The Cajun accordion will be the focus of a workshop at the upcoming Natchitoches-NSU Folk Festival to be held July 14-15 in air-conditioned Prather Coliseum on the Northwestern State University campus. Master musicians Ray Abshire and Steve Riley will lead the one hour workshop, which begins at noon on July 15. Festival patrons will pay no additional charge to participate in the workshop.
Abshire and Riley are both legendary players of the Cajun accordion. Abshire first began playing in 1965 at the age of 15, and has played with many of the greats of Cajun music, including playing with the Balfa Brothers from 1969-1975. Riley has played the accordion for 40 years, and is in his 29th year of playing with his band, the Mamou Playboys. Both men love playing the accordion. Says Riley, “Playing music is the best therapy in the world. The accordion is my favorite instrument. It’s an instrument that people love. It’s been at the forefront of what Cajun audiences love, and I’m honored to play the instrument.”
Abshire and Riley similarly share a love for Cajun music, and describe it as a kind of doorway into communal experience. As Abshire observes, Cajun music seems to be designed to make people dance. “There’s not a whole lot of music that will make you shout, but this one will. It’s good for listening, but it’s perfect for dancing. It’s a good dance rhythm. It’s uplifting music. It’s the kind of music that makes you want to tap your feet and dance. It grabs you.”
Workshop attendees will be introduced to a wide range of knowledge and techniques related to the Cajun accordion. “I’ll start from ground zero and tell them how the instrument is made up, what both sides of the instrument do, the mechanics of it,” says Riley. “How the Cajun accordion works to this music. I’ll go through some of the techniques of playing the Cajun style of the accordion.” Similar to Abshire’s view of the Cajun accordion, Riley’s description of Cajun music likewise alludes to how the music is infused with the culture of the Cajun people, which influences their expectations of how the Cajun accordion should be played. “It’s like a take-no-prisoners approach. It’s a very dynamic way of playing the accordion. People down here are hardworking, they want to play hard on the weekend. When we play we need to play a hard pounding pedal to the metal style. People down here feel like they own us, like they own the music. I understand that, and I play for them. Down here people understand the music, and I understand the people.”
Abshire and Riley are united in their advice to new players of the Cajun accordion. Rather than focusing upon fast finger work, Abshire advises instead that beginning players take the time to pay their dues to master the instrument, but also to become deeply familiar with the culture and the history of the musical genre, telling his students that “You have to listen, listen, listen. Make sure you listen to the music a lot. Hum and listen to these tunes until it becomes natural. If you don’t have the melodies inside you they won’t come out.” Many players try to get too fancy too fast, forgetting that in traditional music less is often more. “You need to learn to play with your feet. A lot of players go too fast. You have to play the bass side of the accordion as well. You have to keep time. The notes you leave out are just as important as the notes you leave in. Beginners want to throw in too many notes in there and the melody gets lost. You don’t want to get too busy on any instrument. Leave some notes out.”
Riley agrees that playing the Cajun accordion well is not about showing off, but instead finding a way to tap into what has kept the tradition alive. “I would tell new players to listen to the old guys, listen to the old records, learn the standard repertoire. Don’t try to get too fancy. Learn the melody correctly, play with good feeling and tuning and with a lot of feeling. This is not music made to be fancy. This is down home roots music. It’s some of the most traditional music in the world.” In agreement, Abshire tells new players to “Learn three songs really well, a two-step, a waltz, and a blues tune.” The importance of practice cannot be overstated for learning the craft. “Playing music is about mind over muscle,” says Abshire. “Don’t try to learn 30 songs badly, but learn three songs well. Keep it very limited in the beginning. Mind over muscle. Listen to yourself play and strive to perfect it. It’s something you learn with age and from listening to a lot of music, a lot of music.”
Riley and Abshire are proud to serve as ambassadors of traditional Cajun culture.
“My family is deeply rooted in the music of Southwest Louisiana and it is through events like the festival and the workshop that we can present the sounds that were handed down to us,” said Abshire. “It also gives artists an opportunity to have open discussion with students and listeners alike. As my dear friend Dewey Balfa once said, ‘Culture is handed down one generation at a time.’”
The Cajun accordion workshop will enable Cajun culture to be handed down directly from two legendary tradition bearers to a new generation of players, and will also give attendees an opportunity to hear some excellent music. As Riley enthusiastically declares, “Cajun music is the best music in the world!”
Space in the accordion workshop is limited to 20 participants and accordions are to be tuned to ‘C.’ The Festival is unable to provide instruments. The workshop is free to Festival attendees.
The 38th Annual Natchitoches-NSU Folk Festival will be held July 14-15 in Prather Coliseum, located at 220 South Jefferson Street on the NSU campus in Natchitoches. The site is wheelchair accessible and the festival is family oriented. Children 12 and under receive free admission to all events on both days. Tickets can be purchased at the Coliseum. The ticket booth opens at 4:30 pm on July 14th and at 8 a.m. on July 15. The Festival closes at 10:30 p.m. both nights. The Festival features three stages of music and food on both days, and on Saturday the Festival will also include crafts, narrative sessions and the Louisiana State Fiddle Championship.
Support for the Festival is provided by grants from the Cane River National Heritage Area, Inc., the Louisiana Division of the Arts Decentralized Arts Fund Program, the Natchitoches Historic District Development Commission, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Lower Mississippi Delta Initiative of the National Park Service, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and Foundation and the Shreveport Regional Arts Council. Additional support comes from City Bank, the City of Natchitoches, the Natchitoches Area Convention and Visitors Bureau and Cleco.
To register for the workshop, buy advance tickets, or for more information call (318) 357-4332, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, go to louisianafolklife.nsula.edu or visit their Facebook page at facebook.com/NSULAFOLKLIFECENTER.