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.
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."Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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."
Last spring, after years of organizational efforts, Cynthia and Terrance discovered the work had paid off: the academy agreed to create a special category for best zydeco or Cajun album. Additionally, Terrance and his band, the Zydeco Experience, had been nominated for an album called "Live World Wide." On Sunday, Feb. 10, Simien and six other local acts will travel to Los Angeles to participate in the Grammy ceremony. Of the seven nominees, only one is based outside of the greater Lafayette area.
"Zydeco is going through a lot of changes," says Alex Rawls, associate editor at offBeat, a music magazine based in New Orleans. "Terrance is one of the ones who is helping that along – incorporating a lot of other forms, pulling genres together. And what has happened is a real growth of zydeco that has incorporated '80s and '90s R & B, along with blues and rhythms from the Cajun country."
That washboard sound
Contemporary Zydeco was brought to mainstream audiences a half century ago by Clifton Chenier, born in Opelousas, La. Mr. Chenier eventually won a Grammy for his efforts and, before he died in 1987, Zydeco was being popularized by musicians such as Buckwheat Zydeco.
But, the genre purists – and the revolutionaries – are still based in "the heart of Cajun country" amid the ramshackle houses, wandering roads, and shuttered music clubs of outer Lafayette.
"It's in the bloodlines," says Simien. "The music comes from the heart – from experiencing the trials and tribulations of growing up in this area. And you can't fake that. A lot of people want to know about the Creole and Cajun cultures. Well, it's right here, in the music."