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Raisin' Cajun : Musical Heritage Drives Accordionist Steve Riley and the Long Beach Fest

June 03, 1993|JIM WASHBURN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Some years back in the Louisiana Cajun bayou town of Houma, the Houma Gazette ran stories on a running battle between the town government and a fellow whose property had recently been contained by the newly revised city limits. As the city codes demanded, he was then required to install indoor plumbing, which he fought tooth and nail, standing by his trusty outhouse and hand-pump.

When the weight of the law finally compelled him to install modern facilities in his home, his unrepentant remark to the press was, "Well, they can make me put it in, but they can't make me use it!"

The tale exemplifies the tenacity Cajuns are capable of mustering. It certainly has served them in good stead when it comes to preserving their more valuable traditions.

The French Acadians survived forced relocation from their Canadian home by the British a few centuries ago. More recently, their culture has prevailed through decades of de-emphasis in schools, which stressed English, and the encroachment of television, Kmarts and the other homogenizing forces of American life.

"It's small, but it's strong," Cajun accordionist Steve Riley says of his crawfish-decimating culture.

"There's about a half a million people who still speak French, right here in the middle of the United States, and that makes us different," he said. "We have our own food, and there's the music, of course. Pretty much every five miles you can find a dance hall here with music on the weekends."

Riley, who performs this weekend at the seventh annual Southern California Cajun & Zydeco Festival at Rainbow Lagoon in Long Beach, is a curious champion of traditional Cajun music. He's not quite 24 years old, and, as one might guess by his name, French wasn't the prime language in his house.

But Riley plays the 10-button Cajun accordion with the easy authority of a player decades his senior. Unlike other younger players, such as Zachary Richard or Wayne Toups, Riley doesn't much go in for mixing rock rhythms or showmanship into his playing.

There is, however, no shortage of youthful excitement at work when he and his band, the Mamou Playboys, apply their mainly acoustic instruments to songs that are generations older than they.

Riley spoke by phone last week from his family's home in Mamou, a town some 40 miles northwest of Lafayette and one that is immortalized in the much-covered Cajun tune "Big Mamou."

So, just how big is Mamou?

"It's not really that big," Riley said. "The main part is exactly a square mile, with subdivisions off to the side. About 5,000 people live here. The thing about Mamou is not many communities were as rich in music as Mamou was at one time. In a square mile you had so many great musicians who were around and willing to give of their time to the younger generation that was interested--which pretty much consisted of myself and a couple of other guys when I was growing up. There's a ton of culture here: There's Fred's Lounge."

Fred's Lounge is a small, dark bar in downtown Mamou, "which covers, like, one block," Riley noted. Unlike most small, dark bars, it is home to a long-running live Cajun music show, broadcast over the bayou on KEUN radio from 9 a.m to noon every day. Though forgoing the liquid breakfasts enjoyed by some of Fred's customers, Riley has been frequenting the broadcasts since he was a child.

Most of the songs Riley sings are in French, but despite a distinctively Cajun accent, he doesn't much speak the language.

"There's a lot of Irishmen who settled in Louisiana," he explained, "like Dennis McGee, who was one of the first recorded Cajun musicians, back there with Amedee Ardoin. I'm French on my mother's side, and my dad's dad was a Riley, but his mother was a Billeaudeaux. But I didn't learn French in the home from my parents. I learned what I know from people like Dewey Balfa (the legendary Cajun fiddler who died last year) and just from singing the songs."

Riley admits that he liked the Electric Light Orchestra when he was 7, but it wasn't much of a match for the music he heard around the home.

Accordion builder and player Marc Savoy is a second cousin, and he and Dennis McGee would regularly play dances at Riley's grandmother's house. The young Riley would play triangle, on which he would sometimes accompany the players at their Fred's Lounge broadcasts.

"I also started messing with the accordion when I was 7," Riley continued. "I had a great-uncle on my momma's side of the family who played accordion. We'd go to his house in New Orleans for the holidays. When I was 7 he taught me a song on accordion, a real simple song called 'Jump Little Frog.' Every time I'd go back to his house I'd just play that one song over and over."

When he was 13 he bought a Hohner accordion from Savoy, but his acclaimed cousin wouldn't teach him to play it.

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