By Steve Dalachinsky
Every now and then the many cultures contained within the one monolith known as “American culture” come together to—almost–form a “new thing.” Something potentially revelatory occurs as rhythms and languages collide and merge. Different esthetics tackle, challenge, and compliment each other and new conversations and conversions are created, whether thought out in advance or improvised on the spot. Accidents occur and different players in different situations can divert, reshape and alter the course of the music without disturbing its flow; with any good art one never discards or completely forgets the essentials. When successful, these mergers are more blending than clash.
This was, for the most part, the case when Louisiana musician Louis Michot and his Lost Bayou Ramblers arrived in the Big Apple (or, as it used to be called, the Melting Pot, for just such diversity) during the first week of June to take up residency in the only remaining oasis for serious music in Manhattan, The Stone, musician-composer John Zorn’s club on Second Avenue and Avenue C, in the heart of the Lower East Side.
These often sad tunes nonetheless make one want to get up and dance. Sadly, we could not dance in this venue
Night one began with Le Frères Michot, an all-acoustic group that included Michot’s father, Tommy and brother, Andre, a great accordion player, tracing the dawn of Cajun music in its original form and language. Michot pointed out that the music was a very social music that emphasized community and home life. The group performed many tunes by Mayeus le Fleur, a Cajun musician who died in 1928 at age 22, shot in a bootlegging dispute, just before the release of his first major record. The Cajun music genre now has an abundance of scholarship, including the work of Louisiana transplant and current Yale professor Ryan Brasseaux, who sat in with the group a few times during the week on vocals, triangle and pedal steel.
Set two of the Wednesday night show featured the Ramblers sans guests doing what they do best–mixing traditional music with electric guitar, bass and drums.
To paraphrase Michot…“There is so much space to hold the tune up [within this music]…”, “to play these simple but complicated rhythms” and to delineate “these different voices confined within a specific style and where one can go within that space.” These often sad tunes nonetheless make one want to get up and dance. Sadly, we could not dance in this venue.
The second night presented Spider Stacy of the Pogues on penny whistle in an all-Pogues program. Stacy appeared later in the week in a group dubbed “The Stoned” for a really twisted set with a saxophone player that went from weird versions of trad material to almost outright noise and chaos.
The first set on night three found the Ramblers joined by the New York based new music ensemble Wordless Music, which consisted of a complement of strings, horns, piano and conductor, performing the soundtrack to “Beasts of the Southern Wild” for which Michot added the incidental (?) traditional songs. They played to a full house, recreating a moving score from an equally moving and profoundly disturbing film.
Set two consisted of Michot and the duo String Noise (Pauline Kim and Conrad Harris on violins, also part of Wordless Music), dubbed Le String Noise by Michot, and joined by Leyla McCalla on cello, a New Yorker of Haitian descent now living in New Orleans. They played everything from traditional Cajun and Haitian tunes to twentieth/twenty-first century avante garde music including Eric Lyons’ Cajun “Noise Construction,” re-written for the occasion by Lyons as “Cajun Noise Construction” for computer and strings. The set also featured “No More Beatlemania” by Half Japanese, compositions by Cajun fiddler Dennis McGee, and a piece by New York’s own master of drone/minimalist noise Phil Niblock. The set was played masterfully by all and though I’m sure it confused many in the audience for its daringness, this was a very special night, hearing the blend of classically trained musicians with the trad musicians. And as it turned out this was my favorite set of the week.
Most nights–some of them steamy–were filled with guests and–as Zorn requests of all folks who hold residencies–each set was different and held new surprises. Though not every combination worked for me, Michot’s very eclectic week was an incredible blend of musical ideas and styles and, ultimately, a success.
After all is said and done, if you can’t get behind this music, “please don’t shake my tree.”
Poet/collagist Steve Dalachinsky was born in Brooklyn after the last big war and has managed to survive lots of little ones. His book The Final Nite (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2006) won the PEN Oakland National Book Award. His most recent books are Fools Gold (Feral House, 2014), A Superintendent’s Eyes (Unbearable/Autonomedia, 2013), and Flying Home (Paris Lit Up Press, 2015), a collaboration with German visual artist Sig Bang Schmidt. His latest CD is ec(H)osystem with the French art-rock group, The Snobs (Bam Balam Records, 2015). He is a 2014 recipient of a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. His poem “Particle Fever” was nominated for a 2015 Pushcart Prize. He writes a column for The Brooklyn Rail.