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Analysis & Opinion
13.03.12 Culture Clash On The Bayou
By Andrew Roth

DOM Cultural Center in Moscow played host to a unique concert on March 9: the sounds of traditional Louisiana Zydeco and Cajun music transformed the main ballroom of the storied concert hall into something more like a cowboy bar. American musicians from the southern United States brought their distinctive, homegrown style of music to Moscow as part of a whirlwind tour of Russia, which included cities further off the beaten path such as Nizhny Tagil, Krasnoyarsk and Ekaterinburg. Concert organizers said the tour had brought these “iconic” American styles of music to Russia as a way to foster cultural exchange for the first time.

By the time Cajun group Christine Balfa and Balfa Toujours struck up their second song of the night, couples had paired off to two-step to the music in the main ballroom. As an electric accordion hummed in the background, Balfa explained the origin of the “Popcorn Blues” in a relaxed, Louisiana-tinged accent: “You know that feeling you get when you eat popcorn, and the popcorn is salty, so you drink beer, and then you eat some more popcorn and drink some more beer? The feeling you have next morning? That’s the popcorn blues,” she told the predominately Russian crowd, which nodded along enthusiastically. If they didn’t know what popcorn was, they didn’t let the secret slip.

The event marked the last stop in Russia for Louisiana musicians Balfa and Jeffrey Broussard. Jetlagged after travelling overnight from Krasnoyarsk, they performed to a packed crowd as part of American Seasons in Russia, a collaboration between CEC Artslink and the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress to bring traditional American music to Russia. “We tried to put together a very diverse program. So we have two groups from Louisiana representing Cajun and Zydeco culture, we have a Gospel group from Kentucky, Cowboy music and a Cowboy poet coming from Montana and Washington State, and the fifth group is a fusion of jazz and Native American music,” said CEC Artslink program director Susan Katz.

Cajun and Zydeco music are what Balfa called “cousins” from the French speaking populations in Southwestern Louisiana, with Cajun more widespread among the local white communities and Zydeco more popular among black communities. Yet in recent years, newer styles of Zydeco and Cajun, along with pop music, have overtaken the popularity of traditional music, said Broussard, whose band performed a traditional style of Zydeco that emphasizes improvisation and showmanship.

“I was influenced by my father and I grew up in a musical family – so there was no other direction to turn,” said Broussard. “I’m sticking to the roots, I’ve done a different style for 18 years with a band called Zydeco Force. But after my father passed away I just decided I would go back to the roots. That’s what I’m doing now.”

The concert also offered a chance to reflect on the shared character of traditional and folk music worldwide. Fyodor Starostin, a Russian musician and folk enthusiast who hosts a television show on traditional music on the TV channel Culture, compared the crisis for traditional Creole and Cajun music in the United States with the waning popularity of Russian folk music. “Today, there are traditions that have been passed down for many generations, but they are underground because the most desired music among the youth is the popular world trends,” he said. “But there is a generation, some of the younger generation that you see here tonight, that plays this kind of music.”

Thea Austen, public events coordinator for the American Folklife Center, said the tour was an attempt to find a bridge for “iconic” American music that will resonate with Russians, but which is often overlooked in favor of the more prevalent jazz or blues. She said the music – and the rhythm, in particular – would be unusual for Russians, but that there were some similarities shared by both forms of traditional music. “I think they’ll recognize something in the vocal style of Cajun singing – the position of the mouth, the directness of it, and the chest resonance of it will sound very familiar to anybody who knows traditional Russian singing,” Austen said. “There is also accordion being played, along with a lot of implements from home being used as percussion devices that are common to anyone who is used to playing music in their kitchens, in their own homes.”

For Cajun and Zydeco music, which are traditionally played in dance halls in the United States, one problem had been convincing audiences to get up and dance, said Balfa. Yet even in regional cities, she said, the music garnered a positive response. “At home, when we start everybody just gets on the dance floor, it’s just dance music. Nobody even really claps when you finish a song –if they like you they dance,” she said. “These venues are a bit different because at the beginning you look at everybody sitting in their chairs, but by the end of the night, every night, people are up and dancing. And that particular gig [in Nizhny Tagil], they were up with us on stage and playing our instruments and it was just really fun.”

Broussard added that the trip had been physically demanding – the food, travel and homesickness all took their toll – but that he had been encouraged about the fate of Zydeco music by the local responses he had seen in Russia. “I was kind of wondering how it would be [in Russia] but I didn’t have a doubt in my mind that this Louisiana music would do what it did,” he said.
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