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music: Musical Gumbo

Cajun music rolls into the future.

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Two-and-a-half centuries later the fruit of that injustice is fantastically spicy food and a unique musical heritage. The latter is reflected to varying degrees in the mostly acoustic music of BeauSoleil rooted in the electric swamp blues of fellow Cajun, Marcia Ball.

Since its formation in the mid-'70s BeauSoleil has been one of the best and best-known traditional Cajun groups. According to its founder, fiddler Michael Doucet, the music is inseparable from its geographic roots.

"It's a tributary of the melting pot of Louisiana music," Doucet says. "All the varieties that floated down the river on flatboats — band music, blues, Virginia reels and even a bit of opera."

The music BeauSoleil plays is kinetic and accomplished, a distant cousin to gypsy and bluegrass and the Irish ceilidh but with a flavor all its own. Over the decades it has embraced other music, especially country and western and popular songs. The additions didn't dilute the music's identity, but defined it.

"Original Cajun music was folk dances, pas de deux," Doucet says. "The French had the melodies and the new world had the rhythms. But the earliest recorded songs were not traditional but foxtrots and waltzes."

But if new elements are incorporated, it is not out of commercial calculation. "It's not a one-hit-wonder or a crafted formula. We just take an objective view of what's going on and 'cajunize' it," Doucet says. "We have an eye on the past and project into the future something that will stand up. It's still a living music."

Marcia Ball agrees. "It's a tightrope some of us are walking, to be respectful of the past but not become musically fossilized." Her music draws both her Cajun heritage and the wide range of styles commingling on the West Louisiana/East Texas coast where she grew up.

Born in a musical family, Ball started playing piano at 5 years old. In the late '60s she dropped out of college to join a psychedelic band. While heading for San Francisco, her car broke down in Austin, Texas. Thirty years later she still lives there, taking part in the city's thriving and innovative music scene and recording a record number of well-received CDs, most recently "Presumed Innocent," winner of the 2002 W.C. Handy "Blues Album of the Year."

Her performing style is composed of equal parts confident singing, Professor Longhair/Dr. John syncopated piano playing, and the ability to blend well-chosen covers with her own compositions. "There is a lot of great, important lyric writing going on these days," Ball says. "Sometimes a song has more impact than a magazine article."

She sees her music as a celebration of the differences and similarities at the heart of American music, and a strategy for dealing with the timeless struggles of hope and despair. "The point of the blues is to deal with your troubles positively — to sing them away," Ball says.

Dispersing troubles are at the heart of Cajun music, whose theme is "laissez les bon temps rouler" or "let the good times roll." For BeauSoleil and Marcia Ball, keeping their venerable musical cuisine vital does not depend on careful preservation of the ancient recipes but on the joyous addition of new ingredients. S



BeauSoleil will be appearing with Marcia Ball at the Carpenter Center, 600 E. Grace St., Feb. 3 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets cost $25.50 - $27.50 and can be purchased at www.carpentercenter.org.

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