Plus the effects of the August floods, and farewell to an icon
by Ben Sandmel
Since 1958 the Ville Platte–based Swallow Records and its subsidiary labels have released a wealth of Cajun, zydeco, and swamp-pop classics. Despite this extensive catalogue it is unlikely that anything in Swallow’s vast vaults bears much resemblance to its newly released “Broken Promised Land”—a brilliant, edgy, genre-defying album by Barry Jean Ancelet and Sam Broussard. Ancelet has devoted his eminent career to the study and documentation of French Louisiana’s cultural, linguistic and folkloric traditions, and their connections with the rest of the French-speaking world. Accordingly it may seem like a radical departure for him to contribute all the lyrics, and four lead vocals, to this startling project produced by Broussard. “Broken Promised Land” encompasses art-rock, electronic music, and futuristic abstract soundscapes, as well as syncopation and poly-rhythms, passages of jazz and classical music, searing guitar solos, exquisitely subtle interludes, and the distinct influence of both The Beatles and The Band, alongside Cajun music, zydeco and country. In addition to this improbably rich mélange, some of the songs’ structures—the poignant “Appuyé dessus la barre,” for one—take fascinatingly circuitous paths before harmony and melody resolve at the end of each verse.
For a sense of how this freewheeling approach holds together, consider the album’s opening song, “Conte de faits.” It starts with bluesy guitar chords and stinging single-note licks played over ambient effects that suggest both howling winds and police sirens. These fade, but the guitar builds throughout the intro and continues after Broussard’s vocal comes in. His first verse is followed by a lengthy guitar solo with dramatically increasing intensity, underpinned by the introduction of a drumbeat with a metallic/industrial sound. Broussard plays the latter part of this solo over descending figures provided by a horn section that appears unexpectedly, contributes its part succinctly, and then vanishes. The second verse finds Broussard singing at full throttle, accompanied towards the end by back-up vocals with a gospel-music tinge—and then the song abruptly stops cold.
Broken Promised Land
Barry Jean Ancelet & Sam Broussard
Broussard demonstrates national-level production skills by binding these disparate and wildly imaginative strands into a cohesive whole. The most dramatic examples are “Conte des faits,” “Trop de pas,” “Personne pour me recevoir,” and “Pour qui?” Other songs unfold in a more straightforward manner that reveals a core of Cajun music, zydeco, and country. The result is an ambitious yet fully realized project that is unique in the history of French Louisiana’s music. Appearing less than a year after the release of “I Wanna Sing Right: Rediscovering Lomax in the Evangeline Country” (see Sound Advice, Spring 2016)—which was also groundbreaking, in a different sense—“Broken Promised Land” underscores the impressive musical creativity that is absolutely surging today in southwest Louisiana.
Broussard, who currently plays guitar with the Cajun band Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, is a multi-instrumentalist, a bilingual singer and a songwriter with decades of professional experience in the United States, Europe and Africa. He has released two solo albums, “Veins” and the critically acclaimed “Geeks.” Broussard sings lead on six of the songs here, and his expressive voice can run the gamut from plaintive (“Personne pour me recevoir”) to urgent (“Conte des faits”). Ancelet can likewise range from wistful (“Appuyé dessus la barre”) to ominous (“Le loup”), as the moment demands. Anna Laura Edmiston contributes a gorgeous vocal on the pensive waltz“Coeur Cassé.” Broussard plays almost all of the instruments here, overdubbed, with David Greely and Gina Forsyth adding fiddle parts and Christine Balfa and Danny Devillier making rhythmic contributions on triangle and drums, respectively.
Since 1980 Ancelet has been writing widely published poetry in French, under the nom de plume Jean Arceneaux. “Broken Promised Land” consists entirely of Ancelet’s poems set to music. “Sam and I worked on this project for our own enjoyment, in his own studio,” Ancelet recalls, “so we had the luxury of unlimited time to experiment with ideas. I respect Sam deeply, we are life-long friends, and I learned so much about the craft of singing from him that I feel I owe him tuition. Sam came up with most of the tunes and basic arrangements, but we talked constantly about what to do with each song. . . . We were both interested in representing our varied backgrounds that include the blues, rock, country, Cajun, zydeco, jazz and pop . . . our ’60s roots.”
Broussard similarly cites ’60s music as influencing his production sensibilities: “What that era gave to me was a higher proportion of pop songs that had great lyrics and melodies, chord changes that were interesting just on their own, and brilliant instrumentation.” Broussard also “took two semesters of theory and composition a long time ago. Learning Bach four-part writing was life-changing. And,” he concludes,“I have to give a bow to our engineer, Tony Daigle” for his contributions to this technically complex project.
“I sometimes focus on dark themes,” Ancelet says, “I push myself into an improvised nightmare and then write out of that.”
Ancelet’s lyrics (English translations of which appear in the liner notes) are at times disquieting, as on “Conte de fait”:
“All the children escaped
When the devil left open
The door of the cage that he had made
To capture and tame them long ago
“The devil chases them
And finds them all, except for the tricky one
Who had hidden in the cage.
To avoid the rage, the rage of the devil,
The devil fooled.”
“I sometimes focus on dark themes,” Ancelet says. “I push myself into an improvised nightmare and then write out of that. But there are other issues on this album, including a condemnation of the manipulated violence in the world, a questioning of the trappings of organized religion, and an exploration of the tension between French-based and English-based identities, tradition-based and modern-based identities.” He also points to other influences that shape the album: “There’s a song written in the voice of Amédé Ardoin, and a celebration of the Creole storyteller Ben Guiné, from Promised Land, a rural area on Bayou Teche near Parks in St. Martin Parish.” These themes are additionally reflected in the surreal cover art by the gifted Lafayette painter Olin “Leroy” Evans.
LCV readers who do not speak French will nonetheless find considerable substance on this remarkable album. The emotions conveyed transcend language. And the instrumental settings offer new sonic revelations with each successive listening.
Tell It Records
Aaron Neville Returns to the Streets
The strikingly beautiful voice of Aaron Neville has been turning heads since the 1960s, when the New Orleans R&B crooner recorded such solo hits as “Tell It Like It Is.” Neville then spent decades in the Neville Brothers band with his siblings Charles, Art and Cyril. At age 75 he now enjoys a solo career as a top-tier pop-music star. Neville’s voice remains absolutely undiminished—simultaneously funky and ethereal, with a distinctive falsetto—as heard on his new album “Apache” (Tell It Records). Apache Red, shortened to Apache, was Neville’s nickname when he ran the streets of New Orleans as a rambunctious young man, and the word Apache is tattooed on his back in large letters. These demi-monde days are reflected in Neville’s autobiographical song “Stomping Ground,” set to a sultry second-line beat, which references various New Orleans musical and street-lore figures, including “Scarface John” Williams. Williams, a primary singer for Huey “Piano” Smith and the Clowns, was murdered in 1972 and subsequently honored in the song “Brother John” on the first Wild Tchoupitoulas album, released in 1976. Almost all of “Apache” likewise features Neville’s originals. While some songs are markedly more memorable than others, the album as a whole is heartfelt, melodious and consistently pleasant.
August Floods Affect Musicians and Recording Studios
The catastrophic floods of August 2016 hit south Louisiana without the media-driven hubbub of a named hurricane. Word of the growing disaster spread gradually and incrementally before the full depth of the damage really sank in. As a news story, therefore, this disastrous event quickly faded from national cognizance, compared, for example, to Hurricane Katrina. Even so the losses have been vast, and such suffering extends to the music community. Many of Baton Rouge’s leading blues artists—including Henry Gray and Larry Garner—lost their houses. In nearby Denham Springs, home to a thriving country-music scene, steel guitarist Hal Higgins reports that a large percentage of performance venues in south Livingston and Ascension parishes took on water and have yet to reopen. Dockside Studio, a leading recording facility in Maurice in Vermilion Parish, was inundated when Bayou Vermilion over-ran its banks. This same body of water flooded the Lafayette office of Louisiana Folk Roots, the organization that produces the annual Dewey Balfa Cajun and Creole Heritage Week. Musicians have rallied to help their beleaguered colleagues, but much more assistance is needed. Donations can be made to the Baton Rouge Area Foundation (braf.org/louisiana-flood-relief/), Louisiana Folk Roots (lafolkroots.org), the Grammy Foundation (grammy.org/musicares-louisiana-flood-relief), and the Acadiana Center for the Arts (acadianacenterforthearts.org/creative-relief), among other organizations.
Farewell to a Zydeco Ambassador
In closing, this column mourns the passing of the accomplished accordionist, organist and singer Stanley Dural Jr., known professionally as Buckwheat, a nickname he acquired in childhood. As the leader of the band Buckwheat Zydeco, Dural introduced zydeco to previously uninitiated audiences worldwide while remaining fiercely loyal to the Creole community in southwest Louisiana. He was a beloved musician and cultural activist who will be sorely missed.
Ben Sandmel is a New Orleans-based freelance writer, folklorist, and producer and is the former drummer for the Hackberry Ramblers. Learn more about his latest book, Ernie K-Doe: The R&B Emperor of New Orleans, by visiting erniekdoebook.com. The K-Doe biography was selected for the Kirkus Reviews list of best nonfiction books for 2012.