with southern Louisiana and sung in a language foreign to most Americans might only be popular in a certain part of the country, you'd be wrong. The Mamou Playboys spend much of the year touring the U.S., playing festivals and in dance clubs. They have also found fans in both English and French-speaking Canada and, somewhat surprisingly for the bandleader, in parts of Asia. That might be because Steve Riley and The Mamou Playboys started out sounding as traditional as could be, the band has also kept the music style alive by mixing some newly-written but traditional-sounding songs in with the classics.
The band also comes up with new arrangements of songs that had been believed lost. Steve Riley describes it this way; they "find the older tunes in the archives of the University of Lafayette, and then re-do them our way. This upped our creativity a lot, and kept things going."
There are three previously-unreleased songs on The Best of Steve Riley and The Mamou Playboys, along with 28 songs the band recorded over the past two decades. About half are vocals. The rest, including "Lovers' Waltz" are instrumentals.