Most of the percussive instruments in Cajun and Creole music began as homemade, improvised instruments that slowly grew into integral components of the distinct Louisiana music scene. The triangle or t’fer, translated as “little iron,” provides the sharp ping-ping of the beat in Cajun music and the frottoir, or rubboard, gives another level of syncopation to zydeco music and both were developed from readily available objects. Musician Corey Ledet agrees that the percussion is the “heartbeat of the band” and helps focus the band’s timing and rhythm. Christine Balfa, daughter of seminal Cajun musician and cultural activist Dewey Balfa and a Grammy-nominated musician herself, fondly remembers those improvised instruments of her childhood, including spoons and bones. Not having enough instruments didn’t stop the good times.
Blacksmiths made petit fers, triangles from a medieval French tradition, using hay or rake tines. The springy tempering of the tines carry a clear ringing sound, which traveled beyond the melodic instruments and often provided the only audible music at the back of a crowded dancehall.
Don Montoucet’s triangles are considered the best, in terms of sound and design. His triangles followed the pattern of his grandfather’s original model with its characteristic double curls on the open ends and made from the tines of hay rakes. As mechanization swept the farming industry, these rakes became more and more scarce. Folklorist and triangle player Barry Ancelet remembers traveling around Nova Scotia in 2010 with accordion builder Moisey Baudoin and finding abandoned rakes in fields throughout the countryside. “We ended up driving for days, collecting old rakes to bring back to Louisiana for Don to make triangles with,” he chuckles, “there’s probably a hundred or so Acadian triangles throughout the Acadiana area.”
Another second-generation maker of an improvised instrument is Tee Don Landry. His father, Willie Landry, was well known for being able to build or fix anything, including the spinning Evangeline Maid billboard display. While working with Cleveland Chenier in the oil field in the late 1940s, he agreed to make a rub board for him that would be easier to hold and play. Until then, Cleveland played a traditional wooden-framed washboard with a rope at the top to hang the board around his neck. Willie’s creation was the first rub board with curved shoulder straps and was made of tin. Over the years the Landrys have refined the design, making their boards individually out of stainless steel. They offer rub boards in several thicknesses, to achieve different sounds, and a variety of ridged patterns as well as women’s model, recently dubbed the “Rihanna” after her touring band purchased several.