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Pop music: Christine Balfa, daughter of the Cajun legend, is stepping out with her own group.

August 26, 1998|JOHN ROOS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the world of traditional Cajun music--that danceable, Acadian-rooted folk music from the prairies of southwestern Louisiana--few names are as revered as Dewey Balfa.

As a member of the Balfa Brothers, the third-generation fiddler spearheaded a Cajun revival by introducing the music to mainstream audiences at the Newport Folk Festivals of the 1960s. After Balfa died in 1992, the torch was passed on to the youngest of his four daughters, Christine Balfa.

Christine Balfa, a singer-songwriter and acoustic guitarist, formed her own Cajun group called Balfa Toujours, comprising her accordionist-husband, Dirk Powell; fiddler Kevin Wimmer; and drummer Mike "Chop" Chapman.

Balfa knows that comparisons to her father are inevitable and that carving out her own identity is as difficult as beating this year's New York Yankees. Still, after some understandable reluctance, she has accepted the challenge.

"I felt a burden--or the weight--for most of my life, especially when he passed away," said Balfa recently in a telephone interview from a tour stop in Portland, Ore. "I realize that a huge part of who I am is what I grew up with . . . the music of my daddy and uncles. But the more I played this music and just followed my natural instincts, the more I realized that I did have my own story to tell."

That isn't to say the legacy can't be intimidating, she added.

"One of my dreams is to play the fiddle. But sometimes I think maybe I never will because I'd feel too much pressure from what people would say . . . ya know: 'Can she play like her father?' So I do have some things to work through yet."

Balfa Toujours ("Balfa Forever") makes two local appearances this week. The quartet performs tonight with Geno Delafose & French Rockin' Boogie in a benefit for the Long Beach Museum of Art, then heads south for two shows Saturday in San Juan Capistrano.

The Mamou, La.-based group has released three albums of predominantly traditional, dance-inducing Cajun music. Its upcoming fourth album, titled "La Pointe" (The Point), was recorded in the Balfa-Powell living room in an effort to capture an informal vibe. It features mournful fiddle work, pumping squeeze-box accenting and lyrics sung in French. Spiced by the guest contributions of the Mamou Playboys' Peter Schwarz (second fiddle), Mitchell Reed (upright bass) and sibling Nelda Balfa (triangle), the album is scheduled for release Sept. 15 on Rounder Records.

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Thematically, "La Pointe" is no stranger to the concerns of modern-day America. A waltz that translates to "Stay, Mom and Dad, Stay" examines the emotional fallout on kids when both parents must work. Another ballad, written by Powell and titled "An Angel for All of Louisiana," is a call for racial harmony and peace. It was inspired by a racist incident involving Delafose, who is black and the son of legendary zydeco ace John Delafose.

"Geno had come to jam at a club where we've played a lot back home, and the racial slurs he was subjected to was something shameful," recalled Balfa, 28. "I wrote a letter to the local paper to tell people, 'Hey, look what's happening here.' It was just ridiculous. . . . Ya know, Geno and I have more in common than I do with most people in the United States."

That disturbing scene is atypical of a Cajun culture known more for its warmth and close-knit sense of community. Of all the things that Balfa admires about her influential father, what stands out was his graciousness to people from all walks of life.

"He was very open-minded for someone with a third-grade education who came from a small town," said Balfa, who began playing the triangle with her dad at age 12. "When I step back and look at him as a man, one of the things I'm proudest of is how well he related to people. My dad was appreciative and friendly . . . whether you were a senator or a guy who picks up the trash. In his eyes, we were all human beings worthy of respect."

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Balfa Toujours strives not just to bring Cajun music to ears beyond the prairie towns and bayous of Louisiana. Balfa said she hopes her band will move people to take a deeper look at their own history and roots.

"We're very lucky that our Cajun culture has been preserved . . . that we still have something unique," she said. "There's nothing like playing at the festivals and dances at home. . . . It feels so good because this is where this music really belongs."

Balfa deplores the homogenization of culture that is taking over everyday aspects of life, even in southern Louisiana.

"It would make me so happy if concert-goers . . . after seeing us perform . . . would go home and talk to their parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles," she said. "Rather than looking to MTV for their identity, why not see what their own backyard has to offer?"

Balfa Toujours appears today in a benefit performance for the Long Beach Museum of Art, 2300 E. Ocean Blvd. Geno Delafose & French Rockin' Boogie open at 7 p.m. Table-seating only for 10 at $300. (562) 439-2119. The Multicultural Arts Society presents Balfa Toujours on Saturday at Marco F. Forster Middle School, 25601 Camino del Avion, San Juan Capistrano. 7 and 9 p.m. $6. (949) 496-WMAS.

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