Absorb, conquer, and rock. Louisiana's Francophone communities have faced down exile and persecution, natural and manmade disaster, by remaining resolutely creative. Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys know this creativity intimately; what fiddler and co-leader David Greely eloquently calls "survivor joy." It has echoed for centuries in everything from aching solo ballads to swamp pop blasts and funkified two-steps.
Their latest album, Grand Isle (self-release; February 22, 2011) calls on this joy and shows its defiant, resilient forms in all their glory, with help from producer, friend, and swamp-n-roll legend CC Adcock. They toss aside roots-music formulas to channel the energy of an entire community of multi-ethnic, hard-hitting eccentrics and activists, from a mad musical inventor of New Orleans to a pensive professor-lyricist, from a vintage recording guru to a bold local staging an oil spill photo exhibit in her dining room.
"Cajuns possess the magic ingredient that is only produced by genuine suffering," Greely explains. "Survivor joy can be found around the world, in the world's best music."
This magic element has been in full force since the BP oil spill struck Louisiana's coastal communities, which were still recovering from the double blows of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The outrage and the loss of a way of life loomed large in the Playboys' minds as they worked on their first studio album in five years.
Accordionist and singer Steve Riley recalled walking through the dining room of a local woman determined to share the true nature of the disaster with the world by exhibiting devastating photos of local wildlife slick with deadly oil. He captured the spirit of these community efforts in a call for transformation on "C'est l'heure pour changer (This is the time for change)."
After the disaster, Greely shared a stage with local Creole singers, whose poignant call and response evoked the depth of his rage and sorrow. Songs like "C'est trop (It's too much)" or "Grand Isle" seethe and mourn, portraying the beautiful spot on the coast where jumping dolphins and picnic tables piled high with seafood were replaced by clean-up crews and TV news cameras.
Yet at the heart of what the Playboys do lies joy; it's music for dancing, even when it's political, historical, or intellectual. It's music that has kept a people together through thick and thin, from French village to Canadian settlement to American exile. "You can go to cemetery in Poitou, France where it all started and see the same names you find in the phone book here in Louisiana," Greely remarks. "We started in the same village together, and despite all that effort, or maybe because of it, we're still together."
Though a constant unifying element for Cajuns, the sound of survivor joy is diverse and varied. With help from Adcock, who's played with everyone from Bo Diddley to Buckwheat Zydeco, the Mamou Playboys pushed the sonic possibilities hard. Still inspired lyrically and melodically by Louisiana roots music-neglected gems on old 78s or old collections of Creole proverbs ("Pierre")-the group found Cajun music in the most unexpected places: in Edith Piaf songs, in ska rockers, even in '80s pop.
Adcock laughs when he describes how '80s tunes fit beautifully with Louisiana beats. Adcock and childhood friend Riley would use the two-step skills they learned dancing to Cajun bands with their parents and woo girls at high school dances, to new wave hits. This connection inspired the band's take on "Danser sans comprendre (Dancing Without Understanding)."
Other connections also yielded gold in the studio. "We were trying to find the right groove for 'C'est l'heure,'" Riley remembers. "CC and I messed around in the studio a bit and got a really cool groove. It came out with this ska feel," aptly reflecting Louisiana's peculiar position on the northern fringe of the Caribbean. "It's like some of our Cajun beats, but way more relaxed."
Inspiration for one of the album's striking covers, Edith Piaf's "Je ne regrette rien," came from music industry guru Seymour Stein, who signed Madonna, The Talking Heads, and the Ramones to Sire back in the day. After hearing the Playboys one night, he suggested they try a Piaf tune, a comment greeted skeptically by the band. That is, until they tried it out and discovered "It's really just a great swamp pop tune," Greely grins.
Then there's "Chatterbox," a song penned by Mr. Quintron, a musician whose eccentricity stands out even in New Orleans: He's invented wacky drum machines, a quirky stage persona, and launched clubs in the 9th Ward. But his earthy, grungy, funky musical sensibilities resonate with the Playboys on the track, about a wake for a Cajun gal who was a fixture on the New Orleans punk scene. Named for a cafe in Eunice, Louisiana, a town important to both Riley and Adcock's families, it captures the meeting of hipster weird and old-school bayou that shapes the region's music. All to a double-kick zydeco beat harkening back to the heyday of Clifton Chenier.
The frenetic diversity-what Adcock calls "a Cajun iPod on shuffle"-evokes a musical journey through the decades, using vintage equipment in studios across several states to get just the right sound. "Lyons Point," a tribute to the self-reliant spirit of Riley's wife's hometown, uses period reverb equipment to create a sound reminiscent of the Cajun records of the 1930s. "It's not pristine, I'll tell you that," Greely exclaims. "We're talking about using tape, playing through tube equipment, singing into mics shaped like silver footballs, just the strangest thing you've ever seen."
Along with unmistakable and unique sonic qualities, vintage recording approaches pushed the Playboys musically. "When you're using this kind of equipment, you're committed; you can't fix it later," explains Greely.
"The Mamou Playboys don't put out an album unless we have something to say," Riley reflects, "unless we're setting the bar higher. This record is designed to make people scratch their head and wonder, and to push the music forward."