Too often at rock shows in Madison, no matter how rocking, the audience stands still with arms crossed and heads nodding.

Not so at a Cajun Strangers' show. The local six-piece folk band got a lively crowd of couples swinging across the dance floor at a late summer East Side Club show and even inspired a group of kids to start an electric slide line. The syncopated accordion- and fiddle-led music, sung in both English and Creole, has deep roots in the Cajun culture of southwestern Louisiana, where dancing and music go hand in hand.

"Cajun music is meant to be danced to," accordion player John Romano said. "It was just part of the culture. Originally, people would just clear the furniture out of their houses and shore up the rafters on the floor to make sure they were strong enough, and then people would come in and dance."

The Cajun Strangers kick off a monthly gig this Sunday at the Harmony Bar, where they'll push the tables to the walls of the dining area to make room for dancing.

Romano played mainstream, non-dance folk for years before he started playing Cajun music with the band in 2002. Now he performs only Cajun music.

"The people you're playing for are not a passive audience, they're an active audience. At least for me, I find it much easier to interact with an audience who's dancing to the music I'm playing," he said.

Wisconsin isn't exactly known as a hotbed for Cajun music, and like the other members of the band, fiddler Brian O'Donnell discovered the genre while traveling. He first saw a Cajun band perform while at a fiddle camp in New York state.

"I was just blown away by them. I remember it was an 18-hour drive home and I just listened to this one CD the entire way home because I loved it so much," O'Donnell said. "It's very passionate music."

He was a serious rock guitarist before he started playing bluegrass fiddle, which he started exploring via the Grateful Dead -- a pretty common way for people his age (41) to get into folk music since Jerry Garcia had a bluegrass band.

He likes the fiddle lines in Cajun music because they're all-encompassing of the instrument's potential.

"There are three elements of fiddle that I really like: driving, rhythmic bow work; lyrical, pretty -- almost classical -- playing; and a bluesy quality," he said. "Of all the folk music, Cajun music has all three of those at pretty high levels," he said.

Both O'Donnell and Romano take trips to southwestern Louisiana when they can, not so much to jam, but to listen and dance.

"To learn to play Cajun music, you need to know what it sounds like -- and the best Cajun musicians in the world are there," Romano said.

The style still is a thriving part of everyday life, unlike polka in Wisconsin, O'Donnell said: "There are radio stations that play it all the time and several restaurants in town that have bands every night. Down there, it's young and old, a big mix. It feels very alive and happening."


Who: The Cajun Strangers

When: 7 p.m. Sunday

Where: Harmony Bar, 2201 Atwood Ave.

Cost: $5 suggested donation


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