Masters of Cajun Accordian Festival Lecture | The ArtsCenter | Arts | Indy Week
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Masters of Cajun Accordian Festival Lecture 

When: Sun., Oct. 1, 6 p.m. 2017
Price: $17.50-$30.50

Steve Riley and Jo-El Sonnier are both masterful accordionists. They share a common south Louisiana origin, but what tumbles out of their respective squeezebox folds is vastly different. Jo El Sonnier sounds more old-school country than some of the good ol' boys he's channeling, while Riley and his Mamou Playboys stir up a gumbo with ingredients from all over.

"We're influenced by everything that touches our ears," Riley says. "Dance music, club music, swamp pop, everything from jazz to folk music to blues."

But that doesn't mean he turns his back on tradition. The accordionist says he plays Cajun music with a rock 'n' roll attitude. Riley was mentored by Cajun fiddle master Dewey Balfa, and the early Mamou Playboys albums were mostly traditional arrangements electrified and rocked up a bit. But Riley and the Playboys started writing their own material, still singing largely in French but hopping around vigorously among genres and styles.

Sonnier wrote and recorded his first song, "Te Yeaux Bleu," when he was eleven years old. It was a traditional-sounding Cajun waltz, but his heart had remained in country music. Country has always been a comfortable ride-along for Cajun songsters, but Sonnier hauls it around like an old dog riding shotgun in his pickup. Hank Williams and George Jones had his ear early on, but Johnny Cash got his soul when he recorded Sonnier's "Cajun Born" on 1978's Gone Girl. You can hear Cash mutter, "That's pretty, Jo-El," when Sonnier cranks up his accordion at the beginning.

Sonnier continued to write and record with a litany of country greats including Cash, Jones, Haggard, and Jerry Lee Lewis. One of Sonnier's biggest hits was his cover of Richard Thompson's "Tear Stained Letter," from 1988's Come On Joe. The accompanying video, acted out in hammy eighties MTV fashion, features Judge Reinhold getting tossed around by an fluffy ex-lover while Sonnier lays down straight-up, old-school country vocals, accented, of course, by his inimitable accordion playing.

Both Riley and Sonnier are traditionalists at heart, so you'll hear the culture shining through whatever they tackle. Riley and the Playboys used to give lectures before a show, discussing the history of Cajun music, singing in French, then translating, and taking questions from the audience. This show also has a lecture by Barry Jean Ancelet, a professor and folklorist at the University of Louisiana at LaFayette. But the real message is the music, a well-stirred gumbo as informative as it is tasty. Dig in, savor, and enjoy. —Grant Britt

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