At the Cajun Music Jam, songs are often a negotiation.
One circled-up performer might say, "I haven't played that in a year."
The response? "Well, this'll be a learning experience for you, then."
And off they go, making sense of things as the song moves through, note after note.
Such was the way on Aug. 25 at the New Deal Café in Roosevelt Center. Anyone who wanted to could sit in on the jam, where Cajun music flies from fiddles, guitars, accordions, voices and the harmonica. It is the voices that are most foreign — the songs are in French, after all. But if one could get a feeling from a song without understanding the lyrics, Cajun music would be one of the best examples.
Most of the songs reflect the common experience — poor people displaced from their chosen homes trying to make a way in a different land, love won and love lost, death and loss, said Anne McCabe, a guitar player and one of the organizers.
"Everybody can identify with those," she said.
One song sounded familiar, Port Arthur Blues, an up-tempo dance song made famous by the Balfa brothers. The driving rhythm of the two-step is made for dancing, even though the lyrics are haunting.
McCabe, along with Don Henninger on accordion and Jim Schmidt on fiddle, is a member of Cypress Trio, a semi-professional group that plays Americana and folk at different venues around the region. But all skill sets are welcome at the jam.
Rooted in the balladic tradition of the French-speaking Acadians from Canada, Cajun music is distinguishable by its instrumentation (guitar, fiddle, Cajun accordion, harmonica and triangle) and simple harmonies. It's French music, with fast waltzes and two-step styles of dance that are associated with it. It's a celebration of French, Acadian and Louisiana culture and identity that has survived, evolved and thrived.
On this night, between eight and 11 musicians gathered in a circle in the back bar area of the café to trade songs, encourage some dancing and arouse the crowd. While the performance took place indoors, it felt more like musicians sitting on someone's front porch down Louisiana way. Such was the organic nature of the gathering and the feeling of family and fun.
"That's exactly right," McCabe said. "Our mission is to spread the word, educate people as well as to get new people so that people are aware of this music. And also how much fun it is. "
Adbul Karim Kmarha, who manages the food side of the café, said that people really enjoy the music, which happens in some form just about every day.
"They like the different music to listen to," Kmarha said, and if they enjoy a good, homemade Lebanese meal, then it's all the better.
Phillip Payette, a graphic designer from Greenbelt, grew up listening to Cajun music and dancing to it in Philadelphia. He considers this form a way to retain some semblance of French-speaking Canada in this country.
"I'm happy for any form of culture that keeps the French language alive," he said.
If you want to go: Cajun Music Jam takes place every fourth Wendesday night from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the New Deal Café.
For more information, contact Anne McCabe.