A Cajun Fiddle Tune to Get Your Audience Dancing

This smooth, rhythmic arrangement draws on a variety of influences

PI_Doucet

Michael Doucet is among the contemporary Cajun fiddlers to record ‘Grand Mamou.’
photo: Kenneth Cooke

“Grand Mamou” is a tune from the great tradition of Louisiana Acadian dance music, which draws on French, German, and African-American influences. At a Cajun “bal” (dance) or at a house jam session, the fiddler is the rhythmic engine behind the whole party, complemented by diatonic accordions, triangles, and guitars. In these arrangements, forming a solid rhythmic connection among all the players is the best way to enjoy the tunes and maybe even get your audience dancing!

Unlike classical compositions, traditional tunes like this don’t necessarily exist in one “correct” version. I’ve drawn on recordings and notated versions from the rich legacy of musicians who’ve put their stamp on them. These include inspirations from earlier days (Joe Falcon, Sady Courville, Varise Conner, and Dewey Balfa) and contemporary artists (Michael Doucet and David Greely).

In a traditional Cajun setting, the verses of a song would alternate with “turns,” instrumental breaks that contrast with the main vocal melody, with players spontaneously contributing their own voices within the traditional structure. Arranged for an instrumental ensemble without vocals, these versions still invoke the contrast between vocal leads and instrumental turns, while providing each instrument with opportunities to join in the melody as well as provide rhythmic backup.

Bowings are suggested to enable the rhythmic feel to emerge naturally. In the “Grand Mamou” waltz, eighth notes are swung: in each pair of eighth notes, the duration of the first is slightly longer than the second. The rhythm notated as a 16th note on the beat, followed by dotted eighth (Violin 1 in m. 9 for example), is a snappy reversal of the swung eighths.

The dance style in a Cajun waltz is very smooth and horizontal—not “down UP UP.” This tune comes alive with a smooth, even, flowing bow that follows the shape of the whole phrase, rarely leaving the string or rippling the constant river of the melody.

After an introduction, the first violin takes the melodic lead (m. 9), to be played with a smooth line, while the viola part imitates the strumming of a guitar (mm. 9–24). The strummed part may be played either in normal playing position or with the instrument held like a guitar. Use alternating strums, as if doing “down–up” with the bow, for eighth notes.

Be free to let it all out!

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*This article appeared in Strings August 2011
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