Cajun Spice

Swamperella bring the swing of the South to Toronto

SWAMPERELLA Mardi Gras party, at the 360 (326 Queen West), Saturday (February 23). $7. 416-593-0840.

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toronto’s flamboyant fiddle-playing first lady of Cajun music is having a Calgon moment.It’s Sunday, and I’m on the phone with Swamperella’s Soozi Schlanger. She’s just returned from a whirlwind weekend in Winnipeg, where Swamperella wowed crowds at the Festival Du Voyageur roots music extravaganza. Now the good-time gal’s decompressing in the bathtub.

Schlanger’s basking in Voyageur afterglow. Her band opened for Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, whom she dubs “the biggest Cajun band out of Louisiana.”

Life’s practically perfect right now. There’s only one thing missing.

“I’ve got a massive crush on one of the guys from the Mamou Playboys,” she sighs. “This guy is amazing. He thinks Cajun music is perfect! If he’ll have me, maybe I can hitch a trailer to a donkey and ship myself down there. We’d play music and make out all the time.”

One of the highlights of her trip was getting the thumbs-up from an authentic Louisiana Cajun band. Toronto’s a far cry from the Bayou, so the Mamou Playboys seal of approval gives Swamperella some down-home credibility.

In the five years since the band formed, Swamperella have gained a huge cult following. Their hootenanny-style dances, held monthly, are packed with Cajun-lovin’ folks from all walks of life.

Currently composed of Schlanger, guitarist Conny Nowé, bassist Rachel Melas, percussionist Mark Duggan and accordion whiz Peter Jellard, the band dropped their self-titled debut album last spring, and it’s been selling like crazy.

Not bad for a dame who didn’t pick up the fiddle till she was almost 40. At the start, the only tune she could squawk out was the Tennessee Waltz.

She attended a fiddle camp in upstate New York, aimed at folk music fans who picked up their instruments late in life. Besides sleeping in single-sex bunkies and going wild at weekly dances, participants spent all day immersed in master classes taught by people who came from the culture whose music they wanted to learn.

“I went to the southern week, but I had no idea southern meant Appalachian music, Cajun and Creole — all that stuff from way down in the American South,” recalls Schlanger. “I didn’t know anything about Cajun music — didn’t even know how to spell it or that it was French. But when I heard those fiddles, I had this feeling up the spine. Something just resonated.

“I didn’t want to appropriate someone else’s culture. But I suppose that music crosses all borders, the same way love and art do.”

Maybe that culture-crossing quality is what attracts such a mixed crowd to Swamperella’s shows. Their annual Mardi Gras bash usually draws about 200 fans, many dressed in drag. Schlanger says it’s always a riot, since the band offer their usual dance lessons and door prizes.

She can’t explain why her band’s become such a local phenomenon.

“Every time I go to my gig, I’m positive nobody’s gonna show up,” she confesses. “Maybe the honesty attracts people, or the music, or the couples dancing. It’s hokey, old-fashioned, corny, sure, but there’s an appeal in that. It’s so great — you’ve got girls waltzing with girls right beside Mr. and Mrs. Scarborough dancing together.”

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