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Desert Solitaire
by Edward Abbey

The Balfa Brothers

Play Traditional Cajun Music

I’m not a flag-waver and never have been, but I don’t mind saying this: The United States are home to some of the greatest music traditions in the world.  I came to particularly appreciate this while traveling in France.  They’ve got trad music in Brittany, a bit of Basque music down in the Basque country, and some authentically Parisian styles, but most of the rest is just ‘European’ — a couple thousand years of influence blended together into no particular regional style.  Here in the States, we have two great things going for folk music: immigrant populations from around the world, and a huge country with a high degree of geographic isolation.  It’s a perfect recipe for diverse and distinct musical styles to emerge.  So we get Cape Breton stuff in New England, Scots-Irish influenced old-time in Appalachia, African spirituals in the Southeast, Cajun music in Louisiana, Native American styles throughout the plains, Tex-Mex conjunto in the Southwest, Hawaiian guitar on the islands, to say nothing of jazz, the blues, rock and roll, swing, and on and on.  If you can’t find traditional American-born music that you like, then you truly haven’t tried very hard.

Which means that exploring American folk music can easily be a lifetime pursuit, and is for a lot of people.  It’s as deep a rabbit hole as you care to make it.  You can casually pick up a Smithsonian Folkways compilation and skim the surface of a lot of things, or you can spend the rest of your life in East Kentucky learning everything there is to know about a handful of particular musicians.

As for Cajun music, I’ve only barely started dipping into it.  I’ve long been aware of it, always liked the bits of which I was aware, but never really put my toes very far into the water.  That started to change for me in France, of all places.  On a night out in Paris, I ended up at a punk club dancing to the sounds of Sarah Savoy and the New Francadians.  They do their share of traditional Cajun, but also cross into the classic country music that I’ve been performing the last few years.  But instead of Hank Williams, it was Hank Williams translated into Cajun French.  The Parisian punks loved it, and I did, too.

So I did some homework.  I already had some of the real 1920s and 1930s vintage Cajun from the early days of recording: bands like the Hackberry Ramblers, scratchy old recordings with no bass tones and indistinct vocals.  So I decided to fast-forward to the folk revival, and picked up The Balfa Brothers Play Traditional Cajun Music.  While the title may lack creativity, the music more than makes up for it.  It is, without question, dance music.  The rhythms are smooth and slippery, the vocals pained and unrestrained, the accordion rich and booming.  It has quickly become one of my favorite albums, both to listen and dance to.

I don’t know how far down the Cajun rabbit hole I’ll venture.  As with old-time music, it’s bottomless. But if you’re looking to dip in, this album is about the best place to start that I can imagine.

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