Joie de Vivre Coffee and Culture Café
107 N Main Street
Breaux Bridge, LA 70517
11:30 AM, Saturday, December 15, 2012
Well, just another Saturday morning around here. Dikku Du and The Zydeco crew have finished playing at the Cafe des Amis. Correspondingly, things have picked up at the Joie de Vivre Coffee and Culture Café, one of the new music destinations one block away in Breaux Bridge.
Fourteen musicians have pulled up chairs in a big circle. It looks pretty ragtag but everyone is listening intently to what’s going on around them. What a collection of instruments. Three fiddles, six guitars, one washboard bass, one t-fer (a metal triangle struck rhythmically with an iron rod) and one accordion. All the songs are sung in French, a carousel of ballads, waltzes, and two steps. VIDEO
The main thing here is to have fun. The robust volume isn’t always pitch perfect but the enthusiasm more than compensates. The range of abilities is stunning. Sprinkled amongst the earnest amateurs are world-class musicians. Some of them live around the corner. Breaux Bridge may have more musical talent per square block than any other city in Louisiana. Come here for a few Saturdays and you will hear scores of Cajun ballads and waltzes that have been sung in southwest Louisiana for over a hundred years.
Any musician who can carry a tune, speaks or understands Cajun French, and wants to join in a musical conversation is welcome.There might be rules about how to participate. I learn one of them today.
“Only one accordion at a time,” says the fellow who just relinquished his chair to another accordion player. "When two accordions play together in a jam the sound gets muddy,” he says, then adds that accordion players are often the vocalists, true for most of this morning.
This would be John Romano (in grey shirt, photo above right), who’s taking the time to talk to me after he discovers my Sicilian ancestry. “Hey, I’m half Sicilian and half Irish,” he says with the grin of a co-conspirator. John’s another transplant, originally from Wisconsin, who’s been struck with the Cajun stick.
A potent invisible pheromone in the key of D major swirls over the prairies around Lafayette. I’ve lost count of the number of people Ive met from North Carolina, Wisconsin, Oregon, California, Florida and a bunch of other states who’ve been drawn here because of the music. Like John, now playing guitar, they’ve retired or moved lock, stock, and barrel to this area and worried about making a living after they’ve picked out the color for their new living room.
Christine Balfa,” John says, “ Brazos Huval gave her his guitar.” Brazos Huval, one of the talented siblings in the Huval family, moves to another chair and picks up a triangle and begins to play along. Oh, and he’s the bass guitar player for Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, a Cajun band that’s toured the world.
Christine Balfa is Cajun royalty, her dad was the esteemed Dewey Balfa who singlehandedly put Cajun music on America’s play list when he wowed crowds at the Newport Jazz Festival when promoter George Wein invited him and his brothers to perform in 1964.
David Greely (tan hat, photo above) walks in and unpacks his fiddle. David’s one of the founders of the aforementioned Steve Riley and The Mamou Playboys. Greely lives in Breaux Bridge.
Bernard Ussher (in cap), my menu, music and dance adviser in Lafayette, a transplant from Dublin via Massachusetts, introduces me to Melanie Harrington, the five-foot ball of energy who owns the café.
"We've just been birthed," she laughs. “We’ve been open for three months and one day. I'm a Cajun. I’ve spent most of my life in Vermilionville, Terre Bon, and St. Martinville Parishes and lived here in Breaux Bridge for 15 years.”
Melanie has a good thing going. She’s just introduced a Friday night dance. “It’s the only way I can dance since I’ve opened the café,” she says with a sigh. The café puts out breakfast and lunch. Bernard says she has a smashing lunch for the incredible price of $6.00 and specializes in vegetarian food.
"Do you come here for the history, the culture, friends, the tradition, the rejuvenation of the French language?” I ask.
"This is medicine for my soul," Christine Balfa says. “I live nearby, have a list of house chores to do but I know I will feel better if I come here for a while. I come here because it's good for my spirit."
I guess that's why I'm here, too.
Christine Balfa , Francois Roissard and Bernard Ussher
John Prestigiacomo (L) and J.B. Theriot, Breaux Bridge
Photos by Paul A. Tamburello, Jr.
POST SCRIPT MARCH 2, 2013
A comment about this story by John Prestigiacomo sparked a great email exchange with him and this addendum to the post.
I thought more about Cajun music after John Prestigiacomo and I traded emails about this story. John's been generous with his time and his point of view about Cajun music. Thanks to talking with him I have a deeper appreciation for what goes on in the jams I wrote about in this post.
Lafayette and the constellation of cities and towns surrounding it are the stronghold of Cajun music - they draw music enthusiasts and converts like bees to clover. Not only do they want to listen to it, they want to play it. Learning to play it is tricky. The spirit of the music isn't in the lyrics and the notes on the page. Old time Cajun music was open to improvisation and interpretation, sung from the heart and soul. Sung in the moment, it created joy, communicated shared values and heartaches, and a need to grab a partner and express yourself on the dance floor.
In the past decade, Cajun music has exploded from small market roots music to a larger audience. One visit to Breaux Bridge or one of a bunch of dance halls in Lafayette and you'll hear why. Groups like Grammy-nominated Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys are just one of dozens of Cajun bands that play all over the region.
John Prestigiacomo was raised in the bayous of South Louisiana. After careers with AT&T and IBM, he's retired and happy to be back home in southwest Louisiana and Breaux Bridge.
"I have a degree in music and a degree in clarinet but one of my passions has always been to play Cajun fiddle, that fiddle is a beast within itself, " he says.
He's only been at it for eight months but he jumped in with both feet. " I take lessons from Mitch Reed and Brazos Huval and practice and play at jams and with friends as much as I can. Mitch and Brazos teach me the tunes, and I put my spin on it - like Cajun music should be. I've had fun playing with guys like Hubert Maitre and Harry Trahan, guys who play it like it was played many years ago. Unstructured. Unmetered. Unsmooth. The way Cajun music was intended....from the heart and soul."
"Having lived in many places in the US and now back home, I worry about Cajun Music becoming homogenized...homogenized by technology, homogenized by passionate, music-loving newcomers who attempt to make the music and every note more precise than what I think it was meant to be. "
John told me a funny story that illustrates his point. "When I was asked to play with a legendary Cajun musician, I told him, 'I am not good enough to play in public with you.' His comments were something to the effect...ah...we just gonna have fun. As long as people dancing...they having a good time. They will only be upset if the beer ain't cold."
And, minus the beer, that's exactly what you hear when you step inside little cafes like the Joie de Vivre in Breaux Bridge. Old time music played by veterans and beginners who are on a perfect glide path that bridges the past and the future.