The Magnolia Sisters,
Chers Amis
(Rounder, 2000)

Don't let the word "magnolia" fool you -- there's nothing frail or fragile about these women who play swinging Cajun music with energy and verve. They're sisters in song and spirit, not actual siblings, but it doesn't get much closer.

The Magnolia Sisters are Ann Savoy on accordion, fiddle, guitar, bass and vocals; Jane Vidrine on fiddle, guitar, triangle and vocals; Tina Pilione on fiddle, mandolin and bass; Christine Balfa on guitar, banjo ukelele, rubboard, triangle and vocals; and Lisa Trahan Reed on bass, triangle and vocals. Savoy, who also performs with her husband Marc Savoy and Michael Doucet (of Beausoleil fame) as the Savoy-Doucet Band, co-founded the Magnolia Sisters with Vidrine. Overall, their sound adds a new element to the mostly male-dominated genre of Cajun music, featuring tight, well-blended harmonies and a distinct, older Cajun swing style.

The CD kicks off with "'Tit Mamou," a lively song featuring driving accordion and fiddle and Vidrine belting out the vocals. (According to the liner notes, "'Tit Mamou ... is a large area in the prairies of southwest Louisiana.") If you've never two-stepped in your life, you'll learn fast or improvise because the music makes you want to get up and go. They calm things down a bit with the title track, "Chers Amis (Dear Friends)," which is "The Jamboree Waltz" with their own words. While this is not one of the songs which is translated in the liner notes, the bittersweet mood shines through.

The pace picks up again with "Dedans le Sud de la Louisiane (In South Louisiana)," a tribute to the old-time Cajuns of southwest Louisiana. The liner notes say that "this song should be the new Louisiana National Anthem" and you'll agree -- it's catchy and fun, with precise and ringing vocal harmonies, a strong bass and guitar rhythm, and singing tandem fiddles.

"Le Pays des Etrangers (The Country of Strangers)" is the first of several songs sung a capella by Savoy and Vidrine. Their voices twine together beautifully, conveying the wistful mood of the song. "Il Faut Hisser les Voiles (We Must Hoist the Sails)," another a capella selection, is a poignant song about someone setting out to sea and the woman he leaves behind. In "La Belle et le Capitaine (The Maiden and the Captain)," a mournful drone effectively underscores the voices.

There are 20 tracks in all on the CD, every one of them excellent. Some highlights include "La Fleur de la Jeunesse (The Flower of Youth)," a wedding song with a lovely melody and shimmering harmonies, "L'Annee de Cinquante-Sept (The Year of '57)" about Hurricane Audrey which devastated part of Louisiana, "Hippi Taiut" and "T'en a Eu Tu N'auras Plus (You Had Some But You Ain't Getting Anymore)," the last two lively swinging pieces.

With Chers Amis the Magnolia Sisters demonstrate a refreshing style that remains true to its roots -- and that's good news for fans of Cajun music.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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