In the 1950s, when Jim "Etienne" Viator was growing up in Eunice, black Creole musicians like fiddler Canray Fontenot and accordionist Bois Sec Ardoin played at house parties for his Cajun parents and grandparents. "They never made a racial distinction," says Viator. "If the group had accordions and fiddles and sang in French, they called it 'French music.'"
The songs those artists sang, like "Jolie Blonde" and "Allons Danser Colinda," were a shared reservoir of rural folkways that had only begun to resist the tidal impact of pop music that Viator was hearing. "Fats Domino, Elvis, Little Richard were really big on the radio stations in Lafayette and Ville Platte," he recalls. "I don't know if I was born into music, but there was a lot of it around me."
Viator was 9 when his parents moved to New Orleans. In 1970, he graduated from the University of New Orleans and launched himself as a hard-charging singer called Vince Vance, leading an R&B band named the Valiants. Rocking across the Southern college circuit, Vince was on a roll, singing pop hits like "Fortune Teller," "Ooo Poo Pah Do" and "I Like It Like That." But by 1975 the band had no hit records. The flush years were done. (The current Vince Vance and the Valiants perform with different personnel.)
"My dad gave me some pretty good advice," Viator says. "When you start seeing the same clubs and faces you saw on the way up, you know it's time for another job."
The job route involved a long detour from professional music that began with graduate school in California, where he met and married Deborah Helen Fischer, back to Louisiana State University for law school, then a clerkship for a federal judge in Shreveport and a stint at teaching law in Lubbock, Texas. He is now a faculty member at Loyola Law School in New Orleans.
The music has also come full circle with Viator seeing new clubs and faces as a vocalist and percussionist in Eh, La-Bas! -- the band led by his 21-year-old son, Moise, a guitarist and singer, and 19-year-old daughter, Alida, who sings and plays fiddle. The younger Viators are undergraduates at Loyola. The band recently issued its first CD, Mermaids of the Canary Islands, on the Fred Charles/Acadiana Records label in Eunice.
The group has a growing base of followers on the New Orleans club circuit thanks to a rare blend of Creole French and down-home R&B, laced with a strong Caribbean flavor. The title cut is a retake of the old Louis Jordan tune "Run Joe," which the Neville Brothers revived a generation ago. This version is sung in alternate passages of French and English by Moise, with flaring trumpet lines by Robert Garrett and the ex-Vince's driving beat on congas.
Memories of his pastoral childhood were on Viator's mind in 1992 when, after a division of proceeds from the sale of other family land, he purchased 100 acres of his own, outside Eunice in a tiny community called Tasso. Only about 25 acres was open pasture, the rest of it thick woods.
In the 1990s, while he spent weekdays teaching at Loyola, his wife home-schooled Moise and Alida out in the country. They grew up without cable or MTV. "I think the music we absorbed was about as rich as a kid could want," says Moise, now a psychology major.
"Once a week," says Alida, "we went over to the home of Mr. Adner Ortego -- he's 85 now -- and we learned how to make violins. You have to cut the design out of the wood with a power tool. I didn't like that part; it's not good for violin fingers. After we worked on the violin, we'd eat gumbo and play music. We had jam sessions all the time."
As the kids took to music, their mom took to violin-making under the tutelage of Ortego. Today, she makes and sells several each year in the range of $4,000 each.
When Alida was in fifth grade and Moise in eighth, they enrolled at the Richard Elementary School in the town of the same name, near Eunice. "We were two years ahead of the grade-testing when we went in," says Moise. "We not only lost brain power," says Alida, "but it certainly didn't help for independent thought. I went from reading Jane Eyre to boring stuff. It was a little scary, but we did make some friends, friends we've kept."
Her first violin teacher, David Greely, plays with Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys. She also took lessons from D'Jalma Garnier, who plays with the band Filé. Meanwhile, she was listening to the music of Canray Fontenot and Dennis McGee. She saw Fontenot perform in person just as her daddy had years earlier at the old folks' house parties when he was a child.
"I was basically self-taught," says Moise of his early years. He later took lessons from David Doucet of BeauSoleil. "My dad taught some basic stuff, but I started out by playing along to Cajun and Creole songs. All the ska that you hear on Mermaids was something I took to around '97."
Creole Blues by Don Vappie and the Creole Jazz Serenaders sparked Moise and Alida's interest in early jazz. In time, the Viators became friends with Vappie and Creole songstress Sybil Kein, each of whom shared insights on the musical language the band was excavating.
"Dad was always buying CDs," says Alida. "He introduced me to Bessie Smith, and from him we heard Kid Ory. We were playing more polyrhythms than most kids our age. We like Boukman Eksperyans, and RAM, another group from Haiti."
The range of stylistic idioms that flow through a given set of Eh, La-Bas! is an outgrowth of the expansive musical world in which Moise and Alida were raised. "Mama Inez," sung by Jim, is a traditional Creole tune given strong Cuban accents in Moise's guitar work and a pounding backbeat from bass guitarist Robert Bass (on the recording) and drummer Kevin S. Estoque. Trumpeter Garrett and saxophonist Steve Miller color the sound with shimmering brass designs suggesting Cuba one moment, a bayou stomp the next. Charlie Wehr is now the band's regular bass guitarist and plays on most of the CD cuts.
"I got into the band," explains Jim Viator, "when Alida and Moise had a music recital at Loyola and invited me to play drums. I told Deborah Helen, 'I can't imagine making my parents this happy.' They gave me a second lease on musical life."
- Eh, La-Bas
- "We were playing more polyrhythms than most kids our age," recalls Alida Viator of her rural Louisiana upbringing. Alida now sings and plays with her brother, Moise, and father, Jim "Etienne," in the group Eh, La-Bas!