“There was always music around the house when I was a boy, y’know? So for me, music was kinda like a bad habit: I just picked it up from my daddy.”
The speaker is Geno Delafose, a luminary in the contemporary Southwest Louisiana-based zydeco scene and son of the great John Delafose, one of the leading modern interpreters of traditional Cajun and zydeco musical styles. The younger Delafose will be leading his band, French Rockin’ Boogie, into Proctor’s Theatre tomorrow (Friday) night for the annual Mardi Gras Festival, which will also feature Michael Doucet’s Beausoleil.
“I started played in my daddy’s band when I was seven years old,” continues the now-26-year old Delafose during a recent phone interview. “First I played the rub-board in the band. Then I played the drums for a while; I enjoyed that a whole lot. Finally, I started to play the accordion, and I been doin’ that ever since.”
Geno Delafose went on to record seven albums with his father’s band, the Eunice Playboys (named after the Delafose family’s home-town in Louisiana), before his father’s untimely passing in 1994 at the age of 55. “We were all kinda expecting it,” Geno recalls, “‘Cause he’d been having trouble with his heart for a long time, but it was still a shock for us all when he was finally gone. And I guess what happened was that I just sort of inherited his band; a couple of his musicians started to do some other stuff but I got some new players since then who are real good . . . and we’re just all keepin’ it goin’.”
The re-dubbed French Rockin’ Boogie’s current line-up features Delafose’s cousin Germaine Jack on drums, Steven Nash (another cousin) on rub-board, Pop Esprit on bass and David LeJeune on guitar. Delafose himself continues to play accordion and sing, but is quick to note that despite his top-billing, he’s just one part in a well-oiled music-making machine. “Whenever I do interviews, people always want to talk about what I do, but when you get down to it, zydeco is always more than just a one man show. A zydeco band has to work together like a team; we all need each other if we’re going to make it all happen on record or on a stage.”
French Rockin’ Boogie have released two albums since Geno assumed the helm of the family business: an eponymous debut disk in 1995 and 1996’s That’s What I’m Talkin’ About , both of which have garnered near-unanimous accolades from regional, national and international music press. Both records also make it clear that Geno intends to follow in John Delafose’s footsteps by continuing to perform both original and classic material with a strong traditional touch, keeping things as much in the old-style Cajun music camp as in the more contemporary zydeco field. “We don’t do all traditional music,” Delafose notes. “We throw in some blues and a little bit of R&B sometimes to give the people a little variety, but in between that, basically we’re really just playin’ very traditional Cajun and zydeco music for people who want to hear it.”
How are those traditional forms defined? “Well, a big part of it you’ll hear right away when I sing,” explains Delafose. “I sing most of my songs in French, and that’s a big part of the Cajun tradition there. And while we do have some guitar solos and things like that, we don’t do as much of that as some of the other zydeco bands out there, because the traditional music is just pretty straight-forward: there’s not too many breaks or other things like that, just a solid rhythm thing going on all the time while we’re playing.”
In addition to six Geno Delafose originals, That’s What I’m Talkin’ About features three of John Delafose’s songs, as well as numbers by Cajun heroes Amede Ardoin and Iry LeJeune. “I really like the stuff that the older Cajun musicians like Iry LeJeune and Canray Fontenot and them did,” says Geno when asked about his choice in material and influences. “And I really admire my dad: what he did and they way he did it, his whole style . Who else? I like Boozoo Chavis a lot, he’s a hot item at home. Of course, everyone at home picks up a little somethin’ from Boozoo, ’cause he’s so good in his own way. And I guess I have to say that I really admire Clifton Chenier a whole lot, because he’s the one what really got the whole zydeco thing started.”
Chenier’s artistic breakthrough came in late ’50s and early ’60s, when he began infusing elements of blues, R&B and African polyrhythm into the traditional Cajun party music he had learned from his grandfather. (“Cajun” refers to the descendants of the Acadian French who were forcefully relocated to Louisiana when the English stripped Nova Scotia and New Brunswick from the French in 1755, although it is often used interchangeably-outside of Louisiana–with “Creole”, a term describing descendants of the early French and Spanish settlers who came to Louisiana directly from the Old Countries). The subtle distinctions carved out by Chenier to separate zydeco from cajun music persist to this day.
“Zydeco is obviously a lot bluesier than Cajun music,” Delafose explains when asked about those differences. “A little more upbeat. And Zydeco music doesn’t have as many waltzes in it anymore as Cajun music does. In Cajun music bands you have a fiddle, while in Zydeco instead of a fiddle you’ve got a rub-board. And in Zydeco they use the piano and triple-row accordion more than they do in Cajun music, [where the concertina-style Acadian accordion prevails]. But the bottom line is that both kinds of music . . . they’ll move ya’.”
“And zydeco and cajun music are both really startin’ to get around these days. You got to give credit to Buckwheat Zydeco [the pre-eminent Chenier disciple] and Beausoleil because they went out and really spread the music around all over the place. And I’m trying to do my share now, too. I haven’t been in front of as many people as Buckwheat or Beausoleil, but I believe that it’s gonna happen someday.”
Delafose’s gig with Beausoleil will be their second twin-bill of the year. “I played with Beausoleil in San Diego last September,” recalls Delafose. “It’s not too often that we cross the same path, but every now and then we do, and when we do, it goes real good, really really good.”
To what do we here in the Capital Region owe such a fortuitous alignment, then? “Y’all gettin’ lucky,” laughs Delafose.