The Balfa Brothers - Biography

For all its buoyant spirit and intrinsic joy, Cajun music has traveled a long, arduous path, and like gospel and the blues, it has its roots in some hardcore misery. The British gained control of French Acadia, what is now Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in 1713, and grudgingly allowed the inhabitants to stay on their land. However, when the French and Indian War and Seven Years’ War erupted in 1754-1756, the British demanded that the Acadians swear an oath of loyalty to the crown. When the French colonists refused, they were forcibly removed, and shipped under hideous conditions to far-flung British colonies. Many thousands died. It’s referred to as the Great Upheaval; our modern term is ethnic cleansing. Of course, many made their way to relative safety in Southwestern Louisiana, where Acadian slowly morphed into Cajun. The songs and ballads of Acadia traveled, too, simple, up-tempo tunes based around accordion, fiddle, and vocals. Held within the range of a single octave, it’s an infectious, engaging music, marvelous because of its clarity, and today, Cajun’s popularity — along with that of its first cousin, zydeco — is worldwide. It’s difficult to believe that a half century ago, it was a fading tradition, and that a single family was largely responsible for its revival.

Born to a musically inclined sharecropper in Southwest Louisiana, the Balfa Brothers grew up surrounded by sound, and by the 1940s, they were performing at various dances and social events. There five of them (Les Freres Balfas en Francaise) at the start: Harry on accordion; Dewey and Will on fiddles; Rodney on vocals and guitar; Burkeman on triangle (an important component in establishing the rhythm) and spoons. For good measure, they added Hadley Fontenot on second accordion. To make their first recording, they used primitive equipment in their living room. The two songs were "La “Valse de Bon Baurche” and “Le Two Step de Ville Platte,” a waltz and a two-step, respectively; they were released on a 78 rpm disk in 1951. Sure, there was no national audience for such a thing, but locally, the Balfa Brothers were preaching to the choir. They had a regional hit. Dewey promptly took off for a highly successful solo career.

In 1967, Dewey gathered Rodney and Will, Will’s daughter Nelda, and Hadley Fontenot, and formalized the group as the Balfa Brothers. They promptly got invited to make the rounds of the European folk-festival circuit, where their music was welcomed as effervescent exotica. This led to an appearance at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, and within the course of a few minutes, Cajun music echoed around the globe. Several albums have been reissued on CD, and they’re all jubilant outbursts, starting with The Balfa Brothers Play Traditional Cajun Music, Vols. 1-2 (Swallow Records, 1987) and J'ai Vu le Loup, Le Renard et la Belette (Rounder, 1988); more recently there’s been the release of The Balfa Brothers and Nathan Abshire: The 1970 NYC Cajun Concert (Field Recorders Collective, 2008). The Balfas kept spreading the word until the death of Dewey in 1992, and versions of the group continue. Today there are Cajun music festivals around the world, and thanks to the pioneering efforts of the Balfa Brothers, the music lives on through contemporary artists like BeauSoleil, the Pine Leaf Boys, and the Lost Bayou Ramblers. There’s even a new category at the Grammy Awards: Best Zydeco or Cajun Music Album. The sounds of Acadia are secure.

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