The Curious Corners of Regional Identity
music review by Ben Sandmel
T he great indigenous music of South Louisiana — including Cajun music, zydeco, swamp pop, Crescent City R&B, and various strains of New Orleans jazz — can at times be confusing to its admirers. Some fans of such sounds, especially non-residents, mistakenly believe that musicians who represent a specific tradition must surely focus on that repertoire only and never play anything else. Louisianans’ fierce loyalty to local music fuels this perception, as does the prominent use of such music in tourism marketing. In reality, many of Louisiana’s traditional musicians also explore a range of nationally popular and commercial styles that don’t draw on local sources at all. What’s more, many talented Louisiana musicians never incorporate any local influences whatsoever in their work — yet they too are Louisiana musicians just the same. Such diverse fluidity shouldn’t be surprising, given today’s infinite on-line access to music from every corner of the world, but such stereotypes persist nonetheless. Several strong new albums exemplify this curious cultural corner where regional identity may be blurred, ignored, or manifest in unexpected ways.
Consider The Deslondes, a band named for Deslonde Street in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, on which several of its members live. The Lower Nine has long been a vibrant bastion of the city’s African-American and Afro-Caribbean music traditions. Accordingly one might assume that The Deslondes explore the legacy of this storied neighborhood, the community that has given the world such great musicians as Fats Domino, Jesse Hill, Herlin Riley and the Lastie Family. That assumption would be entirely wrong. As heard on the debut album The Deslondes (New West, www.thedeslondes.com), this impressive young band blends a contemporary/post-modern sensibility with early-1950s country music à la Hank Williams. The Deslondes achieve this delicate balance by writing high-quality original material — to which all the band’s members contribute, in varying combinations — and then recording it in a sparse, low-tech setting that eschews contemporary-production gloss without veering into retro mimicry. The resulting music, although carefully crafted, gives the deceptive impression of nonchalant, less-is-more simplicity — as if, in the best sense, it was recorded late at night in a rural roadhouse.
In evoking the lyrical and aural feel of Hank Williams through a modern filter, The Deslondes implicitly suggest how Williams might sound were he alive today. To some extent The Deslondes’ music also recalls the late ‘60s heyday of The Band, a group that likewise blended strikingly original songs with a deep traditional aesthetic. The Deslondes are receiving considerable national acclaim of late, especially within the increasingly estimable sector of the music industry known as the Americana movement. (The amorphous term Americana is nominally associated with progressive country music, but its big-tent approach has endlessly eclectic parameters.) The Deslondes’ attainment of such respect — along with that accorded to fellow New Orleans artists including Luke Winslow-King and the band Hurray for the Riff Raff — underscores the broader existence of an active Americana scene in New Orleans. None of the above-mentioned musicians are native New Orleanians, and — apart from Luke Winslow-King — little of their work reveals much significant local influence. Even so, New Orleans has clearly inspired them all, as well as a host of their contemporaries who interpret similar music on a local circuit. By this circuitous route, a new sound — one primarily rooted in the twangy rural reaches of the Anglo-American South — has nonetheless come to be identified, in part, with New Orleans.
Growing up in the small town of Cecilia (in Saint Martin Parish) means deep immersion by osmosis, at minimum, in South Louisiana’s French dialects and the musical continuum of Cajun/zydeco/swamp pop. Many fine practitioners of these closely-related genres live in this community and play such music there often — but this only applies tangentially to the trio known as Sweet Cecilia. Their exuberant debut, Sweet Cecilia, (Old Man Records, www.sweetceciliagirls.com) features robust and deftly-executed vocal harmonies, with alternating lead vocals that are all equally pure and powerful, thus creating a rich contemporary folk sound — for lack of a more precise term — not typically associated with the western edge of the Atchafalaya Basin. The unadorned instrumental accompaniment — mostly noticeably guitars, a mandolin and a snare drum — helps direct listeners’ attention to the album’s all-original material. Several songs’ lyrics focus on the staunch faith in Catholicism that is prevalent in South Louisiana. Significantly, the group’s members — sisters Laura Huval and Maegan Berard and their cousin Callie Guidry — first sang together in their church choir. They chose the band’s name in dual tribute to their home town and to Saint Cecilia, Christianity’s patroness of musicians.
Sweet Cecilia’s main musical influences, however, are decidedly secular. These sources of inspiration include the ‘70s rock band Heart, led by the sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson (famed for such mega-hits as “Crazy on You,” “Magic Man” and “Barracuda”); the ‘90s country duo the Judds (“Why Not Me,” ”Mama He’s Crazy”); and the trio Wilson Phillips, who topped the national pop charts in 1990 with “Hold On.” As the daughters of a member of the Beach Boys and two members of the Mamas and the Papas — masterful harmony singers, all — Wilson Phillips functioned as second-generation bearers of family tradition. Such terminology is more commonly used in discussing folkloric music than pop chart dominance, but in this case the family tradition that Wilson Phillips maintained is thriving in Cecilia, Louisiana, some 25 years later.
Sweet Cecilia makes a powerful debut indeed. To get the full effect, though, it is necessary to catch Sweet Cecilia in live performance. The band’s free-flowing sets, covering nearly 60 years of music, may encompass a French version of “Time of The Season,” by the British Invasion band the Zombies; “Cry To Me,” an R&B gem popularized by the passionate singer Solomon Burke; Fleetwood Mac’s pop-rock “Say You Love Me”; “Walking After Midnight,” a country hit for Patsy Cline; and a South Louisiana perennial favorite, Cookie and the Cupcakes’ swamp-pop classic “Got You On My Mind.” All these songs, and many more, are played with Sweet Cecilia’s equal blend of passion and polish.
Sweet Cecilia’s live performances also reveal Maegan Berard’s prowess as an electric-guitar soloist. She likewise plays this role (and is additionally one of several lead singers) in the Grammy-nominated Cajun band Bonsoir Catin. Berard’s guitar heroes are serious rockers, including the virtuosic Jimmy Page, of Led Zeppelin, and Ace Frehley, from the shock-rock band KISS. In this regard, as a proud practitioner of Cajun music who also loves to rock out, Maegan Berard carries on the legacy of her father, the late Al Berard. A skilled multi-instrumentalist and a beloved figure on the South Louisiana music scene, Al Berard, known to all by his nickname “Pyook,” passed away in 2014. As a leading member of such popular Cajun bands as the Basin Brothers and Filé, and an accompanist and/or collaborator with dozens of other Cajun artists dating back to 1983, Berard is strongly identified with Cajun music. He left behind a prolific body of Cajun recordings.
But Al Berard started out in music as a rock guitarist and, while continually expanding his command of diverse styles, he never set anything aside. Just before his death, Berard finished recording a guitar album that he’d been working on for decades in his home studio in Cecilia. Released posthumously as a loving tribute, Incredible Journey (Old Man Records, www.alberard.com) is a multi-layered and often ethereal collection that gives Berard unlimited space to stretch out and revel in what brought him joy: tinkering with far-flung original works-in-progress, experimenting with the sound of his guitar heroes (most notably Eric Johnson of “Cliffs of Dover” fame), reworking some Cajun songs by the Basin Brothers, and more. Berard’s life and legacy will be celebrated on Saturday, November 28 at the Al Berard Music Festival, held in Henderson, Louisiana (details, as they become available, will be posted at www.alberard.com).
In closing, this column mourns the passing of Jillian Johnson — a beloved musician (a founding member of the popular Lafayette-based band The Figs), artist, entrepreneur and a general force of nature — who was murdered in the Lafayette movie theater shooting of July 23. She is sorely missed by many.
Ben Sandmel is a New Orleans-based freelance writer, folklorist, and producer and is the former drummer for the Hackberry Ramblers. Learn more about his latest book, Ernie K-Doe: The R&B Emperor of New Orleans, by visiting erniekdoebook.com. The K-Doe biography was selected for the Kirkus Reviews list of best nonfiction books for 2012.