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Mamou Playboys Put Zip in Traditional Songs : Music: Weekend Cajun & Zydeco Festival imports fiddlers, accordionists and other musicians from the bayou to perform at Rainbow Lagoon.


LONG BEACH — The crawfish-decimating culture of the French Acadians is small but strong, Cajun accordionist Steve Riley says.

"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 of his Louisiana home. "We have our own food, and there's the music, of course. Pretty much every five miles you can find a dance hall with music on the weekends."

Riley, who will perform 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 is not quite 24, and French was not the prime language in his home.

But Riley plays the 10-button Cajun accordion with easy authority. Unlike other younger players such as Zachary Richard or Wayne Toups, Riley does not go in for mixing rock rhythms or showmanship with 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 telephone last week from his family's home in Mamou, a town some 40 miles northwest of Lafayette 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."

Downtown is Fred's Lounge, a small, dark bar that is home to a live Cajun music show, broadcast over the bayou on KEUN radio every day from 9 a.m. to noon. Riley has been frequenting the shows since he was a child.

Most of the songs Riley sings are in French, but despite a distinctly Cajun accent, he does not speak the language fluently.

"There's a lot of Irishmen who settled in Louisiana," he said, "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."

Accordion builder and player Marc Savoy is a second cousin, and he and Dennis McGee would regularly play for dances at Riley's grandmother's house. The young Riley played triangle, and sometimes accompanied 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 mama'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.' "

When Riley was 13 he bought a Hohner accordion from Savoy, but his cousin would not teach him to play.

"He didn't want to show me much at all. He wanted me to learn on my own like he did, instead of force feeding it to me. I'm glad he did it that way. I have a really good ear, and since I'd go watch him play, I learned to play a lot like he did. I still do, but I've also been able to incorporate a lot of other people's styles too," Riley said.

One of his strongest influences was not an accordion player. It was fiddler Balfa.

"There was only a few kids interested in this music then. And I was really fortunate, because I was the only one who was taken up by Mr. Dewey Balfa. And the way I look at it, there was no one better who could have taken me under his wing."

At 15, Riley was touring with Balfa, who was one of the musicians most responsible for spreading Cajun music outside of southwestern Louisiana.

By the time he was 19, Riley's own band was being featured weekly on the Fred's Lounge broadcast. The group--Riley, fiddler David Greely, guitarist Kevin Barzas, drummer Kevin Dugas and bassist Peter Schwarz--is about to issue its third Rounder album, "Trace of Time."

The album, Riley says, will show the group branching out to do a Canadian reel, and even a big-band waltz tune. Given the amount of Clifton Chenier music he has been listening to lately, Riley also expects his band will be working some zydeco rhythms into their music.

The group holds down a residency at Mulate's restaurants in Breaux Bridge and New Orleans, and tours about a third of the year now, including playing a number of festivals. Riley, making his third appearance at the Southern California event, is no stranger to the Long Beach stage.

Riley enjoys the chance to spread the music around.

When he is pumping his accordion, "I'm trying to make the listeners feel what I'm feeling, that I'm very proud of this music . . . I'm really honored to be able to play it outside of Louisiana and be able to educate people about who we are and about the music.

"But when we're onstage playing, we also try to have a good time, and we usually do. We're really into what we're doing."

* Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys will appear at the seventh annual Southern California Cajun & Zydeco Festival at Rainbow Lagoon, Linden Avenue at Shoreline Drive, Long Beach. Tickets: $17 general; $15 for students and senior citizens; $5 for children ages 10 to 16; free for children younger than 10. Information: (310) 427-3713 or (818) 794-0070.

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