The painting shone in the dark. At the center stood a mysterious trader, one of the legendary voyageurs, coming to trade with Cajun accordion giant Steve Riley’s long-gone Acadian ancestors. “I saw that painting in the artist Leroy Evans’s motel room,” Riley recalls. “I saw that picture, with its Sgt. Pepper feel, and knew this was it, the cover for our album.”
It was the perfect image for a complicated story, one Riley and his band, The Mamou Playboys, tell with every show, via every track. It’s the story of Cajun culture, one long, complex, tragic yet joyful road trip, a voyage from exile to exile, from vision to vision. Riley and the Playboys have traced and redrawn this route, never straying from the path that led deeper--plus creux--into the rollicking, gritty good times and sorrows of Louisiana’s Cajuns.
Voyageurs bursts with the full growl and sparkle of the region’s music, honed over decades. With new member and old friend, fiddler Kevin Wimmer, the band finds the funky, unexpected crossroads of rock, blues, country, Zydeco, and just about every other branch of Americana out there. It’s quite a trip, from East Texas wedding travails (beloved Cajun singalong “Brasse donc, le couche-couche”), to the wild journey of Mardi Gras (Dewey Balfa’s galloping classic “Le danse de Mardi Gras”), to saying a playful good riddance to your hometown (“Au revoir Grand Mamou”).
“You bring what you need with you and you keep pushing forward,” explains Riley, describing the band’s journey and the Cajun experience. “A lot of the songs on the record are about travels.There is all this imagery that’s really striking, all the things you had to go though, to leave your home and take your music and your message around the world.”
Voyageurs treads a fine line between gleeful nostalgia and thoughtful innovation, playing with favorites by Cajun masters like Dennis McGee and Canray Fontenot.The band powers through a traditional, none-too-subtle jingle meant to spread the word about where to get liquor (and how much it cost; “Allons boire un coup”), though they turned the double-fiddle tune into a syncopated wink at second line. Riley turns convention on its head with the opening track, “Au Revoir Grand Mamou.” “There are a bunch of songs about coming back to Mamou,” smiles Riley, “and I thought it was time to try something different.”
The Mamou Playboys’ strong connections to other Louisiana traditions emerge naturally from the band’s deep approach to the material. “Boozoo’s Blues” by the Zydeco icon Boozoo Chavis fits seamlessly into the Playboys’ sound--revealing the close relationship between the Francophone diasporas in Louisiana that has existed for hundreds of years. It’s a gulf Riley and band have bridged before by exploring Creole repertoire, and the band continues this approach, with pieces like “Madame Faillelle,” a beauty for accordion and fiddle that Riley and Wimmer take to unexpected places, and “Bernadette” with the colorful layering of Sam Broussard’s guitar. “Sam’s playing is such integral part of so many of the album’s songs both rhythmically and texturally,” explains Riley.
Travelers can’t be set in their ways, and Riley never rested on his roots. A disciple of Dewey Balfa (as is Wimmer), Riley discovered, as he and Playboys began to work on several tunes Wimmer brought to the table, that his diatonic accordion could not do what they wanted it to do. So they commissioned a new instrument from a maker in France giving the diatonic Cajun accordion the sharps and flats it didn’t have previously.
The challenges of Wimmer’s tunes like “Malcolm’s Reel” and “Bottle it Up” lie deeper, and push the technical issues of Riley’s instrument. “‘Malcolm’s Reel’ and ‘Bottle it Up’ are both played in a unique positions rarely used on the Cajun accordion. Very few songs are played in that position, and none are as complicated as this,” reflects Riley. “It’s a real finger twister. After we play this song, I feel like I’ve been pushed to the limits. But it’s a lot of fun!”