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At Grammys, zydeco music gets a spark of renewal

Terrance Simien, a leading light among the younger generation of zydeco musicians, is raising the genre's profile at this year's Grammy awards.

By Matthew ShaerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 8, 2008

Sidney Williams at his Zydeco club, El Sido's, in Lafayette, La.

Melanie Stetson Freeman - staff

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Lafayette, La.

When Terrance Simien turned 19, the zydeco musician packed his instruments into a dilapidated van and, along with a bandmate, drove until he arrived at the Lone Star Cafe, on Fifth Avenue, in New York City. The joint was a "dive," he remembers. "Terrible. But it was a popular place to hear music, and we were there to get exposure."

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They got it. In the midst of a raucous set of zydeco tunes, Mr. Simien looked out across the audience, and noticed some familiar faces: Paul Simon. Mick Jagger. Bob Dylan. Soon Keith Richards and Ron Wood jumped up on stage, for a jam. "It was surreal, man," Simien grins. "It was a surreal experience. In some ways, it still is."

Despite the occasional foray outside Louisiana, zydeco's roots are deepest in Lafayette, a Southern town perched on the Vermilion River, 130 miles west of New Orleans. Driven by a bustle of accordion and washboard – and soaring French vocals – the folk genre was born here, and perfected by generations of Creole and Cajun musicians.

Some 20 years after his New York debut, Terrance Simien has become Zydeco's modern standard-bearer – and champion for its official recognition at the Grammy awards, which airs Sunday, 8 p.m. on CBS.

In 2001, Simien and his wife, Cynthia, began lobbying the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which hosts the award ceremony, for a unique category for Cajun and zydeco artists. Back then, musicians in both genres had to compete with mainstream folk recordings – an extremely difficult proposition when the competition is, say, Mr. Dylan.

"It was sort of a revelation one day," says Cynthia, who also acts as Terrance's manager. "So many musicians had passed away without recognition. And there was no way they were going to get recognition under the current system."

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