Photo: Dorothy Brown
Five folks with fiddles in a Berkeley backyard. Photo: Dorothy Brown

By Dorothy Brown

It is Monday evening and five folks with fiddles are seated in a circle in the backyard. Four of them are learning a traditional Cajun tune, The Milk Cow is Dead.* There is no sheet music in sight, and nobody expects any. You learn this music by ear.

Joel Savoy is sharing his intimate knowledge of the song, and his expert techniques with the instrument and the style. He plays the tune through, and then breaks it down into phrases that he invites the group to repeat. The notes themselves are the easy part. What makes a good Cajun fiddler is nuance and flair, and Joel breaks that down too.

“You want to get those pulses in there.” “…a little bit bouncier there. Slide into that last note.” This tune has a lot of that, and Joel enjoys that part. “Just slide up to C# and stop when you get there!”

This is how Cajun music has been shared and taught for generations. After a long day’s work, people gather together to play. It is easy to imagine this scene is taking place in Southwest Louisiana, but this is a backyard in Berkeley, California. 

Photo: Dorothy Brown
Photo: Dorothy Brown

Joel Savoy and Jesse Lége are on tour. On June 29, they performed at Ashkenaz Music and Dance Community Center. They were in the area for an extra night and offered to teach a mini-workshop. Jesse is inside with the accordionists. Outside, as the sun sinks lower and lower in the sky, Joel and the fiddlers are starting to put the phrases of the song together.

“Don’t worry if you don’t have it yet,” he encourages them. “It’ll come.”

It’s almost dark now, approaching 9:00 p.m.. Tomorrow is a working day and it’s time to pack up the fiddles, but the song is starting to take shape. It has been a low-key, friendly lesson, and I’m sure the accordionists inside had a similar experience. Each student, regardless of where they started, heads for home a stronger player. What a special opportunity to learn from two masters.

Photo: Dorothy Brown
Photo: Dorothy Brown

And Tuesday night I get to see those masters shine. Joel and Jesse, along with Joel’s wife Kelli Jones-Savoy, play a Cajun dance at Ashkenaz. This is not a concert. Far from it. As I have come to expect, dancers are on the floor with the first notes. There is only a smattering of applause as each song ends. Those moments between tunes are spent changing partners, perhaps grabbing a quick sip of something, maybe shouting a request. This is interactive entertainment. The dancers need the band, it’s true. But it feels like the musicians need the dancers too, to make it fun.

By the end of the evening the dance floor has thinned out a bit, but there are still plenty of people happy to stay to the very end. After they play the last song at 11:00, the musicians start to unstrap their instruments and pack things up. That’s when the real applause starts — the insistent, rhythmic encore clapping that signals we’re-not-leaving-’til-you-play-another-song.

Photo: Dorothy Brown
Photo: Dorothy Brown

Joel accepts the challenge. “Oh, we’ve got more,” he says. “We could do this all night. We just stopped for y’all.” Stopping is the last thing this crowd wants. Another song begins and partners two-step with unflagging energy. “You asked for it!” laughs the fiddler. Yes they did.

I am so excited to be heading to Lafayette for the first time this October. I can’t wait to visit the small Louisiana towns that are home to Cajun and Zydeco music. If I’m lucky, I’ll stumble across some back porch jams. Fingers crossed.

The Milk Cow is Dead is included in a collection of songs played by Cajun fiddler Wade Frugé called Old Style Cajun Music, recorded by Arhoolie Records.

This article was first published on Dorothy Brown Photography’s blog, Small Stories from Real Life, where you can see more of the beautiful photographs taken at the Cajun jam session.

Keeping tradition alive: house jamming in Berkeley (12.27.13)

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