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Cajun & Zydeco music wildly alive in Rhode Island

Steve Riley and Mamou Playboys
Steve Riley and Mamou Playboys
photo detail by Stan Deutsch

Over the past three decades, thousands of celebrants have attended what is billed as one of the finest Mardi Gras parties in New England. The Annual Cajun & Zydeco Mardi Gras Ball, which takes place at Rhodes on the Pawtuxet each year, is known as a shake-off-the-winter-doldrums night of music and dancing. But what many don't yet know is that the event also offers attendees an opportunity steep in the authentic Cajun and Zydeco sounds that mark a very special part of our musical heritage.

Clifford Alexander, Frottior of CJ. Chenier's Red Hot Lousiana Band
Photo by Hank Randall

Event producer, Chuck Wentworth has been showcasing American roots music in Rhode Island for over three decades, most notably at the Annual Mardi Gras Ball and also RI's Rhythm and Roots Festival. During his dozens of years of traveling, courting, and connecting Amercian roots artists, Wentworth is well-known for bringing great talent north from the Bayou.

It is widely accepted that American roots music– that is music that originated in North America– is the progenitor of nearly all modern musical sounds we hear today. Rock and roll, blues, jazz, R&B, bluegrass, and country came about because of sounds that were born and blended in the Americas.

And what wild, delightfully tangled roots Cajun and Zydeco music comes from: the unmistakable sounds we know as also as Bayou music came about by mixing a little bit of French music, with a big pinch of African-American rhythms, a touch of native American tonal and rhythmic influences, European instrumentation and a whole lotta’ energy. This music is clearly indicative of– and deeply blended with– the culture of the Bayou region of the United States, most notably Lousiana and Gulf Coast Texas.

Cajun music was born in south Louisiana and heavily influenced by the settling Acadians after their expulsion from the region we know as Nova Scotia in the mid 1700s. The Acadians brought music that had French origins, but was evolving into something new after interactions with Native residents and the British. Once planted firmly in Louisiana, this music was further enhanced by African rhythms, strains of developing blues, and rhythms and singing styles from native residents. What was at first dominated by balladeers who sang to mark special occasions (often accompanied only by body-oriented rhythmic sounds like stomping and clapping), began to include more instrumentation, and peppier rhythms for better dancing.

To fast forward to present time, celebrated Bayou artists Steve Riley and Mamou Playboys, C.J. Chenier Red Hot Louisiana Band and Leroy Thomas and Zydeco Roadrunners display award-winning mastery in the traditional forms of Cajun, Creole and Zydeco music, and each has garnered countless musical awards, including several Grammy nods among them.

Wentworth says he choose these artists to play this year's Mardi Gras Ball for their ability to "blow the roof off the house," which seems appropriate as social dancing is as integral part of these Bayou-based musical genres, and wide appeal and energy is crucial to the event's continued success.

Steve Riley and Mamou Playboys have been playing French Cajun music for over 25 years and were recognized with a key to Lafayette, Louisiana and cultural ambassadorship from the Lieutenant Governor. Steve has been widely acknowledged as a master of the Cajun accordion. "While there has never been an official competition among Cajun accordionists, whenever a contest does arise, Steve Riley usually wins it, or judges it."

C.J. Chenier has recently returned from Los Angeles where he accepted a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award on behalf of his father Clifton Chenier. C.J. has been noted by Billboard Magazine as “the heir to the Zydeco throne and unparalleled party starter,” which is no surprise given he is son of the King of Zydeco, a moniker granted to his father. C.J. now leads what was originally his father's Red Hot Louisiana Band, and tours internationally.

Leroy Thomas also has impeccable Zydeco lineage and is the son of Leo “The Bull” Thomas. Leo is the only zydeco musician to lead a zydeco band from the drums, and has a distinct method of drumming that inspires not only his sons, but is still emulated by many zydeco bands today. Leroy Thomas, called "the Jewel of the Bayou," was born and raised in southern Louisiana as a part of a musical family, and now tours with his band the Zydeco Roadrunners.

Cajun and Zydeco music has been handed down through generations, and the 22nd Annual Mardi Gras Ball has been celebrating Mardi Gras with style for a full generation! Wentworth invites music enthusiasts, dancers, and those who enjoy costumes and even cosplay to come enjoy an authentic Mardi Gras celebration, based on tradition, and steeped in deep roots.


THIS BEST BET FROM THE BAYOU takes place at Rhodes on the Pawtuxet in Cranston, RI on Saturday, March 1, 2014. Advance tickets are available until Friday February 28, 2014 at 5:00PM at the discounted price of $30 per person. After that, tickets will be available at the door by cash or credit card.

For more information, visit the event website

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