November 20, 2018

Don Roy Trio highlights Franco-American influence

Parlez-vous musique?

For many of French descent, the answer is a resounding “Oui!” Two prime examples from both ends of the experience scale will perform at the 2003 National Folk Festival in Bangor.

Don Roy is the well-traveled veteran. The dean of Franco-American fiddling in Maine, the Gorham man and his Don Roy Trio are one of two Maine groups playing at the festival.

Rounding out the trio are Roy’s wife, Cindy, who plays piano and step dances; and bassist Jay Young. The Roys have been performing together for 23 years, and Young has played with them for 20 years. This familiarity leads to an unspoken communication onstage.

“Each time, it’s totally new and unplanned,” said Roy, 43. “One’s feeding off the other. We’d be doing the same thing if we were playing at a party somewhere.”

This will mark Roy’s second appearance at the National Folk Festival. He played at the 1988 edition in Lowell, Mass. He’s looking forward to this summer’s performance.

“It’s a wonderful event to participate at,” he said. “The best things occur behind the scenes, after hours. It’s such a positive experience.”

Roy, who also plays guitar, mandolin and banjo, has been playing since age 6. His uncle Norman Mathieu taught him how to play guitar, and he then accompanied another uncle, Lucien Mathieu, who taught him how to play fiddle at 15.

While growing up in Rockland, he was influenced by fiddlers such as Ben Guillemette, Joe and Gerry Robichaud, and Graham Townsend. The sounds of Quebec, Ireland, Ontario and the Maritime Provinces blend in his style of playing.

Opportunities to practice were plentiful in those days before TVs and VCRs, when people made their own entertainment. House parties with music and dancing could go on all weekend.

“It was a long time before I realized that wasn’t part of everyone’s tradition,” Roy said with a laugh.

Before long, he was getting paid to play.

“I thought, ‘Cool. They’re paying us to do what we do anyway,'” he recalled.

Roy organized and then managed the Maine French Fiddlers, a large fiddle orchestra, for 11 years. The group played at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center and The Barns at Wolf Trap, and on public radio’s “A Prairie Home Companion.” It was disbanded in 1999.

“[Some of the members] were getting too old to go anywhere,” he said simply.

These days, Roy splits his efforts in many directions. During the day, he’s a building-maintenance supervisor for the Maine Turnpike Authority.

He teaches fiddling to a handful of students two nights a week, although he has turned away many more. Also, from 7 to 9 p.m. the first Tuesday of every month, he teaches a group lesson at the Center for Cultural Exchange in Portland, leading students through two to three songs a session.

Roy also is building his own fiddles. As a member of the Maine Musical Instrument Makers, he will give demonstrations and participate in a moderated discussion on instrument making in Maine. The group will have an exhibit titled “Not Fiddling Around: The Art and Tradition of Violin Making in Maine.”

The trio also gives periodic demonstrations at schools, mixing performance with talk about its Franco-American heritage and a question-and-answer period.

That leaves weekends available for playing. The trio is booked all summer, but the Folk Festival is a rare opportunity to see the group in a public setting, as most of its gigs are at private functions.

“I wanted to cut back this summer,” Roy said. “But the money’s so good that you just can’t not go.”

Roy enjoys working with a trio.

“I like that I can do my own stuff,” he said. “I’m not restricted. We’re all considerate and concerned about the product we put out. It’s more natural, more in the tradition I come from.”

In concert, Roy explains where the songs come from and the importance of each. The shows are entirely instrumental. Seeing the interest in his culture from both young people and the general public keeps Roy on the road.

“That’s the reason I still do it,” he said. “If there wasn’t that interest, I’d stay home and play. I wish I had more time to do it. I know I could make a living at it, but I don’t want it to be about the money. I don’t want to take the fun out of it. I love what I do.”

The teens that make up the Cajun sextet La Bande Feufollet feel the same way about the music they play.

“It’s a very special part of our lives,” said Chris Segura, a Louisianan and one of the band’s two remaining founders. “It’s really fun music, and it’s also a part of our heritage.”

Feufollet means “crazy fire.” Segura, 19, expands on that: “It’s named for these balls of fire people would see in swamps and marshes. Since no one knew what they were, people would make up folk tales about them. It’s a mischievous spirit guarding a treasure. It’s a guide that will bring you home if you’re lost. It’s the souls of unbaptized babies. It’s actually just burning marsh gas. The cool part about it is there are so many meanings.”

Segura, now in college, followed his great-grandfather, fiddler Robert “Vab” Fontenot, into Cajun music. His mother rented him a violin when he was 4. He took a few lessons, then stayed with it. During his grade-school years, he made several appearances with fiddler Harry LaFleur at festivals and other concerts. He also appeared on Louisiana Public Television’s “Great Performances.”

Chris Stafford, 15, became interested in Cajun music after being involved with Louisiana’s French-immersion program in school, At age 8, he convinced his uncle to let him borrow the uncle’s accordion, and Stafford began taking lessons from Steve Riley of the Mamou Playboys. He now plays accordion, guitar, bass, fiddle, piano, mandolin and trumpet, and writes songs.

Segura and Stafford formed Feufollet, based in Lafayette, La., about six years ago. Bassist Derek Hebert, 15, joined about two years ago, with drummer Jeremy Richards, 15, vocalist Anna Laura Edmiston, 17, and guitarist Maegen Benoit, 18, coming to the group six months ago.

The sextet performs, mostly on weekends and in summer, in its home state and neighboring Texas and Florida, but also tours along the East Coast, in Michigan, and in the provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Quebec. The band’s members explain what each French-language song is about before playing it.

How many in their native Louisiana actually speak French? “A lot of the older generation do,” Stafford said. “Then there was a whole generation who never learned to speak French, because they were told it was uncool to be Cajun. Their parents wouldn’t teach their kids French because they were afraid [the children] would be looked down upon. Now, thanks to the French-immersion program in the elementary schools, a new generation can speak French.”

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