Madison boasts a rich community of traditionally minded musicians. These players and songwriters explore various strains of America's musical roots with a vigor and proficiency that make them both loving preservationists and active participants. A recent addition to this community is the Cajun Strangers, whose lively brand of traditional Cajun music has led them from local dance floors to international acclaim.
The group formed in 2001, the product of informal jam sessions. "We met there, which is why we called ourselves the Cajun Strangers," remembers fiddler Brian O'Donnell, whose house became the primary meeting place. The Strangers eventually coalesced around a group of players including O'Donnell, noted country/folk artist John Fabke, and John Romano, whose passion for the Cajun style is matched by his skills on its trademark button accordion.
Romano's dedication symbolizes the Strangers' loyalty to Cajun traditions. While they've dabbled in other styles (including Creole and zydeco, which emerged from Louisiana's black communities), the Strangers remain proudly purist. They base their repertoire around blues, waltzes and two-steps, sung in French or the French/English blend of Louisiana's ethnic gumbo. Although they admit that their devotion to tradition may limit their appeal, the Strangers now have a steady local following.
"There's a core of people who enjoy listening to Cajun music and know it when they hear it," Romano observes.
More important, the crowds don't simply listen: They dance. Weekly shows at the Harmony Bar provided a particularly receptive audience. "There's a dance floor," O'Donnell says, "a neighborhood feel, and a group of young people coming in, which we never had before."
The group - also featuring guitarist Karen Holden, bassist Dave Bachol and drummer Colin Baszali - recently recorded their debut album, Valse a Deux Temps, a collection that balances reverence with enthusiasm. While much of the record is instrumental, Romano provides emotive vocals on several key selections.
The recording was an important milestone, but greater breakthroughs followed. The first major step came when Swallow Records - based in Ville Platte, La. - agreed to release their debut. Beyond its geographic credibility, Swallow's pedigree is nearly unmatched: Romano describes the label as having recorded a "who's who of Cajun musicians." Subsequently, Valse a Deux Temps won 2007's Prix Dehors de Nous award, given by the Cajun French Music Association (CFMA) to the best album recorded outside of Louisiana.
The Strangers are both proud and amazed at this sudden recognition. "It's a big honor to be in the company of the other bands who were nominated," says O'Donnell.
"We're evidently playing the music the way they think it ought to be played," says Romano.
Despite their triumphs, the group remain focused on the audiences who fill the floors at their dances, seeming less interested in pursuing greater acclaim than in nurturing their loyal local fan base. They're resuming the Harmony Bar dances this fall and hope to remain a fixture at area cultural events. They are strangers no longer, either to each other or to their growing number of admirers.