Let the good times roll: The sound of the pioneers’ accordion
Like all other classic folk styles in the US, Cajun music has also experienced a transformation in the last few decades by mixing with rock, pop and blues. But a distinctly unadulterated variety of accordion and fiddle sounds still exists in Louisiana. Whoever is looking for such music is in good hands with Ray Abshire. Abshire is a purist in the best sense of the word. By strictly adhering to the roots, he makes sure the legacy of the Cajun community lives on—not in a museum, but on stage and in the dance halls. "I play Cajun music the way it was passed on to me by the real pioneers. It is a national treasure, an authentic music of the people and it should be preserved for future generations,” he says with conviction. Throughout his life, the accordionist has always been "very close" to the great personalities of authentic Cajun sounds.
The music has its roots in the culture of the French immigrants arriving from Acadia to the American Northeast. Following the British conquest in the mid-18th century, many people were deported and they settled in Louisiana as farmers, fishermen and craftsmen. The underprivileged immigrants soon made a virtue out of the not so affectionate moniker "Cajun" (from Acadian) by playing waltzes, mazurkas, polkas and Square Dances at their weekend parties. Rudimentary rhythms initially grew out of an improvised triangle and fiddle. Later, the accordion with its piercing sound assumed pride of place.
Already in 1928, the first recordings clearly document the ever-present influence of Creole music and the Blues on Cajun music. Since then, Cajun has increasingly fallen under the influence of Country, Pop, and Tex-Mex. Hybrid forms such as Zydeco (which also originated in Louisiana) became established as a potent fusion of Creole music and Rhythm ´n´ Blues. Parallel to these developments, a pure and authentic style of playing had continued uninterrupted.
Ray Abshire lays claim to this authenticity. Born in the Vermilion parish of southern Louisiana, by the age of 15 he becomes well-known as a professional accordion player. He is lucky to be raised during the "Dance Hall Era", the period of the 1940s to 60s, when all of Louisiana becomes subject to renewed interest for its French language and local customs. This is the period when the canon of Cajun music becomes defined by the now legendary musicians, whose names Ray Abshire mentions when asked about his role models: his cousin, Nathan Abshire, Lawrence Walker and Octa Clark, he says, are his true heroes – and he has shared the stage with all of them during this time. Later, Abshire joins the Balfa Brothers, who in the early seventies record milestones of Cajun album catalogues and bring their music to Europe.
But he feels called to preserve the cultural heritage even beyond the stage. And this is how Ray Abshire, aside from performing at folk festivals, becomes one of the most active Cajun teachers in Louisiana. From his home base in Lafayette, he passes on his knowledge and experiences through countless workshops and camps to raise awareness and love for Cajun nationwide. "As a Cajun accordionist, you have to master changes of harmony and octave jumps and you especially need to know when to use Staccato and when not," he explains. "Cajun music has its own drive and is syncopated completely differently than Zydeco, which shouldn’t be mixed together." The sound of the Cajun accordion is very crisp and dry according to Abshire. He produces it on a uniseriate diatonic Melodeon.
That may sound a bit rough to outsiders, but Abshire is convinced that particularly with this sound, he is able to deliver the optimal condition for dancing, very different from the electrically amplified Cajun bands with keyboards and electric bass that are shooting out of the ground like mushrooms in Lafayette. Dancing isn’t merely an added extra to a Cajun-performance. It is an integral part of the whole culture.
"In the last ten years, I have experienced a significant increase of interest in the old form of Cajun," he says moved. "This interest should enable Cajun to carry on into the next generation. I am proud that my two sons play the accordion, bass, and guitar and are continuing this legacy." The old master has now found his way back to the stage with them. The band is reinforced by the band´s drummer Jay Miller and the fiddler Henry Hample, a New Yorker, who was so deeply inspired by the Cajun culture that he started his life all over, moved to Louisiana, married a Cajun girl, and is now smack in the middle of the scene. "Laissez les bons temps Rouler": Thanks to Ray Abshire, this trademark Cajun expression will be shouted for quite some time throughout the ballrooms of Louisiana and beyond.
From an interview of the author with the artist.
This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the culturebase.net partner institutions.
(09 July 09 - 25 July 09)