Mamou native Steve Riley is pictured here wearing a traditional Cajun Mardi Gras costume while performing at a previous event. His band Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys will be back in Mamou for Mardi Gras Saturday afternoon for the first time in nearly a decade. (Photo courtesy of Steve Riley)
A voyage to another world
Few songs evoke emotion in its listeners before the first word is ever sung such as “La Danse de Mardi Gras.” It also gets people of all ages to start dancing as soon as the first notes are played.
The song tells a story told in traditional Cajun French of Mardi Gras riders going around the countryside once a year to collect a chicken and other items for the gumbo that night. It comes to a climax with the last verse that begins with the words “Capitain, capitain voyage ton flag” that tells the captain to lead the revelers to another stop on their run.
“It’s one of the oldest, if not the oldest, songs in our tradition and our culture,” said local Cajun musician Steve Riley of the Mamou Playboys. “It dates back to when our people were still in France, and they celebrated Mardi Gras back then before they migrated to Canada and then to Louisiana. It was a tradition back then.”
“It’s like music from another world, and it is,” he continued. “When you play that song in Mamou for Mardi Gras, it’s better than a Rolling Stones concert.”
Countless artists have performed and recorded the song over the years, and each has added his own twist to it to make it unique. “Our version is derivative of the Balfa Brothers version,” Riley said. “We just put out a newer version that has the horse clops that were used in the old Dewey Balfa/ Nathan Absire version, and it kicks into full band version.”
According to Riley, “La Danse de Mardi Gras” adds to the contagious energy that drapes over the area. He said, “The energy level just rises all over South Louisiana for Mardi Gras, and I feel like it’s especially true in Mamou.”
Riley described what sets the Mamou Mardi Gras apart from others in the area. “Mamou was one of the first towns to bring back the old traditional Mardi Gras,” he said. “The people of my grandfather’s generation were very involved in Cajun culture and Cajun music, and they were hanging out with the Balfa Brothers, Cyprien Landreneau, and Dennis McGee. They were instrumental in starting the Mamou Cajun Festival and bringing back the old traditional run.”
“I think Mamou has the oldest best runs that there are,” he continued. “It’s hard core, and everything about Mamou is hard core. There are no women that are allowed to run because it’s so intense. Women can run in other places, but I think it’s too rough in Mamou.”
For the first time in nearly 10 years, Riley and the rest of the Mamou Playboys will take the stage in Mamou on Saturday afternoon and will perform on Sixth Street. “It’s been a long time, and there’s nothing like playing for your hometown people in your home town,” he said. “We’re very much looking forward to coming back.”
“I think Mardi Gras in Mamou is one of the most special celebrations in the world because Mamou has done that traditional run for so long,” he added. “It’s just an experience like no other. I’m from here, and it’s amazing to me. I have so many friends from out of state who have come here and were blown away. I think it’s one of the most incredible experiences you could have, and it will really push you to your limits if you participate. You will come out on the other end a different person.”
He shared some memories growing up with the Mamou Mardi Gras. “I have a lot of great memories of Mardi Gras in Mamou,” Riley said. “Some of my best memories playing music come from The Holiday in Mamou, playing on the Mardi Gras wagon that follows the run, and playing downtown in front of thousands of people. It’s an amazing experience, and it’s going to be like that this year.”
Riley grew up in Cajun music with people who became his musical influences. “I was raised in a musical family on both sides,” he shared. “There were always a lot of musicians and music at my grandparents’ house on the weekends. My dad’s family is from Eunice, so I would hear my cousin Mark Savoy play with Dennis McGee at house parties in Eunice, and I would hear Cyprien Landreneau at my mom’s parents’ home in Mamou. I just grew up in the middle of it, and I always loved the music of the Balfa Brothers.”
“My grandfather Burke Guillory was a big influence early on for me,” Riley continued. “He taught me how to sing a lot of songs starting at age three, and his brother, my uncle Bobby, taught me my first song on the accordion when I was seven-years-old. I got my own accordion at age 13. I met Dewey Balfa at age 15 and started touring with him, and I started the Mamou Playboys at age 18. It was 30 years ago this month.
Riley and his band released their first album in 1990 that was self titled Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys. It was produced by the legendary Cajun musician Zachary Richard who also lent backup vocals. Goldmine magazine called the album “a sparkling album of traditional Cajun zydeco in its purest, freshest and most unfettered form.”
The band began earning more national attention with their 1994 Live! album as newspapers from around the country were comparing Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys to the band Beausoleil.
The band’s original version of “La Danse de Mardi Gras” appeared on the album La Toussaint in 1995, and their newer version was released on the band’s latest album in 2015 called Voyageurs.
In between albums, Riley and his band released Bon Rêve in 2003 that included the hit song of the same name and garnered high praise from Dr. Barry Ancelet, professor of folklore at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. “It’s the Sgt. Pepper’s of Cajun music,” said Dr. Ancelet. “It’s so strong in so many areas: performance/musicianship, the poetry, the conception, the whole album working together as a sort of a thematic unit. It’s an incredible effort. What’s really remarkable is that they’re sort of competing with themselves. They’re competing with their own last effort, and that’s got to be hard to do. And yet they keep pulling it off.”
“All these flavors included in one Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys concert silence the skeptics who think it ‘all sounds the same,’” he continued. “This band is from Louisiana’s Gulf Coast, south of the American south, and it is brimful of sounds as compelling, diverse and exotic as one evening of music can possibly hold.”
A great honor in Riley’s career was when the band performed “La Danse de Mardi Gras” for an episode of the HBO series Treme. “The crew came down a week after Mardi Gras, and we had to basically run Mardi Gras again,” Riley said. “I think it was more intense the week after. The producers were there hanging out, and they said they wanted me to play that song at the next stop that we went to where they threw a chicken. So, I did, and they captured it.”
Riley concluded, “It’s been a great life, and it’s been unbelievable. I’ve seen places that I probably wouldn’t have seen otherwise and met some incredible people and some amazing musicians. It’s been great doing what I love to do, traveling the world, playing the music we love, and representing the culture that means so much to us.”