In an age when a rock band from New York City sounds the same as one from L.A., groups like the Conjunto rock sounds of Los Lobos or the cowpunk rock of Jason and the Scorchers have emerged to put the post-punk pulse back into rock and roll. And now from the Cajun swamplands of Louisiana comes Mamou, the latest rock and roll torch bearers for the 90's who have discovered the fertile possibilities of retooling roots music to rev up outworn '80s rock tempos.
Formed in May 1985 and named after their hometown in Evangeline Parish, Mamou is the hottest thing since filé gumbo. The innovative Cajun Rockers take classic Cajun melodies and rough them up to the max -- mixing a screaming Fender Stratocaster with a fiddle, accordion, bass and drums. The outcome is an incredibly wicked, unheard of rock and roll sound that's mostly sung in French.
Founding member and lead vocalist Steve LaFleur plays a hard driving guitar and bass and has a plaintive singing style reminiscent of David Hidalgo of Los Lobos. LaFleur grew up listening to Cajun music and liked it, but he considered himself a rebel rocker, "too cool" to play what his grandparents did. LaFleur's first band, Fantasia formed about 10 years ago, was a heavy metal group, which was pretty heavy duty for Mamou.
But when LaFleur went out into the rest of the world he realized that being a rocker wasn't different at all -- that being a Cajun was what made him different. After Fantasia, he recorded an EP with producer Rick Sandidge of Greenville, South Carolina for a group called the Grapes. Then he played with a punk band from Mamou called the Movie Stars around the Atlanta area and briefly in New York in the mid-'80s.
It was a gig in New york City that turned LaFleur's head around and back to his roots. When the Movie Stars played a couple of Cajun tunes "new wave" style a la LaFleur the way Mamou does now, the audience was captivated. They'd never heard anything like this "heavy-duty, freaky music". Encouraged by the reaction and realizing he was ignoring a big part of his life, his heritage, LaFleur returned to Louisiana to develop his Cajun rock concept further. To preserve the authenticity of the band's music, he researched classic Cajun songs, brushed up on his Cajun French, and scouted out rock and roll musicians who like him have a passion for Cajun Music. Et voila! Mamou was born.
Mamou's mystical French lyrics and traditional Cajun riffs translate into hard driving rock and roll full of Cajun spice. The band's sometimes rocking, sometimes lilting, sometimes psychedelic delivery is a virgin blend of hard hitting rock and traditional Cajun music. This is real rock and roll stuff that pays reverence to the authentic rythms and style of Cajun music. What Mamou has done is take the folk out of Cajun and put rock into it. Their style is always Cajun, their sound is always rock and roll. "And talk about!" as Cajuns would say.
Mamou is no longer "an oddball generation coming up in wierd place," as the Cajun band once described themselves. A rebel in his own right, LaFleur has set a standard for the evolution of Cajun music and at the same time cut new ground in rock and roll by merging two genres of music formerly kept separate. Witness to Mamou's overwhelming popularity even before they cut their first 45 was their debut on MTV's "Cutting Edge" in March of '86, followed by a worldwide broadcast by WRNO of New Orleans the following month.
Due to differences concerning the direction of the band, the original Mamou split up before an album could be recorded. Until now, their only release has been a 45 rpm recorded in August 1986 that was produced by internationally respected composer/saxophonist Richard Landry (Phillip Glass, Talking Heads).
For Mamou's self-titled debut album, released on Jungle Records in November '88, LaFleur put together the band he's envisioned all along as ideal for a Cajun rock sound. What was missing in the past that Mamou has now is a fiddler, a staple in traditional Cajun bands. The band's hard rock chops are still there, but Jonno Frishberg's outrageous fiddle playing alongside LaFleur's searing Stratocaster rounds out Mamou with a fuller, prettier resonance. The beauty of Mamou's new sound is that they are capable of the Ramones type rock without losing soft rythms and simple Cajun style. Wicked. Unheard of! LaFleur's ingenuity doesn't stop with lyrics (he wrote five of the album's songs) or his new Cajun sound. In the studio, he's just as creative with effects. For example, on the album's track "Hurricane" he hits the whammy on his Stratocaster to make it sound like a whipping, howling wind.
For the Track "La Danse De Mardi Gras" La Fleur researched the horse clops sounds of this old Mardi Gras song and found they'd used a couple of plungers on an old Coke case. So LaFleur took two plungers into the studio where on that song his wife Rita mechanically "clopped" the plungers on the floor and the base of the mike stand.
In addition to LaFleur and Frishberg, other musicians on "Mamou" include Eraste Fontenot on bass and Joe Granger on drums. Sitting in on the album are drummer Mike Buck (Leroi Brothers),with background vocalists Kris McKay and Susan LaVez (and horse clopper Rita LaFleur).