Fast-paced Cajun music draws dancers

NEW ORLEANS — Lou Neville jerks the bow of his fiddle back and forth with an aggression and fervor that would make Charlie Daniels blush.

Neville, along with his four-member band—which includes a steel guitarist, a drummer and a woman on the harmonica—is playing authentic Cajun music at Michaul’s, a popular restaurant and dance hall in New Orleans’ Warehouse District.

On this early April Friday night, Neville’s band, The New Cajuneers, is delighting customers with a blend of their own hits, including “Coming Home,” and cover songs from the region’s most famous Cajun bands, such as the Balfa Brothers and Lawrence Welker.

“The Balfas were like the godfathers of Cajun music, so every time we do a show we try to perform a song or two of theirs,” said Neville of the five-sibling band that recorded albums from 1951 until 1979.

While Neville enjoys playing some songs as tributes to the forefathers of Cajun music, his true passion lies in his band’s ability to make people get up and dance.

“It doesn’t matter what type of music you play,” said Neville. “If you can’t get people to dance, you aren’t playing good music. I know a lot of musicians who started playing this type of music because they used to dance to it when they were kids.”

With fast-paced rhythms and even faster paced musicians, Cajun music lends itself to dancing as much as any other genre. Even without lyrics, as is the case in several of the New Cajuneers’ songs, those in attendance can feel the beat and show off their two left feet.

“My husband and I love coming to places like this because it doesn’t matter if you are a good dancer or not,” said Jeanine Gray. “When you come to places like this, and we do it often, everyone’s up and doing the same dances and hoping the band’s good.”

A native of nearby Metairie, La., Gray and her husband Jack make quick work of their dinner and drinks so they can get back to doing different waltzes, which have long been Cajun music’s signature dance style.

While Cajun music has spread across to various types of music, namely country-western and swing, it is most popular in the Bayou regions of Louisiana, where it originated as an emotional outlet for the Acadian people.

It has also been intertwined with the more Creole-based zydeco music, which focuses more on lyrical storytelling and accordion playing. Still popular today among the African American Creole community, zydeco music can be heard regularly at select bars in and around New Orleans.

One such venue is the Bourbon Vieux, a banquet facility located right on Bourbon Street, which incidentally also claims to have the French Quarter’s largest balcony.

Bourbon Vieux’s managers say they like offering zydeco music as a change of pace—as well as its reliance on a particular instrument.

“Zydeco is one of the only forms of music out there that still uses the accordion,” said Matt Everett, one of the bar’s event planners and music bookers. “For some reason, I started playing it when I was real young and I never grew out of it, and it’s still one of my favorite instruments to play and listen to.”

Everett, 37, also plays the drums and has dabbled in the art of piano playing.  When not hosting events for companies such as ESPN and Microsoft, Everett says he enjoys the crowds that the local music brings to Bourbon Vieux and its sister restaurant, the Cajun Cabin.

“Obviously, we’re right on Bourbon Street in the middle of everything, so people are going to be a little more ‘festive’ than normal,” said Everett. “And when they hear the fiddle or accordion playing and they start doing the ‘air fiddle,’ that makes us feel great and it brings a great crowd to our venue.”

The air fiddle, as Everett demonstrated, is exactly what one might expect, and consists of people, usually intoxicated, pretending to play a fiddle with their hands. It is Acadia’s answer to the ever-popular air guitar, played by the majority of uncoordinated Americans.

While the air fiddle might be enjoyable to play for people of all ages and levels of sobriety, the fiddle itself, forever a staple of Cajun music, is much more difficult to master.

“I started playing the fiddle when I was 13 years old,” said Neville, now 52. “And there are still some things I know I’d like to be better at.”

As Lou Neville continues to develop as a fiddler, and as the New Cajuneers take their tunes across Acadia, his dream of one day being the imitated and not the imitator continues to grow.

“One day, my dream is to come to a place like this and here a band play something that’s an homage to me,” he said. “I’m not conceited, but in a community like this, when someone plays your song it’s almost as if they know you and really learned something from you.”

Now that dream is not something to fiddle with.


If You Go

Recommended Cajun music venues in New Orleans:

840 St. Charles Ave.
New Orleans (Warehouse District)
(504) 522-5517

201 Julia St.
New Orleans (Warehouse District)
(504) 522-1492

Bourbon Vieux
501 Bourbon St.
New Orleans (French Quarter)
(504) 586-1155

Louisiana Music Factory
(A store more than a venue, LMF specializes in many types of regional music and has a large Cajun and zydeco collection)
210 Decatur St.
New Orleans (French Quarter)
(504) 586-1094

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