Something From Nothing: Improvised Percussion
Posted: November 11, 2015 by Center for Louisiana Studies at UL Lafayette
Most of the percussive instruments in Cajun and Creole music began as homemade, improvised instruments that slowly grew into integral components of the distinct Louisiana music scene. The triangle or tfer, translated as little iron, provides the sharp ping-ping of the beat in Cajun music and the frottoir, or rubboard, gives another level of syncopation to zydeco music and both were developed from readily available objects. Musician Corey Ledet agrees that the percussion is the "heartbeat of the band" and helps focus the band's timing and rhythm. Christine Balfa, daughter of seminal Cajun musician and cultural activist Dewey Balfa and a Grammy-nominated musician herself, fondly remembers those improvised instruments of her childhood, including spoons and bones. Not having enough instruments didn't stop the good times.
Some percussive instruments were mere household objects pressed into service for the sake of a rhythm. Sometimes stylized versions of these became integral instruments to Cajun and Creole music. Afro-Caribbean musics rasps and notched gourds were replaced by washboards and rubbed with thimbles, spoons or bottle openers. Carved cow bones and bent soupspoons also served to keep the beat. Difficult to play because they have to be held just so, some clever young musicians attached screws or rivets to maintain proper position. A number three washtub easily became a one-string bass when upturned and drilled (confirming its new life as a musical instrument) to run a broom stick through and strung with baling twine or thing rope.
Blacksmiths made petit fers, triangles from a medieval French tradition, using hay or rake tines. The springy tempering of the tines carry a clear ringing sound, which traveled beyond the melodic instruments and often provided the only audible music at the back of a crowded dancehall.
Don Montoucets triangles are considered the best, in terms of sound and design. His triangles followed the pattern of his grandfather's original model with its characteristic double curls on the open ends and made from the tines of hay rakes. As mechanization swept the farming industry, these rakes became more and more scarce. Folklorist and triangle player Barry Ancelet remembers traveling around Nova Scotia in 2010 with accordion builder Moisey Baudoin and finding abandoned rakes in fields throughout the countryside. We ended up driving for days, collecting old rakes to bring back to Louisiana for Don to make triangles with, he chuckles, theres probably a hundred or so Acadian triangles throughout the Acadiana area.
Another second-generation maker of an improvised instrument is Tee Don Landry. His father, Willie Landry, was well known for being able to build or fix anything, including the spinning Evangeline Maid billboard display. While working with Cleveland Chenier in the oil field in the late 1940s, he agreed to make a rub board for him that would be easier to hold and play. Until then, Cleveland played a traditional wooden-framed washboard with a rope at the top to hang the board around his neck. Willie's creation was the first rub board with curved shoulder straps and was made of tin. Over the years the Landrys have refined the design, making their boards individually out of stainless steel. They offer rub boards in several thicknesses, to achieve different sounds, and a variety of ridged patterns as well as women's model, recently dubbed the "Rihanna" after her touring band purchased several.
Percussive sound can also be generated from an existing instrument using other objects, such as the fiddle stick tradition. This allows two people to play the same instrument, important when there were few to go around. Using a pair of thin wooden dowels about a foot long, Christine Balfa explains, "in my family, fiddle sticks were a way to find out if a child had a natural talent." If a child demonstrated an aptitude to keep time and find a rhythm, he or she was eventually graduated up to the fiddle or guitar. The fiddle needs to be cross-tuned in order for the fiddle sticks hit the string in tune. The fiddler player normally, with the fiddle sticks hitting the string between the bow and the fiddlers fingers. The stick in the left hand hits the two higher pitched strings and the stick in the right hand hits the two lower strings. Not only did it identify someone with a sense of rhythm, it also forced potential musicians to focus directly on what the fiddle player was doing. It was right up in your face, Ancelet explains, it was hard not to pay attention to what was going on, you could almost feel the sound coming off the sound board.