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Introduction to Common Cajun Musical Instruments -- Part IV -- The Triangle or Ti-fer (and other)
In the history of traditional Cajun music, the loud and attention getting "triangle or ti-fer" (little iron) is often an overlooked part of the sound and feel of this musical genre (pronounced tee fair). This triangle is a metal bar, usually steel, bent into the shape of a triangle, with a short looped string or strap for handling.
Along with the ti-fer is a steel beater, which is obviously used to strike the triangle. There is always one corner that doesn't join, which allows the instrument to vibrate when struck. Many of them were made simply by bending the broken or discarded tongs of farm harvesting equipment.
In musical terms, the use of a triangle is known as an idiophone. It makes up the percussion portion of a Cajun band. An idophone's technical definition is:
- Any musical instrument that makes sounds, mostly by vibration of itself, without the use of strings or membranes.
In the case of this instrument, size matters. The larger the triangle, the louder the sound. Even modest sized ti-fers can be heard above the band and vocals. Their tingling piercing vibration, played correctly can almost raise goose-bumps in those who love them. My Grandpere, believed the instruments were brought with the Acadians in the 1700s to Louisiana. (Most of my early Cajun musical training was learned at his knee).
The shimmering sound of the ti-fer, is somewhat like a poor man's cow bell (which is what my Grandpere called it sometimes). I remember him showing me a very old one, that also had rings strung on it, that produced a different type of sound. I was taught that this instrument was one that many old-timers remembered from their childhood as part of funeral procession music. I've not been able to find any reference to that, but clearly know that was talked about. Grandpere would often make comments in his advancing age, that the time for the chanky chank of the ti-fer at his funeral was not that far away in time.
Another variation in sound occurs when it is hooked over the hand in a manner that the other hand's fingers can soften (damp) it and vary the tone. Still another way the pitched can be changed, is slightly varying the exact location where it is struck.
To Play the Ti-fer
To play the Ti-fer, is somewhat simple:
- Hold the string/strap above the triangle;
- The open end of the triangle should be to your left, if you are right-handed ;
- When ready hit the metal with the beater, so it makes the sound in the rhythm you desire. Strike the ti-fer with a light and quick wrist action;
- You quickly move the beater between two sides of the triangle. Hitting either the outside right hand corner near the top, or the inside right corner of the base.
While I'm sure by now, you are thinking this instrument requires absolutely no talent to play, you'd be surprised. In the hands of an accomplished Cajun musician, it can be a surprisingly understated, demanding, and dramatic addition to complex traditional Cajun songs. A master traditional Cajun triangle player, often deals with intricate rhythms. Additionally, it takes practice to be able to control the volume level of the ti-fer.
A lot of times the player can achieve quieter notes by having a light touch with the beater. Some of the more unique items I've seen used in lieu of the traditional steel beater are:
- Knitting needles
- Crochet hooks
- Wooden beaters
- Wooded mixing spoons
- Bits of heavier gauge wire
Plaintive Twang of Ti-fer in 1981 Movie - Southern Comforts
Cajun Fiddle Sticks (fiddlesticks)
The use of Cajun fiddle sticks occurs when a Cajun fiddler is performing, and another musician beats on the fiddle with thin wooden sticks. It is one unusual musical instrumental technique that isn't often seen today. Back in the 1940s and 1950s, it was more common place, especially when visiting family homes and gatherings.
My Grandmere Hirma, dyed hers brilliant blue and red. When Grandpere Emile would play his fiddle -- the sensory delight of our eyes and ears became lasting memories. Blue and red fiddlesticks flying in a rhythmic beat, his bow in perfect harmony never seeming to notice the activity, the twinkling of Emile's pale blue eyes, and the laughter mirrored in Hirma's ink black ones -- all blended into the sounds as my Pepere sang ancient Cajun folk songs.
My favorite demonstration of this fiddlestick technique is in the link below, which features Dewy Balfa on the fiddle. As you can see, it takes a fair amount of concentration and cooperation. This is an old Cajun musical tradition, where one person would play a fiddle, and another would beat on it with thin wooden sticks.
Red Stick Ramblers
In this video, members Linzay Young and Kevin Wimmer, both of the Red Stick Ramblers work together. Kevin expertly bows the fiddle and performs all the fingerings -- while Linzay drums Kevin's fingerboard simultaneously with fiddlesticks. Takes a lot of coordination between the two performers and it is a delight to watch.
More Fiddlesticks! Red Stick Ramblers
Use of the Cajun Washboard or Rubboard
Today, you can see "Cajun washboards" being used as instruments in many Cajun bands. However, this is a borrowed musical instrument, straight from our close musical cousin, Zydeco music. Traditionally, they really weren't always part of Cajun music, but they have been around for many years and have become an integral part of modern Cajun music. My great-grandpere did not remember or think of them as Cajun.
In Cadien this instrument is called a vest frottoir, meaning a "vest to be rubbed." Often bands that do not have a drum will use it for their percussion. Cajuns use thimbles, spoons, and sometimes quarters. Generally, Zydeco bands will play this instrument with bottle openers and make use of counter-rhythms.
Here is an unamplified version of them first, followed by a much more "today" use of them.
More Traditional Cajun Washboard Sound
More Modern Cajun Washboard Sound
Conclusion on Common Cajun Instruments
Therefore, if you've been following all four parts of this "Introduction to Common Cajun instruments" series -- this pretty much makes up the typical Cajun band instrumentally.
To recap, the primary Cajun musical instruments are:
- One or preferably two Cajun fiddles
- Cajun guitar
- Cajun accordion
- Triangle or Ti-fer
- Cajun washboard or other specialized improv instruments
The great thing about our Cajun music is because it's such a non-rehearsed form of music, you never know what you'll get, other than having a good time. The same song can have many different versions when played by different bands.
Like everything else, our music is changing, as we change as a people. For those of you who were previously unfamiliar with Cajun musical instruments -- I hope that this has been a beginning musical overview. One that will inspire you to hear more, learn more, and appreciate something "lagniappe" -- something extra about Cajun music.
I think my Grandpere said it best: "The people who play the Cajun music, they aren't the stars they think they are, it's the songs and the instruments, it always has been that way. When the performers become more important the music and what the instruments have to say -- that's when it stops being Cajun music."