Christine Balfa and a Bowl of Gumbo

I had a wonderful conversation with Christine Balfa yesterday… Christine is the youngest of four daughters of the legendary Dewey Balfa of the Balfa Brothers, largely responsible for giving rise to the popularity of Cajun music in this country. Christine and her group, Balfa Toujours, will open the Crowell Series on Friday night.

When I talked with her, she told me she’s getting used to a new schedule because her two daughters are back in school after being home-schooled for a year, and they are all adjusting. She found she couldn’t keep up with everything since Dirk Powell, her husband and accordianist for Balfa Toujours, has been on the road so much with Joan Baez, and she’s been working not only with Balfa Toujours but also with the all-women Cajun band, Bonsoir Catin (catin means “my dear” in Cajun French, she tells me). She’s excited about coming to Wesleyan this Friday…she’s heard all about it from Kevin Wimmer ’85, bass player for the group. Unfortunately, Kevin had a prior engagement that conflicts with our date, so he’ll be replaced by Yvette Landry, the bass player from Bonsoir Catin. Courtney Granger, great-nephew of the Balfa Brothers, will round out the group.

“I always knew music would be a part of my life,” she said. She’d appeared playing the triangle alongside her Dad as a child, and then, in the summer of 1991, never having written a song before, she wrote nine. “It was my way of dealing with his loss; I could still feel his presence if I was making music.” She found out her older sister, Nalda, twenty years her senior, had also written songs for the first time that summer, and the two of them made a cassette recording and took it to a local music producer who wanted to record them. Eighteen years later, Balfa Toujours is touring the world.

“When you play traditional music, you face a lot of differing opinions,” Christine said. “There are the folklorists who feel you should play the songs exactly as they were first played and others who set out to intentionally change the music and make it contemporary. In both of those cases, people are looking at it through their heads…they think about it too much. But if artists think about things too much, they aren’t open to being creative. There’s a place for all of these opinions, but in Balfa Toujours, we play what we feel. We play what’s in our hearts.”

As an added bonus, this Saturday, September 19 at 4pm, the CFA will screen the documentary film, Dewey Balfa: Tribute Concert, directed by Middletown’s own Ed McKeon. I spoke with Ed last spring at a meal hosted by Barry Chernoff at his home. Barry is the Director of Wesleyan’s Environmental Studies Program and the dinner was in honor of the company of Stan’s Cafe (remember the Rice Show?) Barry and Ed decided to give our British visitors a Cajun meal. Barry cooked the gumbo and Ed, the jambalaya. I mentioned to Ed that we’d be bringing Balfa Toujours this fall, and he told me about the documentary. The film features a tribute concert performed a month before Dewey died. A local radio station broadcasted it live so that Dewey could hear it in his hospital room. Christine told me: “I didn’t know Ed that well, but soon we knew he had the sensitivity and spirit to make this production happen. We were all going through such a tough time.”

See you this weekend, and please write and let us know what you think of the concert!

Pamela Tatge
Director, Center for the Arts