The Mondavi Center’s free outdoor summer concerts on the UC Davis Quad resume on Saturday, with Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys bringing lively Cajun dance tunes, starting at 7:30 p.m.
Riley and his band have been performing together for 23 years, and they take their name from Riley’s hometown. “Mamou is a small town, about 5,000 people, in the prairies of south central Louisiana,” Riley said in a phone interview. “It’s the birthplace of the traditional Mardi Gras celebration. A lot of great Cajun musicians come from there. It was great growing up in that town, living there contributed a lot to what I do and who I am today, hearing a lot of great music at festivals and Mardi Gras and the bars downtown. Often times when I was in high school, I would sneak out of the house to hear music It was cool to do that and get away with it.”
Riley plays the accordion, which is a highly respected instrument where he grew up. “In Louisiana, the accordion is king,” Riley said. “It’s a main instrument in Cajun and Zydeco music. I heard Marc Savoy (the 70-year-old Cajun accordion player and instrument builder) playing in my grandparents home on weekends when I was a boy. Marc is also my cousin. I’ve always loved the accordion. My great-uncle taught me my first song (on the instrument) when I was seven, and I got my first accordion at 13, and by 15 I was playing for Dewey Balfa” — the late fiddler and singer who was born near Mamou, and did much to bring Cajun music to the attention of audiences nationwide. Balfa passed away at age 65 in 1992.
Naturally, Saturday’s concert by Riley and the Mamou Playboys will include plenty of songs in French — “we’ll be doing a lot of stuff from our most recent album ‘Grand Isle,’ and good old Cajun and Creole music from south Louisiana.” Since native French speakers are in somewhat short supply in Davis, “We’ll make sure to tell some stories and let people in on the lyrics,” he added.
“The Cajuns mostly came from Brittany originally” — a French province on that nation’s Atlantic coast. “The left France around the time of Louis the XIV’s reign (in the late 1600s), they wanted religious freedom, and a better life for themselves. Most of them settled in what is now Nova Scotia” — although a few settled as far south as what is now Maine. They were known as the Acadians — in Maine, that name lingers in the form of Acadia National Park.
“But then the British forced them out,” Riley said. “It was like ethnic cleansing. They were put on ships and sent away. They stopped in places on the East Coast, but many people refused them entry. They were not welcome. Eventually, they made their way to south Louisiana, where they were given land in the swamps that nobody wanted. We made a life for ourselves here, with a lot of help from some Creole people, and Indians.” And along the way, the name “Acadian” shifted toward “Cajun.”
There’s also a California connection. “Back in the 1950s, a lot of Creoles went West to find work. There’s a big pocket of Cajun and Creole folks in California who’ve been there for years, mostly in the Bay Area, but some in Southern California as well. It’s a good fan base for us,” Riley said.
And as Cajun music has developed a national following in recent years, Riley and the Mamou Playboys have done more and more touring. “We’ve been nominated for Grammy Awards a few times. Our latest album was released in February to good reviews. This is going to be one of the busiest year for us. The U.S. Department of State is sending us to Russia to represent our country later on this year.”
Riley is also dedicated to keeping the French language alive in Louisiana. “We make a conscious effort to write and record songs in French. I think the French language is very important to our culture, and the music. We have a French Immersion program in the schools here now, lots of kids are going to school and getting courses in French. My oldest daughter is in it.” Riley is hoping that this will spur a new generation of French speakers in Mamou, much as the Welsh language enjoyed a resurgence in the United Kingdom after the Welsh language was restored in the public schools there, and the BBC started broadcasting some regional programs in Welsh.
For Saturday’s concert (July 16), the Quad will open at 6 p.m. for picnics (no alcoholic beverages). The music will start at 7:30 p.m. Admission is free, for more information go to www.mondaviarts.org or call (530) 754-2787.
— Reach Jeff Hudson at [email protected] or (530) 747-8055.