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Balfa Toujours preserves the legacy of the Cajun culture's chief ambassador.

Proud to be Cajun

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The upbeat, syncopated beats, graceful fiddles and plaintive country vocals characteristic of Cajun music sound like the stuff of good times. But the southwest Louisiana music actually grew out of the oppression and the suffering of a culture in exile. It remained a secret from much of the outside world until 1964, when an unknown Cajun band that included Dewey Balfa received a standing ovation at the Newport Folk Festival. The event not only earned the genre new fans, but it helped reignite a culture that had for years denied its past. Now the band that carries Balfa's name, Balfa Toujours, continues to spread the music and a society's heritage.

"It was up to us to carry on not just the notes but the spirit," says Balfa Toujours' accordionist, Dirk Powell, when asked about the band's origins. Balfa Toujours brings this spirit to Richmond on Aug. 22 for a show at the GE Financial Assurance concert series.

The band has direct ties to Dewey Balfa and his legacy. Balfa's daughter, Christine, sings lead and plays guitar. Powell met Christine and her father at a music festival in 1991. The Balfas were playing Cajun music and Powell was performing old-time mountain music. Powell and Christine Balfa soon married, and when Dewey Balfa died in 1992, the couple formed a band to carry on his memory. It's the memory of a man to which the Cajun culture owes much.

Cajuns are descendants of a people that traveled from western France to English-controlled Nova Scotia. This group, known as Acadians, developed a hybrid French-Indian culture during the 1600s and 1700s. The English viewed them as a threat, and eventually, the Acadians were exiled to the American Colonies and imprisoned. The Spanish made it known that the Acadians were welcome in Louisiana, and from 1765 to 1785 several thousand relocated there. Here they mixed with Africans, and music and cultures intertwined.

By the 1950s and into the '60s, Cajuns felt pressure to join a larger American society and began to deny their French language and cultural melange. But when Dewey Balfa saw the reception he and his band mates received at the Newport festival, he realized the music and culture had value.

"It was that moment that made him realize," Powell explains. Balfa went back home and he and others struggled to resurrect the dying pride within their communities.

Balfa Toujours - "Balfa still and always" — takes this message of cultural pride across the United States and Europe. The lyrics are mostly sung in French, and Powell admits some say the band is strictly traditional. But he counters that's not so. They just don't need change for the sake of change.

"We just play what moves us. It's change from the inside rather than 'How can I mess with this?'" he says. "… The real point is that it serves a function in your life." He says in settings such as the GE venue, the band breaks up the music with stories of Cajun heritage. Expect to be entertained on a couple of levels.

"It's a little bit of talk," Powell says, "and a lot of good music."



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