To some, the word "magnolia" conjures up an image of the fragrant ornamental trees that flourish along the Gulf Coast. For dance enthusiasts of the southeast coast of Massachusetts, the word summons up the sound of the Magnolia Cajun Band, a seven piece group whose music has been thrilling Cajun music fans from Nova Scotia to Louisiana for almost sixteen years. They’re one of the feature bands playing at the Westport Art Council’s “Come Out and Play in Central Village” event at the Town Hall Annex on July 8.
The band’s roots trace back to a small lane off Drift Road in Westport,MA, where Chris Ash and her husband Dan George moved in 1985. Chris discovered that Maggie Moniz, another new arrival to the lane, was a guitar player and fellow music lover. Before you could say Woody Guthrie, Chris broke out her own guitar and the two began playing favorite folk songs, bluegrass, and gospel music.
Ash and Moniz were serious enough to form a “girl band” and played locally. Before long, Maggie’s husband Richie Moniz, a fine singer and a natural presence on stage, began to appear with them. It is quite a sight to behold the burly Moniz by playing his teensy triangle and the washboard. By that time, Ash had begun playing the fiddle, a birthday present from her husband. It was a case of love at first sound. “I heard this fiddle music on the radio and thought , I’ve got to play this music. It speaks right to my heart,” she recalls.
The inspiration to play Cajun music was one of those random events that unalterably change one’s life. “You’ve gotta hear this music,” a friend exclaimed to the three of them and packed them in his van headed for the annual Labor Day Cajun and Bluegrass Festival in western Rhode Island. The music pinned their ears back, seized their hearts, and by 1990 they began to play it.
“Soon after, people who danced like crazy at the festival then had to wait whole year to dance again to live music recruited us to play for them. They didn’t mind that we were just learning the music.” Chris Ash said.
Between 1990 and 1996, the Magnolia Cajun Band began a growth spurt. First, Rhode Islanders Alan Bradbury, accordion, and Michele Kaminsky, fiddle, joined the group. Next, Martin Grosswendt, bass, and Jack Ezkovich, drums, who both had a loyal Dartmouth following in a country/western band called the OK Corral, joined.
“We’re like a family by now,” Ash says, “We travel together, cook and eat great food together, and have a lot of fun.”
Learning the traditions of Cajun music is part of the fun. If a Cajun band from Louisiana plays within driving distance, you’ ll find members of Magnolia backstage after a concert picking the brains of the old time musicians. They’ve even visited their role models at their Louisiana homes, literally sitting at the feet of the masters to learn the nuances of the music and traditions.
And then there’s summer camp at the Augusta Heritage Center in Virginia. The Magnolias learn the finer points of playing their instruments, the history of their music, and have the joy of playing with new and experienced musicians.
“In the week we were there, I took classes in Cajun culture and language,” Maggie Moniz said. “My ancestors are from Nova Scotia and Quebec and I wanted to learn about the Cajun French language. “
The mentors, the camps, and the practice pay off. “Our early music sounded like nice folk music. When we listened to our latest CD. we thought, wow, we’ve come a long way,” Ms. Moniz said.
Acadian music and culture had original roots in the maritime provinces of Canada as French settlers migrated there in the 1600s. In a time of political upheaval between Britain and France in the 1700s, the French were harshly driven out of Canada. Over time, many of these French-Canadians, called Acadians, found a place to start over within the French speaking regions of rural southwest Louisiana. Music became the vehicle for the Acadians to express the sentiments of loss and separation brought about by the experience of being wrenched from their homes. “’Cajun”, short for Acadian, music was born. Over time, the music became a Louisiana “gumbo” and reflected the German, Native American, and African-American cultures that lived in the region.
“We play dance hall music, mostly two step and waltzes,” explains Ash.
“Our music’s got drive, it lifts you off your chair gets you on your feet,” Richie Moniz adds.
When the Magnolia Cajun Band fires up its two fiddles, accordion, guitar, triangle/washboard, bass and drums for the “Come out and Play” concert, it will be the Northern equivalent of a good ‘ol Cajun “fais do do,” a concert for all ages.
“Today if you go a restaurant with a live band in the Cajun area of southwest Louisiana you’ll see all ages of dancing with one another, 8 year old kids dancing two-step with their mother or grandfather or with each other. Everyone knows how to two-step and waltz. It’s part of the culture, ” Ash said.
You don’t have to schedule a lesson with Arthur Murray to learn the basic two-step. If you think you can take two steps to the right, pause, take two steps to the left, pause, and do it to the beat of the music, you’ve got the makings of a two-step beginner.
When they play between 8 and 9 PM next Saturday, The Magnolia Cajun Band hopes to see an inter-generational crowd stepping out to their music.
“When you play for your own town it’s a bonus,” Richie Moniz says. “You perform for people you know on first name basis and you can show them the musician and the singer side of you as well as, in my case, the guy who’s run Thad’s Auto Salvage in all my life.”
There’s another bonus. “The last song we play at the end of each concert is ‘There’s no place like home.’ That will have special meaning to Maggie, Chris and me at the Westport concert next week. We will truly be home,” Mr. Moniz said.
Southeast Massachusetts has been fertile ground for the Magnolia Cajun Band to flourish. Their concerts on the first Saturday of the month in Seekonk attract dancers from New York to Maine. Some of the dancers have been coming since they began in 1990.
“Playing for dancers has a wonderful energy to it. The better we play, the more fun the dancers have, the more fun the dancers have the more adventuresome we get in our playing,” says Ash.
It wouldn’t be surprising to find some new converts arriving from Westport when The Magnolia Cajun Band resumes their concerts in Seekonk in September.