This past Saturday, a piece of Sandy Springs lit up with the sounds and steps of Louisiana Cajun music and dance at one of the Atlanta Cajun Zydeco Association‘s monthly community dances, which drew an enthusiastic and respectably good-sized crowd of participants to the dining hall of the Dorothy Benson Center just off Roswell Road.
One of the differences between the Atlanta Cajun Zydeco Association and other similar groups, notes member and volunteer Dan Rich, is that it is very consistent about having live, professional bands provide rather than depending on prerecorded music for their dances. “Professional bands,” he adds, “not pick-up musicians.”
The bands that are booked alternate each month between Cajun and Zydeco. While both styles come from the same regional roots and share in common a lot of traditional songs drawn from the same pool, each of the two genres gives the music its own particular stylistic stamp. Both make use of fiddle, accordion and distinctive vocals. But to the layman, in simplistic terms, Cajun will have a flavor somewhat like old-time country music, while Zydeco will have more of an R&B feel, drawing upon its broader Creole and “la-la” music roots. Both, however, are unmistakably “bayou.” This Saturday night happened to be a Cajun night.
At 7 p.m., an hour before the band began playing, beginning lessons in Cajun dance were offered by Robert Kwasha, who started bringing his love of Cajun music and dance to Atlanta about a quarter century ago. It is a kind of community dancing, much looser and less rigid than, say, formal ballroom dancing, though no less engaging — this perhaps more accessible to the average person who would like to try their feet on the dance floor.
“Long, short-short, long, short-short,” counted Kwasha, guiding the crowd in an initial basic step. Some of the steps he taught them included Cajun versions of two-step and country waltz; at one point, even a Cajun jitterbug. The participants seemed to catch on quickly, including some of the uninitiated.
This is not to suggest there were no truly seasoned dancers present Saturday night. As the main dance event got started around 8 p.m., there were a number of people present who were clearly not dance novices. One older couple in particular seemed to move symbiotically, with remarkably fluid motion as they glided across the floor together to the band’s redolent, flavorful music.
The band for the evening was Roux du Bayou from Nashville, playing a typical array of Cajun music: fiddle, accordion, bass and drums — with a bit of electric guitar for a few numbers and the addition of a frottier (a kind of washboard) toward the end of the evening. Band leader and accordionist Paul Gregoire comes by his Cajun roots honestly. A Native American and member of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Tribe, Gregoire grew up deep in the southern Louisiana bayou, in the small village of Dulac, a little bit south of Houma. As a young man, he worked on a shrimp boat with his father. Not wanting to continue the rough, grueling work that is shrimping, he set off for Nashville in 1989, where he began playing the kind of Cajun accordion known as a melodeon — a diatonic button accordion that is as close to a harmonica in the activation of the reeds as it is to an accordion.
Gregoire has three on stage with him, tuned in the keys of D, C and B-flat. While there are different kinds of melodeons out there, the traditional Cajun melodeon has a single row of buttons for the right hand. Like the holes in a harmonica, there are two notes available for each button, depending on the direction of air flow — one on the “press” and another on the “draw” of the bellows, making it a “single-action” instrument versus the “double-action” of a typical keyboard accordion, where one key is assigned to play only one note, whether on the press or the draw. That makes the player’s finger and bellows technique a bit different and interesting on the Cajun “squeezebox.” Gregoire’s three were all made by one of the few master craftsmen in Louisiana who build and repair them, and if anything goes wrong, he has to take them back down to Louisiana to be fixed by the same melodeon builder, who is now in his early eighties.
Roux du Bayou gave the crowd a lively, energetic musical mix drawn from Cajun, Cajunized Zydeco and blues and Swamp Pop, playing close to 90 minutes nonstop before taking a break. They concluded that first set with perhaps the most famous Cajun song on the planet, “Jambalaya,” with its signature line that ends each verse: “Son of a gun, we’ll have big fun on the bayou.”
As 11 o’clock approached, the crowd thinned out a bit but remained no less enthusiastic. For a few of the final numbers, a frottier, an instrument like a washboard that’s worn like a baseball catcher’s protective vest, was added to the musical mix. The band closed the evening with “Cajun Stripper,” a Cajun honky-tonk two-step with which they also close their CD, Paul Gregoire avec Roux du Bayou.
The Atlanta Cajun Zydeco Association has a mission to preserve and educate, but it’s also clear that these good-time Cajun community dances are simply a lot of fun. While most of the participants on Saturday were older adults, it was the kind of event that would be family-friendly. Like anything else where preservation and flourishing of a grass-roots culture is important, a love of it must be passed on. With Cajun and Creole dance, music and culture no longer limited to the kind of regional isolation of a century ago, the organization offers up one good means to spread the experience and encourage future generations to laissez les bons temps rouler.