When the four dynamic, multi-talented women who formed Bonsoir, Catin in 2004 first came together, their main goal was simply sustaining the pleasure of playing music with like-minded souls.
That spark was ignited when Kristi Guillory—folklorist, songwriter, virtuoso accordionist and the band’s frontwoman—attended a weeklong, annual event—the Dewey Balfa Cajun and Creole Heritage Week—featuring music classes, performances and nightly dances held that year in Chicot State Park.
The event is sponsored annually by Louisiana Folk Roots, a multi-dimensional non-profit founded by Christine Balfa, daughter of Cajun-revival pioneer Dewey Balfa, and a respected singer and guitarist in her own right who perpetuates the memory of her father by heading up the neo-traditionalist band, Balfa Toujours.
Also in attendance was Yvette Landry, a budding, mid-life bassist working with the Louisiana Rhythm Devils who would go on to develop natural skills in songwriting and writing children’s books.
Kristi Guillory recently recalled the band’s origins this way for the blogsite LafayetteTravel.com: “After spending a week together and hanging out, Yvette and I were jamming around a campfire with Christine Balfa, who I’ve known since I was 10 years old and first starting out on accordion. We all instantly recognized how easy it was to play with each other. So I asked them if they wanted to start a band, and luckily, they both said, ‘Yes.’”
Shortly thereafter, Christine nominated fiddler and violin-maker Anya Burgess as another crucial member of the band, and Kristi got the band a booking at the Blue Moon Saloon, ground zero for a burgeoning, young Cajun revivalist movement.
“We started rehearsing and everyone brought different tunes to play,” Kristi remembers. “Before long, we were playing like we’ve been playing together for years.”
Since then, the core of Bonsoir, Catin has remained intact in the face of outside obligations with other bands, individual side projects, and family responsibilities that include childrearing and childbearing. During the same time period, the band’s basic repertoire has relied on new interpretations of a crazy quilt of Cajun folklore, honky-tonk tunes, original compositions, and straight-ahead blues, the common denominator being dance floor-ready rhythmic drive.
There have been very few nods to the heritage of generations of female Cajun musicians because, with a very few exceptions, there are none. Kristi postulates that since the advent of commercial Cajun music in the ’20s and ’30s, performance spaces tended to be rough-and-ready joints, barely safe for a male musician. As a result, the recorded history of women in Cajun music is relatively meager, especially since commercial recordings were few and far-between until the ’30s and ’40s, when first Western swing and later roadhouse honky-tonk dominated the market as enriched Cajun imports.
An exception to the lack of female Cajun musicians in contemporary terms is Ann Savoy’s Magnolia Sisters, a close complement to Bonsoir, Catin but with a decidedly different take on the business of musical revival. Whereas the Magnolia Sisters treat their revivalist instincts with great respect, resulting in performances that might be replications, Bonsoir, Catin salutes the past with even greater reverence while also retaining the absolute right to remake it in their own image.
Consider their name, taken from a tune by the founding father of recorded Cajun music, Amede Ardoin. Loosely translated, Bonsoir, Catin means “goodnight, sweetheart” or “goodnight, doll,” a vernacular usage at odds with the more contemporary meaning, which refers to what we now know as female “escorts.” Never mind—Bonsoir, Catin’s sticking with their prior interpretation and all its connotations.
The same goes for the adoption of honky-tonk repertoire by a slightly younger generation than the Magnolia Sisters. When a formal Cajun music revival was launched in the ’60s and ’70s by Dewey Balfa and his contemporaries, historic, acoustic dancehall and front-porch music became the movement’s touchstone; honky-tonk dancehall music popular at the same time was seen as an intrusion and a sort of threat to the older, more homespun traditions.
Now, a new generation has embraced it wholeheartedly, seeing it from their perspective as an historic precursor to the sounds that were contemporary to their own coming of age. This new attitude toward an expanded repertoire, which in Bonsoir, Catin’s case even includes Mississippi Delta and electric Chicago blues, places the band firmly in the company of contemporaries like Feufollet, the Pine Leaf Boys, the Lost Bayou Ramblers, and Cedric Watson & Bijou Creole.
Bonsoir, Catin’s vision, established on the dance floor practically since their first live gig, was also evident in their first recording, 2007’s Blues a Catin, which demonstrated their performance chops within an eclectic range of instrumental and shared vocal skills. But it was 2009’s Vive L’Amour on the Valcour label, the record-making ground zero for the new Cajun revival, which really announced Bonsoir, Catin’s presence as a major creative force.
Produced and engineered by Dirk Powell, a nationally respected acoustic musician and husband to Christine Balfa, Vive L’Amour, which OffBeat reviewer Dan Willging found enlivening, beautiful and “just plain fun,” showcased Bonsoir, Catin’s collective sound as a collection of individual performances.
It would take their new release, Light the Stars, to demonstrate a wholly new sound on record, one that reflects the band’s evolution and growth while establishing a landmark for the collective force of Cajun women, both on record and within the new Cajun revival.
From one perspective, the conception of Light the Stars really began with Kristi Guillory’s own pregnancy. Having recently completed her exquisitely wrought side project, Broken Glass, a collection of Americana compositions framed in pulse-quickening, alt-country settings, she gave birth to a daughter in September 2012.
Having made the decision to be a stay-at-home mom, she began using whatever spare time she could find to write songs not for herself but for Bonsoir, Catin, the first time the band would record a deliberately created contingent of original compositions. The experience of having made Broken Glass, Guillory says, fully informed the creative process for Light the Stars. “I acquired a whole lot of confidence,” she recalls, “writing for myself and creating my own kind of sound. After that, since I already had the band’s sound deep within me, it seemed like a natural progression to be writing for it.”
In fact, the story behind Light the Stars mirrors the final product in a way that highlights its natural development. “I hate to use the word because it’s been invoked so often,” Kristi says, “but this really was an organic process from start to finish.”
With a performance schedule intermittent at best, the band decided to schedule regular, weekly practices to learn Kristi’s new compositions and a few other tunes for the new CD, allotting each new song one practice session. The band began these preparations greatly fortified. Not long after the release of Vive L’Amour, Dan Devillier joined the band on drums, bringing with him rock and jazz chops as well as a music theory and composition degree from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette; during Light the Stars rehearsal sessions, he lent a hand in shaping and fine-tuning arrangements, sometimes adding embellishments like a vibraphone, which most often is used as a jazz instrument.
Shortly before the Light the Stars sessions, the band also added Maegan Berard on electric guitar; the youngest member of the band, Berard belongs to a highly respected Cajun music family and brought with her a remarkable range of instrumental voices, ranging from searing, concise fills to languid, soulful guitar solos.
Once in the studio, producer and engineer Joel Savoy became essentially the seventh member of the band, sharing producing credit with Kristi Guillory. With one Grammy already under his belt (for 2012’s The Band Courtbouillion) Savoy, a musician in his own right and one of Valcour’s three managing principals, has been sharpening his producing skills, most recently on his own Honky Tonk Merry-Go-Round and the Pine Leaf Boys’ highly acclaimed Danser. “Joel’s really hit his stride as a producer in the last couple of years,” Kristi says, reflecting a deep respect.
As the final product of this extended, gradual production and recording process, Light the Stars is predictably dense, multi-layered and hyper-enriched with the inspirational insight of a new musical generation fusing Cajun traditions with contemporary sensibilities, all of it finely integrated and extraordinarily well-crafted.
The band’s promotional literature calls it “a unique blend of ancient ballads, dancehall-era gems, swamp-pop stylings, and rock ’n’ roll blues,” describing the variety of sources from which Bonsoir, Catin weaves its remarkably detailed musical tapestry of sounds, reflecting strains of Cajun roots, modern Cajun sounds, and the American hit parade.
The fun begins with the very first track, “Moi l’Aime une Petite Fille,” a traditional “lesson” ballad leavened with vibraphone highlights that admonishes “young people of marrying age” to beware the pitfalls of fickle love. Three originals follow, continuing the hard-charging rhythmic groove that persists throughout, with “Jours si Long” a standout for its swamp-pop styling and evocative, impassioned electric guitar solo. A series of four selections comes next, all displaying creativity equally matched with roots-music sources.
The series kicks off with a dazzling reinterpretation of “Baby, Please Don’t Go,” the well-known Chicago blues here given a spirited, dirge-like treatment complete with a stutter-step bridge, and reaches delirious peak with “Faut Tu Voir,” replete with Hammond B-3 organ washes and an “oop, oop, oop” Motown chorus.
Four traditionally oriented tracks follow, including contributions from New Orleans folkie Natalie Mae Palms and Tara Nevins, frontwoman of neo-string band Donna the Buffalo. The proceedings conclude on high note with “Tu Parles de Trop,” a straight-out rocker from Christine Balfa. Throughout, Light the Stars displays a consistent inclination for rhythmically dominant and creatively woven musical accompaniment that is sure to elevate the listener’s pulse rate while stimulating both the imagination and appreciation for impassioned performances.
An instant classic within the Cajun heritage, Light the Stars stands a better-than-average chance of being justly rewarded come Grammy time.