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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.

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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.

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"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."

Simien was born in 1965 in St. Landry Parish, which rests about 40 miles north of Lafayette, and raised by French-speaking, Creole parents. He first heard zydeco, he remembers, at busy church fundraisers, or community dances, blaring from small, worn speakers.

"Back then," he says, "it was considered music for an older generation. But I pestered my dad to keep taking me to these dances and I found out there was room for kids like me."

In high school, Simien bought a trumpet and, later, picked up the accordion. By the time he hit his early 20s, he was touring on a regular basis, shuttling first to regional concerts and then farther afield, to Boston, to Chicago, to Canada, to New York.

By Simien's rough estimation, he's traveled to dozens of cities and a handful of countries, including Mali, Cuba, and Australia. At his cramped practice space, behind the Simiens' house on the outskirts of Lafayette, concert posters and all-access passes line the walls alongside write-ups from Rolling Stone.