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.
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.
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
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.