Sarah Savoy & the Francadians
Fionola Meredith enjoys a healthy helping of Cajun charm
When I think Cajun, I think hearty, fiery, soul-warming food: gumbo, jambalaya, sweet potato pie. Cajun music, it turns out, is just the same.
At a lunchtime gig at the Black Box – part of the 2012 Out To Lunch festival in Belfast – Louisiana-born Sarah Savoy and her band, the Francadians, whip up a bright and tasty feast of rockabilly-influenced Cajun songs. It is enough to put a smile on all but the glummest of faces.
Savoy has been described as 'a singer with hell-raising credentials... the self-styled queen of white trash Cajun'. Slightly to my disappointment, however, there is nothing here to cause the audience to choke on their lunch.
Perhaps the band is saving its rock'n'roll edge for the evening show. Savoy herself remarks, they don't want to perform anything to indigestible so early in the day, so they plan to stick to more traditional fare.
That's not to say it is bland though. Savoy's big, barnstorming voice and charismatic presence make her truly magnetic. She looks like she has just stepped straight out of the 1950s, with her ponytail, short fringe and full swinging skirt.
Everything she wears is trimmed with deep, devilish red. She has red buttons, red earrings, red lips, and red flowers in her hair. Arms thrown round her guitar, Savoy dominates the stage with a formidable, wide-legged stance, and sometimes punctuates her singing with a brisk stamp of her foot or the odd wild yell. Clearly this is not a woman to mess with.
By comparison, the rest of the band – a group of all-French musicians – fade into the background a little. David Rolland on accordion (or squeeze-box, for better Cajun authenticity) handles his instrument as though it is a living thing, drawing all kinds of mournful, lyrical and cheeky sounds from it.
In cowboy hat, shirt and tightly-done tie, fiddle-player Vincent Blin looks like he'd strayed out of a backwoods Southern gospel tent. That is quickly forgotten in the sweetness and complexity of his playing, his hand holding the bow with the loosest, most elegant grip.
Manolo Gonzales, meanwhile, on the double bass, is almost expressionless throughout the gig, but keeps the whole thing together with his deep, hypnotic strumming.
Most of the songs are in Cajun-French dialect, so Savoy maintains a running translation of the lyrics. It is a good way of staying in touch with the audience. The often maudlin words – 'The place where I want to die is in the arms of my baby' – seem in sharp contrast to the jaunty tone of the music itself.
Savoy remarks, in Cajun music, 'half the songs are about drinking, and the other half are about dying – that's all there is, right?'
Other lyrics are simply obscure. 'You had a little and you ain't going to get any more of that rabbitskin.' From the smirk on Savoy's face, I have a feeling that is some kind of Cajun double entendre, inexplicable to Belfast ears.
The most striking moment comes when Savoy stands alone at the microphone and sings a Creole 'a cappella' song, entitled 'My Husband Isn't Home Yet'. The story of a lonely wife waiting for her errant man, it is powerful, tender, longing. With a voice like Savoy's, you don't really need any accompaniment at all.
Out To Lunch festival continues until January 29.