Saturday, November 28, 2009
A family Cajun tradition continues
For Cajun music's preeminent power couple, Marc and Ann Savoy, playing music isn't merely a vocation or creative outlet. It's an all-encompassing way of life, a family tradition that's intimately tied to the Louisiana land.
Based in Eunice, a small city in the heart of Cajun country, the Savoys have been at the center of the Cajun revival for more than three decades. While they play together and separately in several combos, the Savoy Family Cajun Band best embodies the regenerative power of Cajun culture, an unbroken chain stretching back for centuries.
An acoustic quartet featuring the Savoy sons Wilson (Cajun accordion, piano and bass) and Joel (fiddle), the family has honed an extensive Ancien Régime repertoire of rollicking dance music that's as earthy and bluntly sensuous as the blues. Handed down for generations, the songs have been infused with fresh energy by the Savoy sons, organic products of a community that once again embraces its roots.
"We live our lives so authentically within this neighborhood," says guitarist and fiddler Ann Savoy, who brings the Family Cajun Band to San Francisco's Great American Music Hall on Friday and Don Quixote's in Felton on Sunday.
"Marc's family has been here seven generations. Joel is living in his grandfather's house. At 10, the boys started playing and never looked back. The instruments were here and they were always around when we were playing with other musicians. It's interesting how by osmosis they absorbed the sounds and smells and tastes and became part of what this world is."
Cajun culture is a proud birthright for Marc, a master accordionist and instrument builder whose Savoy Music Center has served ground zero for the Cajun cultural renaissance since 1965. He toured and recorded with many of the legendary Cajun musicians who first recorded the songs brought from Canada's Maritime Provinces when the French-speaking Acadians were expelled by the British in the mid-18th century.
Settling in Louisiana, the Cajuns preserved the old tunes while absorbing influences that flowed through Louisiana. It's a process that continues to shape the music today, exemplified by Wilson's thumping boogie woogie piano, an instrument that's hardly typical in traditional Cajun combos.
"Cajun music is a product of whatever's coming through this region, which is situated on a major byway," Joel says. "So Wilson's rockin' piano, which gives the band a nice rhythm and blues feel, belongs there just as much as anything else.
"Having so many different multi-instrumentalists, we can cover so many different sounds. We do twin fiddles, three fiddles, and sometimes just fiddles and guitar or fiddles and accordion. We can get a lot of different sounds."
While Ann is the only member of the band who's not a Louisiana native, she's devoted her adult life to Cajun culture. A Francophile who grew up in Richmond, Va., she met Marc at the National Folk Festival in Washington, D.C., in 1977. Before long she and Savoy were married and two-thirds of the pioneering Savoy Doucet Band with fiddle master Michael Doucet, who also leads the popular Cajun band BeauSoleil.
Many of the artists who first recorded Cajun music in the 1920s and '30s were still on the scene, and the Savoys played an essential role in bringing them to a wider audience. Off the bandstand, Ann Savoy's affectionate interviews of the old-timers became her award-winning book "Cajun Music, A Reflection of a People," one of the first scholarly efforts to explore the history of Cajun music (she's at work on a second volume).
She also became the public face of Cajun music, appearing in numerous documentaries and in Callie Khouri's 2002 film "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood," which also featured Joel.
From the beginning of the Cajun renaissance, Northern California has served as something of a second home for the Savoys, ties that endure on several fronts. Most importantly, Chris Strachwitz's El Cerrito-based Arhoolie label has documented just about every Savoy project, including the Family Cajun Band's most recent release "Turn It Loose But Don't Let Go."
Now the next Savoy generation is picking up the torch. Several years ago Joel launched Valcour Records with two partners, a label dedicated to documenting the music of Louisiana. He tours with the Cajun/Gypsy band The Red Stick Ramblers while Wilson has launched several projects of his own. They feel free to put their own twist on Cajun music because of their deep knowledge of their roots.
"A lot of people our age and the generation before us learned this repertoire because my parents were part of that early revival," Joel says. "We end up playing a lot of the tunes my dad has made famous.
"Nowadays they're the only people still playing that stuff, so we're continuing the tradition, but adding a lot as far as our particular styles are concerned. My mom has always been one for digging up repertoire, and my dad just pulls the songs out of his head."
The Savoy Family Cajun Band
When: 7 p.m. Sunday
Where: Don Quixote"s, 6275 Highway 9, Felton, $14-$16, www.don
Tickets: $14-$16, www.donquixotesmusic.info.
Also: 9 p.m. Friday, Great American Music Hall, 859 O"Farrell St., San Francisco. $20, www.gamh.com.