In 1964, at the Newport Folk Festival, Cajun guitarist Dewey Balfa exposed the world to music that was all but unknown outside of Louisiana. Today, Dewey’s daughter Christine and her band, Balfa Toujours, nurture new branches on the venerable family tree.
If someone would have told me that we would have five CDs and toured full time, I would have thought they were crazy.” The voice is Christine Balfa’s and the band the guitarist-vocalist is referring to is hers, the wildly popular Cajun group known as Balfa Toujours.
But on this particular July morning, she’s not on tour nor is she in Louisiana with her band mates, accordionist Dirk Powell (who’s also her husband), and their good friend, fiddler extraordinaire Kevin Wimmer.
Believe it or not, she’s in a locale known as Church Point, the other “Church Point” as in Nova Scotia where she is currently a student in a five-week French Immersion program taught at L’Université Ste. Anne. Her phone conversations will be the only English she is allowed to speak all day. After that, it will be French, French and more French until it’s coming out of her ears. Admittedly, she feels at home here. There are names like Comeaux, Theriot and Landry, and the Acadians that she has met remind her of the Cajuns she knows at home. Though Christine has always had a good command of the language, she’s wanted to hone up her writing skills for some time.
In essence, this event represents an interesting twist in Nova Scotia Acadian-Louisiana Cajun history starting with the Grand Derangement of 1755 that forced Acadians to exile and eventually relocate to Louisiana. In the 20th century, many were ridiculed for the French they spoke and the Cajun culture nearly died. And now, it’s as if history has come full circle. Not only are there strong efforts to preserve the culture and the language in Louisiana, some, like Christine, travel to the sacred grounds of their ancestors to immerse themselves in the mother tongue.
But that’s not the only circle. There are many more like the name itself, Balfa Toujours–Balfa as in the Balfa family name and Toujours, the French word for always. Hence, Balfa Toujours is another way of saying the spirit of Balfa Family music lives forever. To understand that is to understand Balfa Toujours and that leads to the legacy of Dewey Balfa, Christine’s father, and his brothers Rodney and Will.
Growing up in Basile, musical get-togethers in the Balfa household were a common occurrence. Two, three times a week, the Balfa clan would gather together at one of the brother’s abodes, cook supper, eat and play music for the rest of the evening. It was such a regular occurrence that Christine thought every family lived like that. Home wasn’t the only place the brothers played. Her father and uncles performed publicly as the Balfa Brothers band consisting of Dewey, fiddle and most vocals, Rodney, guitar and Will, second fiddle. Their music was different than the popular honky-tonk sound of the day. Rather, it was much more acoustic, relying on the interweaving double fiddles of Dewey and Will, backed by Rodney’s strong rhythm guitar playing. Depending on the gig, Hadley Fontenot, Nathan Abshire, “Nonc” Allie Young or Marc Savoy would accompany on accordion.
In the early ’60s, Cajun music was at an all-time low and some wondered if it would be around in the next millennium. But at the same time, the rest of the nation was in the midst of a folk music boom. Serving as a last minute replacement, Dewey on guitar was to accompany accordionist Glady Thibodeaux and fiddler Louis LeJeune at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival held in Rhode Island. A local newspaper predicted embarrassing consequences but actually the opposite was true. Seventeen-thousand screaming, appreciative fans wouldn’t let the trio leave the stage. From this epiphany, Dewey returned home with a renewed vision that their cultural music should be as cherished as any other. The Balfa Brothers, with Dewey’s eldest daughter Nelda, returned to the Newport Folk Festival in 1967. That performance had a revitalizing effect as the Balfa Brothers began to tour nationally and internationally as well as give workshops on Cajun music and culture.
Throughout his life, Dewey had an uncanny way of connecting with people. Besides his sterling musicianship, relating to people was one of his greatest gifts. “He totally perceived how people were and he made them feel personally connected to him. And he could do that from the stage,” Powell explains. “Even though he might be playing for a thousand people, there would be many people that were personally spoken to by him.”
One person who felt the grip of his charisma was Wimmer, who first saw Dewey at the Escoheag Cajun Bluegrass Festival, Rhode Island, in 1984. Wimmer was so struck by that performance that he purchased a Balfa Brothers album to learn the fiddle parts. The following year, Wimmer’s own immersion began to take hold when Dewey taught the first Cajun fiddle class at the Augusta Heritage Center, located on the grounds of Davis and Elkins College in Elkins, West Virginia.
No doubt Wimmer had the Cajun bug by this time. At the Escoheag that Labor Day Weekend, Wimmer jammed with Dewey and the guys in their camp. That was so much fun that the following week Wimmer trucked to Michigan where Dewey, Steve Riley and nephew-guitarist Tony Balfa were playing the Wheatland Folk Festival. By now Dewey knew the red-haired fiddlin’ Cajun convert enough to invite him to play second fiddle onstage. “I still wasn’t that good but I learned how to play second fiddle,” Wimmer says. “He encouraged me. He would say, ‘I just met this guy this summer and look how good he is playing.’”
Footloose and fancy-free, a few days later Wimmer did the derring-do by driving from the upper Midwest to Basile, Louisiana looking for a school bus. “I just went. I figured Basile can’t be that big,” Wimmer reasoned. “I will just go there and they will tell me where he lives.”
Wimmer knew Balfa drove a school bus but when he pulled within the city limits, he never beyond his wildest dreams expected to see Dewey sitting at an intersection with a busload of kids.
“He said he wasn’t surprised to see me at all. ‘I knew you were going to come.’”
A bond was forged in 1985 that remains with Wimmer today. Wimmer stayed in the family’s outdoor kitchen, gigging with Dewey at every opportunity. That same year was also Wimmer’s first Festivals Acadiens as he seconded his gracious host once again.
Also during the same year, Powell witnessed Dewey and the Balfa Brotherhood performing at the Washington D.C. Folk Life Festival. Because Dewey’s brothers Will and Rodney were tragically killed in auto accident in 1979, his bands evolved into more of a musical brotherhood with such stellar players as Peter and Tracy Schwarz, Robert Jardell, Tony Balfa, Marc Savoy and others.
But most notably, the image that would be indelibly etched in Powell’s mind would be one of Christine playing triangle. Seeing a young person like himself involved in her family’s cultural music registered with Powell. At that time, he was mining the Appalachian musical roots of his grandfather Clarence Hay.
It would be six years before they would meet again but when they did, Powell was able to recount perfectly what Christine was wearing on that hot D.C. day. “That won me some points right away,” says Powell.
Also, in the mid-’80s, Powell and Wimmer began their longstanding musical association by jamming together at one of their many mutual dance camps across the country. They also shared an additional bond and another French connection with their occasional zydeco band, the Zydeco Nortons.
Like Wimmer, Powell was fortunate to experience what the senior musician’s music felt like inside and the special significance it held.
“He was often thinking about his brothers and father when he played, thinking about the people he had played with that were gone,” says Powell. “He was recalling their spirits through the music. A lot of time you would see him crying and that’s why.”
Unfortunately the relationship with Dewey wasn’t as long as Powell would have hoped. About that time, Dewey was diagnosed with cancer and the man who infused life into the course of Cajun music couldn’t defuse the disease that doesn’t discriminate.
“We had a few really important moments there at the end where I was playing for him in his room and he was real sick. But he was listening and had a really big grin on his face in bed,” says Powell. “I could tell by the way he was rocking his head back and forth that he was listening to me play. He was having faith that it was going to go on. We were really able to, at the every end, express our good feelings about each other and our love for each other which was not very old but I think we both felt that,” he continued. “We both sensed that Christine and I were going to be together. He probably saw some of the future.”
In June of 1992, Dewey passed away. Perhaps as a catharsis, Christine and Powell not only played a lot of music together, they began writing songs to express their grief. Unbeknownst to them, Christine’s sister Nelda was also writing songs. “It was the first time for both us,” Christine recalls. “That was just a natural thing to express our grief.”
“We were amazed by the fact that we both had these creative outbursts and it really came from the process of losing Dewey,” Powell said. “One of the first songs Nelda wrote was ‘Pop, Tu Me Parles Toujours’ which means ‘Dad, you speak to me still.’ When we heard that song, of course we were heavily moved.”
Around Christmas of 1992, they began thinking about making a record, especially with Nelda putting pen to paper.
“Nelda’s were very poignant and very much the stuff that we wanted to say, ‘Look, this Balfa music isn’t gone,’” Powell said. “It wasn’t so much a matter of the music, so much as the spirit behind it.”
“It hasn’t been our goal to just copy the Balfa Brothers and sound like them,” said Powell. “Our goal has been to try to live up to their spirit and their messages.”
As a by-product of their music merrymaking, Christine, Powell and Nelda made a tape of their songs. On a lark, Christine sent a tape to Swallow Records’ Floyd Soileau, not necessarily looking for a deal, but just any feedback the venerable record man might offer. To their astonishment, Soileau wanted to make a record and the wheels were set in motion. Wimmer, who by then was living in California gigging with the bluegrass group Good Ol’ Persons and the California Cajun Orchestra, flew out to play the fiddle parts.
The resulting project, 1993’s Pop, Tu Me Parles Toujours, was a glorious expression of the foursome’s sentiment towards their father, mentor and friend.
“It wasn’t necessarily that we knew this was a first record of a band,” said Powell. “It was more a project specifically in the memory of Dewey.”
Among the highlights that year was playing their first Festivals Acadiens in Lafayette’s Girard Park. It was an event that Dewey had once played a hand in developing. By the early seventies, Dewey had been to enough folk festivals to recognize the need to showcase their own music. The inaugural Festivals Acadiens wasn’t the dance extravagnza it is today. Rather, it was a single night, sit-down affair where the seating was such in Blackham Coliseum that any dancing was impossible. By seeing this grand music played from the stage devoid of distraction, the organizers hoped it would be appreciated in a more serious light on par with other genres.
While Christine and Powell both agree that the Balfa connection put them on their first Festivals Acadiens stage, it’s been the constant evolution and growing maturity of their music that has kept them there.
“We were very lucky that people opened the door to us, because of Daddy and the Balfa Brothers and all the work they did,” Christine reflects. “But people like the music too. I am just still amazed by the support of it and how fast the band has grown.”
While it’s a fact Balfa Toujours has grown quickly since their inception, at that same time it’s been a very natural growth. While each year the band’s itinerary is packed to the gills with concerts, festivals, recording sessions and side projects, in many ways, Balfa Toujours represents the continuation of the Balfa Family legacy. As Dewey was always happy to share his music with anyone desiring to learn it, Christine, Powell and Wimmer feel fortunate to pass on the tradition they’ve been part of. For a better part of a decade, the trio has instructed at the Augusta during Cajun and Creole week while closer to home, they’ve witnessed the emergence of the family’s next generation in fiddler Courtney Granger, great nephew of the Balfa Brothers, whom Powell refers to as a “raw talent.”
But just as Dewey’s vision of presenting a Cajun music festival at home when it frequently traveled out of state, another desire of Dewey’s will take shape in April 2001. For years, aspiring roots musicians have trekked to instructional settings such as the Augusta, the Ashokan (New York State) and Fiddle Tunes (Port Townsend, Washington), yet there’s never been an equivalent in its own cradle. In fact, Cajuns are becoming used to learning Cajun music in places like West Virginia, an irony that Wimmer finds puzzling–Cajuns travelling out-of-state to learn their music. Well, next year will be slightly different since last year Christine established the non-profit Louisiana Folk Roots to teach the indigenous music and dance in its native setting.
Set for the week of April 22nd, the Dewey Balfa Cajun and Creole Heritage Week will be held at the Lake Fausse Pointe State Park, which sits on the edge of the Atchafalaya Basin near St. Martinville. There will be continuous workshops in the Cajun and Creole culture, music (accordion, fiddle, guitar and vocals), native crafts, cooking and a French class emphasizing both Cajun and Creole dialects. So far, the instructors include Christine, Powell, Wimmer, Steve Riley, David Greely, Eddie Poullard, Cookie Chavis and Mitch Reed. Each day will feature special guests like “Bois Sec” Ardoin, Walter Mouton, or Michael Doucet. And of course, there will be plenty of jam sessions and dances.
“You may love the music but you can’t understand it completely until you have been here,” Powell said. “That goes the same for any culture. You can’t understand exactly how it is shaped until you have been there and seen it in its own context.”
As much as Balfa Toujours represents the Balfa tradition and the kindred spirits that have come before them, labeling them solely as traditionalists is a bit of a misnomer. To some, the term implies never innovating within the tradition. Even Dewey Balfa wrote songs and once explained that the songs he played predate him by 100 years and if there are going to be 100 year-old songs a century from now, he better do his part now.
Likewise, the songwriting team of Christine and Powell has contributed originals to each of their projects. Their fifth, Live at Whiskey River Landing, released in August, is no exception. The lead off track “La Chandelle est Allumée” compares the culture to a lit candle. Despite all the things that have happened, the culture still survives, which metaphorically is the flame that still burns.
“Americanization is coming on us,” Christine points out. “But the candle is still lit.”
This month the candle will be burning even brighter, perhaps to the point of flaming as Balfa Toujours have the ultimate honor of closing down Festivals Acadiens (September 16-17, Girard Park, Lafayette). It’s the one Dewey envisioned; it’s also the first Louisiana festival at which Wimmer played. Christine played the Girard Park event with her father’s bands from 1985 through 1991. Though each has known about it since January when organizer Barry Ancelet informed them, it still renders them practically speechless, even months later. “I am still in awe of it,” said Christine.
“I never thought this would happen,” Powell said, referring to the fact that he and Wimmer are from outside the culture.
At first, Wimmer states quietly “it’s pretty heavy,” pauses, then adds, “it should be fun.” Like his bandmates, Wimmer recognizes that there is plenty of talent in Acadiana that could fill that spot, so closing down Acadiens is absolutely a crown jewel. But this year’s celebration happens to be their eighth in as many years, hence symbolizing a Balfa Toujours tradition.
“Festivals Acadiens has always been very special for us because Dewey’s presence is so strong there,” Wimmer notes. “At Festivals Acadiens, we have always brought out the best in audiences. There is something about the feeling we have playing there, which has to do with being Dewey’s festival and falling in that tradition.”
And somewhere you can bet that Dewey, Rodney and Will will be there too. You just won’t be able to see them….
Louisiana Folk Roots can be contacted at 337-332-0967 or accessed on the web at www.lafolkroots.com.
“A culture is like a whole tree: you have to water the roots to keep the tree alive, but at the same time you can’t go cutting off the branches every time it tries to grow.” – Dewey Balfa
“To learn the medium, in which you express yourself, you have to imitate other people initially. You don’t end there. You always got to move on and express yourself.” – Dirk Powell
“The culture as a whole is willing to let some branches go farther out. Some bands want to seek out other influences. If the culture is strong, it can survive all that.” – Kevin Wimmer
“The old songs are the roots of the tree. We look at the branches as all the new songs that have come out. You can’t forget about the roots because that is your support for all the new songs. And without the roots, the whole thing would die.”– Christine Balfa