Spicier than grandma's gumbo and steamier than the French Quarter is the music of Squeeze Bayou. The band is shaking up not only the local Cajun music scene, but also is proving itself to the experts back in Southwestern Louisiana, where the musical genre began in the 1700s.
"They understand and are able to execute music very well," Larry Miller, the committee chairman of the Cajun French Music Association of America, said of Squeeze Bayou. "The primary vocalist (Takoma Park resident Karen Collins) has a great voice and has captured the Cajun lyrics very closely."
Miller's association is honoring Squeeze Bayou next month in Lafayette, La., home of "Le Cajun," a sort of Grammy Awards of Cajun music.
The band will receive the association's "Le Prix Dehors de Nous," or "the prize away from us," for its 1996 album, "Steppin' Fast," a collection of 14 mostly-traditional Cajun songs. The annual award goes to the best Cajun band outside of Cajun country or an area beyond the swampy swath from Houston to New Orleans.
Oddly enough, Collins didn't speak word of French - the only language of true Cajun music - before first hearing the style and falling in love with it at a festival 12 years ago. "My French vocabulary is words I've learned by songs," said Collins, who mostly played fiddle and sang with traditional Appalachian music before discovering Cajun. "I basically can sing it (but) have a limited speaking vocabulary." Still, after five years as a band, Squeeze Bayou shuns English in its music - except for the lyrical translations in the album's liner notes.
While Collins' day job as a computer-science teacher at Montgomery Blair High School may be more progressive than her more old-fashioned musical career, Collins and bandmates have no problem capturing the spirit and quality of traditional Cajun and Zydeco music. The band is comprised of Collins' husband, guitarist Fred Feinstein, as well as Kevin Bell (accordion) of Arlington, Kevin Enoch (bass) of Beltsville and Wes Crawford (drums) of Glenmont. The group specializes in two-steps and waltzes but also blends in country blues and Creole.
Collins' soft-yet-striking vocals and peppy fiddle meld beautifully with Bell's danceable accordion on songs such as "Steppin' Fast" and "Tes Parents Veulent Plus me Voir."
The rhythm section keeps the beat tight and simple, so the listener can focus on Collins' sweet voice during the beautiful "Bon Soir Moreau" and the uplifting traditional number "Jolie Bassette."
Still, those songs are made for dancing - the goal of Cajun music. "It's about making people feel good," said Crawford, a full- time musician who said he's never spentany significant time in Louisiana but loves playing music from the region. "Let's go out, mix and mingle and have a good time and do some sweating."
What's more, the Washington-Baltimore corridor has one of the biggest Cajun, Creole and Zydeco scenes outside of its music homeland, he said. Miller said there is also a sizable following in New England. "We believe it's because they really had no folk music of their own," he said, adding that other regions immersed in native genres of music, such: bluegrass, Appalachian or the blues.
But that distance doesn't make them any less authentic, Crawford said."We do it the way they do it down there."