In the early 1960s, British musicians helped to breathe new life into the blues scene in the US, the birthplace of the genre.
But folk music is another thing entirely. By definition, each culture has its own roots music, fueled by centuries of storytelling and local lore, although not all folk artists stick to their own ilk.
The latter is epitomized by accordionist, fiddler and vocalist Phil Underwood, fiddler-vocalist Charlie Skelton and guitarist-vocalist Peter Dunhill, who will appear at this year's winter version of the Jacob's Ladder Festival as the Creole Brothers.
Playing creole music should come naturally to a musician from south Louisiana or from the neighboring states of Texas and Mississippi or Alabama. But the threesome who will headline at Nof Ginossar on December 6 and 7 come from much farther away from the Bayou – the cradle of Creole.
“I’m actually from the Isle of Wight,” says Underwood, referring to the island just off the middle of England’s southern coast.
So how did a nice young English lad from the rustic environs of southern England end up performing and recording music that originates from way beyond his geographical or cultural horizons? “It was a kind of journey from English folk music – that's really my roots – and I discovered Cajun music over 20 years ago,” he says.
The epiphany took place in the most British of settings.
“We used to do jam sessions in pubs, and one of the guys had learned a couple of Cajun songs [from Louisiana], and I thought that was really cool,” Underwood recalls.
“Everybody started jumping when we began playing it, and I thought, ‘That’s really good. I like that.’” Underwood began exploring the genre and how best to go about playing songs from that neck of the musical woods. One way was to try a new instrumental approach.
“I started learning the accordion. I always played the melodeon, which is a diatonic accordion, and I managed to get myself a Cajun accordion from the States and started learning it. Since then, it's been a journey and a passion,” he says.
The passion may have been firmly ensconced in Underwood’s musical heart, but the roots of the music were still thousands of miles away. The accordionist was determined to get as authentic a handle on the genre as possible, so he went straight to the source.
“I have learned from many wonderful players from Louisiana, and I’ve had my own [Creole] band since the early 1990s,” he says.
Then again, perhaps he didn’t have such a long journey to make to connect with the foot-stomping energies of the Deep South.
“There has been an influence on some English folk music from the northern parts of America – you know Appalachia – and where you hear what some people might call bluegrass, but you could also call it hillbilly music from those regions.
There are influences from there, and especially with some of the [instrument] tunings,” he notes, adding that British folk has not been entirely inured to influences from other climes, either.
“There are influences from traditional French tunes as well.
You’ve got the Mardi Gras song which sounds much more like a traditional French tune,” he points out.
Cajun music, says Underwood, has also been crafted through a blend of cultural input.
“Some of the Cajun songs came from Europe through the Appalachian region and then south. If you think where the Cajuns came from, they came from the Nova Scotia area. And you’ve got the French influence up there, but you’ve also got the English, Scottish and Irish influence up there, especially the Irish.”
There was also some British impact of a less friendly type.
“The Cajuns probably picked up some influences there before Le Grand Dérangement, as they call it, when they were forcibly ejected by the British governor in 1775. Some went back to France, and some went down the East Coast and eventually ended up in Louisiana,” he says.
As Underwood explains, there’s even more to the Creole musical fusion.
“What makes the Cajun, Creole, music so different is the African influence. You’ve got those African rhythms in there.”
It sounds like Underwood has really gotten into the whole Creole culture and history, and not just the music.
“I have been going over to Louisiana since 1997 and have had the honor to become a very good friend to a Cajun family whose grandfather was the legendary accordion player Iry LeJeune. I was a very good friend of Iry’s son Eddie LeJeune, who was one of the great accordion players. I met him in England, and he invited me to Louisiana to play with him. After Eddie’s death in 2001, I became very close to his family, and I wrote a song about him,” he says.Underwood, in fact, muses that his liaison with the LeJeune family is, in a way, somewhat incongruous.
“When you consider the history of the way the British treated the Cajuns, it is surprising, I suppose. But I have a passion for the music, and Eddie recognized that, and that’s why he nurtured me and helped me along. Creole music is the most passionate music you can play. That’s my take on it. You put your heart into it when you play the music. I lived in America for a couple of years, in the south, and I think the British and everyone else can learn a lot from the passion they have for the music,” he asserts.
The Jacob’s Ladder Winter Weekend gathering is generally a cozier and more intimate affair than the far larger Spring Festival, but with the Creole Brothers around, the ambience at Nof Ginossar may be higher up the mercury level than most years.
In addition to the British-Cajun trio, the program stretches culturally and rhythmically far and wide, with a tribute to Leonard Cohen, courtesy of Ari Gorali, Sivan Talmor and Gal Nisman, and a heady mix of Irish, country, Balkan and Gypsy numbers by the La Basta Trio. Of course, Jacob’s Ladder wouldn’t be the same without perennial festival performer guitarist-harmonica player Shay Tochner, who will team up with singer Gabriella Lewis for some good ol’ country and folk music, while Judi ’n’ Lynn Lewis and Dvir Cafri will dish up their own country and folk repertoire.
In addition to the staged entertainment, there will be some proactive events available in the form of Manny Emanueli’s Irish Dance workshop, while the evergreen Cyrelle Forman will put festival patrons through their square dancing and contra dancing paces. And if you fancy giving your vocal chords a try-out, Larry Mindy will present a program of golden oldies in the 1960s and ’70s sing-along slot.For tickets and more information: (04) 685-0403 and www.jlfestival.com
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