KBON 101.1 FM
"Louisiana Proud" Radio
109 South 2nd Street
Eunice, LA 70535
Phone (337) 546-0007
December 3, 2010
Why does this guy’s voice sound so familiar? Halfway through my visit to KBON FM radio station, a lanky man with an easy smile has emerged from behind a closed office door and before you know it we’re talking Louisiana music.
From the broadcast booth, Phil Daigle cues up a commercial for a nightclub in Lafayette – the voice enthusiastically proclaiming upcoming entertainment at The Blue Moon in Lafayette belongs to Todd Ortego, the guy standing right in front of me.
Ortego is the sales executive at KBON. Since hardly anyone at the station wears only one hat, he also hosts “The Swamp and Roll Show” every Thursday from 6-10 PM. A certifiable music freak since music was mostly played on 45 rpm records, he’s got encyclopedic knowledge. On any one of Todd’s shows, you’ll hear a mix of rock, swamp pop, plus back-stories about the music, the artists who made it, and guest chats with the musicians themselves.
My comment that I’m heading to Grant Street in Lafayette to hear Horace Trahan lights him up. Before you can say grits ‘n gravy, Todd is giving me some background. I feel like I’m an audience of one for a “Swamp and Roll Show.”
“Horace’s first public performance happened when he was about 15. He was in the audience at a local show. The MC had heard about this kid who played accordion and sang traditional songs in French so soulfully that people listening would weep. By the time Horace finished, people were pulling out their handkerchiefs. He may have been a kid but he has the voice of an old soul,” Todd says.
“One of the songs Horace revived was an Iry LeJeune song titled, "Vien me chercher" (Come Get Me). Have you ever heard of him?”
By this time, we’re sitting in Todd’s office. He swivels in his chair makes a few clicks on his computer. Out the speakers comes Iry LeJeune singing the song he recorded for the Ace Record Company in 1953.
“You should know this guy’s name, he re-popularized the accordion in Cajun music.” Ever the evangelizer to an enthusiastic listener, Todd comments about the Celtic influence on the melodies of Cajun music. My jaw is dropping. I have a lot to learn.
“I’d be at Grant Street tonight if my wife and I didn’t have plans we can’t break,” Todd says. He swivels back to the console. “You’ve got to hear this.” Like a kid who’s sharing a favorite CD with a friend, Todd plays cuts from nearly every song on Trahan’s latest album, “Keep Walking.”
I hear echoes of Iry Lejeune, Hank Williams, Bob Dylan and Bob Marley but one thing is clear - I’m listening to a contemporary original, one musical foot in the past, and one-stepping boldly into the future.
“Funny Things Change, ” one of several songs Horace sings about relationships, this one in English, gets out of the gate with pure zydeco beat with two or three out-of-the-blue sax riffs that for all the world like a James Brown sax line and instrumentation. A wailing saxophone on a zydeco record?
I’m on notice.
“This is an old time two step,” Horace says in the opening few seconds of “La Reunion” and lights into an old time springy two-step with bubbly accordion and French lyrics, a real foot tapper.
When a sly reggae flavor floats over the opening phrases of drums, accordion, guitar, and sax for “It’s All Right,” I know for sure this zydeco band is trying on a new suit. Under it all, there’s a chorus that, like in the first cut, is a message…‘We’re doin' the best we can.’ After a few more cuts, I start substituting the “we” to “I.” This is Horace talking, a man who’s learning the hard way.
Uncle Horace uses a very traditional zydeco beat and instrumentation to hammer out another piece of his mind, this one to his peers, about life with his song titled, “Sad But True.” (see Todd Ortego briefly at open and close of song.
By the time we get to the big saxophone and accordion lines that open “Keep Walking,” I start looking around for the ghost of Bob Marley nodding his head somewhere in Shacktown. There's a great reggae feel to Trahan’s message song with English lyrics. Louisiana seems to be drifting toward Jamaica on some cosmic, creative gulf stream.
The blasting sax and accordion with the big reggae beat that opens “Keep Walking” give off two messages: one is a Horace’s ‘we’re all in the same boat’ sermon. The other, with the Jamaican beat, says we are in uncharted zydeco territory.
“Listen to this one,’ Todd smiles and hits “Mr. Bernard.” “Mr. Bernard” has a lively zydeco beat with driving bass line and lots of traditional Cajun whooos and huhhhs peppered in the story song about Horace asking Mr. Bernard ‘Jamerais marrier’ - permission to marry his daughter. Todd sings along, translating the Cajun French into English for me. The rub board player in Horace's band is Mr. Bernard. He said, "Yes."
Men wearing their hearts on their sleeves in traditional Cajun songs are not unusual. “The Whole World's Waltz” is an accordion driven song in English, Horace's compact little reflection on the vagaries of life.
By the time we listen to “Guilty Till Proven Innocent” and “When Love Takes Over,” I’m wondering whether this reggae feel to the songs is an embellishment Horace and other Louisiana musicians are exploring or whether it’s been in this Creole based music all along and I’m just catching on. The drum, bass, accordion mix is very islandish.
“H D T V” strays so far from the zydeco universe you’d need the Hubble Telescope to see it. It’s cool, it’s fun, and it’s hip-hop! When Horace sings, “H D T V don’t mean that much to me ‘cause I got higher definition in my reality" (sing that to yourself with a hip-hop cadence and you'll get the idea), in hip hop cadence I have no idea how I’d dance to it. But I’m amazed at Trahan’s exploratory nature.
“Canadian band 'Radio Radio' got interested when they heard H D T V,” Todd says. “Here’s another song from that session. He cues up “Same Knife Cut The Sheep Cut The Goat.” Complete with waaa waahhh guitar, flute, accordion, bass, and drums, it’s not hip-hop but certainly reggae. “This one, sung in French and English, was inspired from a Jamaican saying he learned while jamming with Radio Radio. Horace has since contributed vocals on Radio Radio's latest CD."
Most zydeco bands have a few smoky blues songs in their repertoire but few fire them out with a rollicking sax that feels like it’s been shot of a cannon. “You'll Never Make It If You Never Try” with its bump and grind back beat and husky bass and lead guitar defies you to sit still. Trahan gives you the message in French and English. Not on the album, but "I'm On A Wonder," is a bluesy example.
Trahan’s “Merci et Bonsoir” is a pretty little waltz sung in French. I hear echoes of Iry Lejeune in Horace’s achy inflections here and imagine Iry saluting from his grave.
“King of Sand” is a final proclamation of Trahan’s faith in the almighty. The hip-hop cadence is surely a sign that Horace Trahan is forging his own path, respecting but not enslaved by tradition.
In between songs, Todd tells me that the messages in the songs I’ve been listening to have been learned the hard way. Trahan got out of the gate fast and didn’t make it to the clubhouse turn before he faltered. Something about alcohol, drugs and an abrupt turnabout to religion. Now married to a fine woman, he’s on firm ground. His songs are reflections on what he learned in his struggle to get right, with himself as much as with his maker.
There’s more emphasis on Zydeco (Creole inspired) music on this album than Cajun. Zydeco gained popularity 1950s and has been a complement to Cajun and Swamp Pop, another genre that gained popularity in the 1950s, ever since. That explains the horns, the big back beat and a hint of R&B and rock n roll that infuses Trahan’s album, “Keep Walking.”
Todd Ortego’s day was officially over by the time I’d entered KBON. The time he spends with me sharing music he loves is for the fun of it. This impromptu tutorial with Todd helps me understand that traditional music is evolving in Louisiana and Horace Trahan is breaking new ground. I’ll have to keep returning here to see where it goes next.
In the meantime, I'm driving back to Lafayette to see Horace Trahan and The New Ossun Express tonight.(photos above).
Photos by Paul A. Tamburello, Jr.