Q: What is Zydeco?
A: Zydeco is American roots music. It’s an important Southern black, Creole or Afro-Creole (see Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, “Africans in Colonial Louisiana”) music tradition. Marty Stuart was interviewed for a PBS doc several years back, “American Roots Music” and one of the first genres he mentioned in the context of important roots music genres, was zydeco. Disney’s Princess & the Frog that we worked on also uses the word, allowing us to teach new generations about the music. They also have animated images of a rubboard and an accordion in the movie! This was big for Louisiana and the music. It’s a genre that has helped define the cultural identity of Louisiana and the American South. It’s the indigenous music of the mixed race, multicultural French speaking rural Creoles, who are some of the first families of Louisiana. Some people call this area of the state the “Northern rim of the Caribbean” because of our shared culture and history with the Caribbean. We’ve been all over the Caribbean and feel a kinship and connection. It’s a genre that’s a very important part of a dynamic Creole culture. Zydeco became internationally popular, to even mainstream audiences, in the 1980’s when three Zydeco artists; Queen Ida Guillory, Clifton Chenier and Rockin Sidney Simien all were awarded GRAMMY’S™. This was also a time when fish, chicken and steak were all being “blackened.”Remember that culinary craze! This was also the same time that the blockbuster feature film “The Big Easy” and the movie soundtrack was released. All of this, combined with the rich music and culinary culture of New Orleans, made Louisiana culture popular all over the globe.
The two primary instruments in Zydeco are the accordion (diatonic-button & chromatic-key) and the Zydeco Rubboard or frottoir (French for friction strip). Popular folklore tells the story that the word came from a corruption of the Creole French saying spoken quickly”les haricot son pas sale”, (the snap beans are not salty) could sound like “les zydeco son pas sale.” The academic interpretation and the one we favor finds the word rooted in one of the many African words “zaico, zodico, zari, zarico or zaico laga laga”, all meaning “ dance, to dance, a dance”. The music has evolved a great deal throughout the years and like the DNA of a Louisiana Creole it has become a fusion of many different styles and musical influences. The one constant in the music has been the change. Each generation of zydeco artists helped shape the music into what it is today. The notable Dr. John of New Orleans was once quoted by CNN in an interview, stating that “if the music aint changin’ – it’s dyin”. From Amede (Ahmaday)to Clifton Chenier (Shenyeah) to where the music is today and it is here to stay. Zydeco has been featured in dozens of feature films, television movies, sitcoms, national advertising and has garnered 6 Grammy awards and multiple nominations over the past 30 years.
Q: Who is a Creole?
A: Most standard dictionaries indicate that a Creole is a native of Louisiana descended from the original French settlers. A person of African and mixed European, esp. French and/or Spanish decent. However the Native American and German roots are also very prominent in the Creole communities of St. Landry Parish. The Simien family is one of those first families documented to have settled this area of Louisiana. Some experts say the Louisiana Creoles are part of one of the “most complex rural sub cultures in North America.” Dr. Carl Brasseaux, author of Creoles of Color in the Bayou Country, states that the Creoles were some of the “first families of Louisiana” and official records reflect that they have been here for over 300 years. I’m 8th generation Creole and my father’s first language was French. My grandfather on my mother’s side, Ethel Rene´, was a European immigrant from France and my mom always referred to him as a “Frenchman.” The Simien’s are traced to the coastal region of France and were ship builders by trade. There are also strong German, Fitz and Gobert (pronounced Gobare or Gobert) Spanish, Manuel in both my parents families.
Q: Where are you from?
A: I grew up in the small rural church parish community of Mallet, LA in St. Landry Parish near Opelousas which is considered the “World Capitol of Zydeco Music”. Many of my band members throughout the years were also from Mallet.
Q: When did you first start playing music?
A: I was about 10 and my first instrument was the family piano at home. Although I thought I could sing at 10 too. Life was simple in the 70’s. Even more simple in rural SW Louisiana. We had only a few choices when it came to entertainment and arts enrichment. We had the radio, a few music programs on TV, Soul Train, American Bandstand, you get the idea. And we our records. But it was the middle school and high school band program that I really got serious with the trumpet. Enter the accordion…..
Q: How’d you get started playing?
A: When I was 14 my parents bought me my first accordion. I would record the zydeco shows on the radio, take the tape in my room and practice until I learned the material. I picked some guys from the community to be my band, whoever was available at the time and just started playing local dances at the church halls. I graduated into the regional church hall and zydeco club circuit of Louisiana and Texas. A woman I knew from DC, Patti Harrington booked me and the Mallet Playboys first “national tour” to the NE in 1983. I signed with a national booking agency in 1985. I started playing during a time when there were only two young, emerging teenaged bands performing this traditional music. Me and the Sam Brothers. There was at least as 25 year or greater age difference between us and the pioneers like John Delafose and Clifton Chenier who was 40 years older. We introduced a new sound and sensibility to the genre that was not really being embraced by the younger generation at the time. Most of my friends thought zydeco was the music of their parents and grandparents and they were listening to the popular music of the time. I was too, but I was also turned on by zydeco. Like so many others who get into music, it was first to impress the girls and then I got serious. And then I impressed the girls again, well one girl in particular who I met when we were on tour in Charlotte, NC in 1988. Cynthia Simien, who became my wife in 1990. She’s my business partner and mother to our daughter Marcella.
Q: How long have you been playing professionally?
A: Over 30 years. I started my band in 1981 and my first paid gig was in Oakdale, LA at the National Guard Christmas party. In 1985 I joined Concerted Efforts booking agency located in the Boston area. Owner, Paul Kahn recently told me how surprised that he was able to book so many lucrative performances for us that first year we worked together without even having a record out! We had several 45 vinyl records, but did not release our first full length recording until 1991 with Restless Records who was distributed by Capitol Records. My friends and road family make my life on tour so much easier. The promoters who I cannot even call promoters any more because it’s just too impersonal, have become like family. Our fans, another word I cannot use comfortably, because these generous people take us into their homes and introduce us to their parents, their kids, their colleagues and they also become friends and like a family. How many wedding receptions we have performed for-you don’t spend this important day with someone and not feel a special kind of kinship-it’s one of the greatest compliments to be included in this special celebration. Another one was when someone wrote to us to tell us our music was played at the birth of their child! That was really an amazing feeling.
Q: When was your first big gig in front of a large audience and what’s the largest single audience you’ve performed for?
A: The World’s Fair in New Orleans in 1984. I couldn’t believe the response and the applause we got from those audiences. At home in the rural church halls and zydeco clubs, it wasn’t common for audiences to applaud for the performers. When I experienced this for the first time, I knew this was the way I wanted it to be for my band at every performance. This was a pivotal point that really inspired me to export this music as far as I could take it. The largest single audience was 100,000 people at the Sydney Festival at the Sydney Harbour, Australia. We closed out an unbelievable show with our friends from New Orleans, Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Preservation Hall Jazz Band. We’ve played some really large festivals that drew 20-30K for a single audience as well.
Q: How long have your band members been with you?
A: Ralph and Danny have been with the group for well over 20 years. Current drummer, Keith Sonnier on and off for 14 years. Current bassist Stan Chambers, whose brother Gene played in the Mallet Playboys, has been with us now 5 years I believe. Guitarist Eric Johanson is our newest member. Our sound engineer, Richard Trahan, who makes us sound right every night has been with us a along time too. I feel very fortunate to have such skilled, talented and committed artists to help me fulfill my artistic vision. I stay in close contact with most of my former band mates too who are all have successful careers in music and are amazing artists. Drummer Mitch Marine went on to play with Smashmouth and is still touring with Dwight Yoakum. Dowell Davis played with Geroge Benson and Taylor Gaurisco went on to form Givers, an indie pop band from Lafayette. Former drummer Russ Broussard married our good friend Susan Cowsill and they live in New Orleans. We are still very close friends.
Q: Have you ever played New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival?
A: Every year for the past 29 years and very thankful each year for the opportunity to showcase our music to such a hip, music savvy audience from all over the globe. This is the gold standard for festivals in Louisiana, but it’s now become a world renowned festival as well. From early on, festival producer Quint Davis dedicated an entire stage to zydeco and Cajun music. However we played the Ray Ban stage for years. We were on with Carlos Santana, the meters and Phish one year. We also played Polaroid with Better Than Ezra, Marcia Ball, Allen Toussaint and Cowboy Mouth many times. One of my all time favorites was Congo Square with our friends Ozomatli, who we’d played with in Australia several times. That was really cool-they got on stage with me and me with them, there was a breeze that day-magical! They all are though. In recent years we’ve had lots of guest artists join us; Shamarr Allen, Craig Klein (from Bonerama), Susan Cowsill and this year the Queen of Zydeco, Queen Ida Guillory who is in her 80’s. We rehearsed her songs and let her shine in her first public appearance here in 25 years. Ironically Jazzfest was her last performance in LA until we brought her home! Another amazing Jazz Fest memory, like the title of Michael Smith’s book of rare vintage photos from the event. We love this book and give it as a client gift to friends and promoters.
Q: When is Mardi Gras and what does it mean?
A: It’s always the day before Ash Wednesday. Mardi means Tuesday and Gras means Fat. In medieval France they would fatten a cow to kill for the feast on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, which starts the 40 days of penance before Easter and the resurrection of Jesus. At home we still celebrate this holiday and abide by the 40 days sacrificing something we enjoy. I still try to make some type of sacrifice during Lent. We’ve got more information about Mardi Gras in our study guide.
Q: So what about the hat Terrance?
A: What hat?! It’s a real conversation piece right? It’s crazy how curious people are about it. It’s a traditional Fulani hat that I bought on tour in Mali with Carnegie Hall’s Global Encounters. Most of the African’s who came to Louisiana were from Mali and Senegal. I wear it to celebrate my African heritage. The Fulani hat is a vibrant testament to the lives and culture of a nomadic, cattle herding, people group from across sub-saharan Africa. This authentic West African hat is especially popular with drummers, but has rich cultural significance for many African people. Not only worn as protection from the harsh rays of the sun, but also a symbol of wealth and status. During festivals Fulani men will wear these hats as way to attract women. Made from leather and fiber, each hat is embellished with cowrie shells and to other typical Fulani adornments and are still hand-made by the people of Mali, West Africa.