Performers for the 2018 National Folk Festival
Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys
photo credit: Gabrielle Savoy
Thirty years ago, inspired by the renaissance of Louisiana French music in the 1960s and ’70s, accordion master Steve Riley and fiddler David Greely started a band that today is widely acknowledged as one of premier ensembles in the tradition. Widely celebrated for its drive and creativity, Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys apply tradition-steeped sensibilities and skills to music both old and new that appeals to a broad audience. As the New Orleans Times-Picayune noted, "The Playboys are not just a great Cajun band anymore—they're a great band."
Louisiana’s Cajuns descend from the French-speaking Acadians who settled in Nova Scotia in 1604, only to be uprooted by the British from 1755-1764 as a consequence of the French and Indian War. Forced onto ships sailing south, the survivors made their way to the protective isolation of southwest Louisiana’s bayous and prairies. In this refuge, a distinctive Cajun culture emerged, blending older French and Acadian music with the sounds of their new neighbors: Native Americans, Spanish, Germans, and French Creoles of African descent. In the 20th century came influences from country and western, as well as blues, eventually creating the fiddle-and-accordion-centered music emblematic of Cajun culture today.
Steve Riley and David Greely were both disciples of the great Cajun music ambassador, fiddler, and bandleader Dewey Balfa. “I had the opportunity to play with him from age 15 until his death in the early ’90s,” says Riley. “I learned so much from him, musically and how to present myself and our music and the history behind it all.” After Greely retired in 2011, concerned about the impact raucous Cajun dance halls were having on his hearing, the band gained another Balfa disciple in fiddler Kevin Wimmer. Joining Riley and Wimmer are guitarist Sam Broussard, bassist Brazos Huval, and drummer Kevin Dugas. The Mamou Playboys have performed all over Louisiana, and at major festivals and venues throughout the U.S., and in Europe.
The band’s sound is compelling and diverse. Folklorist Barry Ancelet says of Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys, “They actually do what those old masters were doing. They improvise and create within the tradition … and they manage to do this in a way that both innovates and preserves at the same time. [Dewey] Balfa challenged us all to ‘preserve the very life of the tradition,’ cautioning that we not try to preserve artifacts, but rather the process that produces the music and its makers. Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys answer that challenge with a … stunning combination of brand new old songs and venerable new songs, all driven by breathtaking musicianship and deeply thoughtful creativity.”