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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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"I've been on stage with some great acts," Simien says, pointing to a photo from the second Clinton inauguration, where his band was invited to play.

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Fresh recognition

But after recording a substantial catalog of zydeco records, with a rotating lineup of local musicians, Simien began to turn his eye toward a bigger prize.

"You've got this great overflow of talent," Simien says. "There are zydeco bands all over the world, but right here, within 50 square miles, you've got the world's best. We looked at a way to share a style we can all celebrate."

So, starting in 2001, Cynthia, a trustee of the Memphis chapter of the Recording Academy, kickstarted a campaign to win Grammy recognition for Zydeco musicians. The going was slow. The Academy needs solid numbers before it will consider opening up a new category: records sold, fan base, and a minimum number of albums in that genre.

"We invested hundreds of dollars, and hundreds of hours," says Cynthia, a warm, effusive North Carolina native. "And still, it took a lot of organization – a sort of consistent lobbying effort. You need to lay it all out there.It was an uphill battle."

A trip to the club time forgot

On a warm afternoon last month, Terrance pilots his shiny white tour van out of his driveway toward east, across the center of Lafayette. His destination is El Sido's Zydeco and Blues Club, a small venue that has hosted many of the great Louisiana acts.

The owner, Sidney Williams, is a friend of Terrance's and a mentor to many of the zydeco singers who have passed in and out of Lafayette. He arrived in town years ago as a teenager and made, he says proudly, "$1.09 per hour, washing dishes at the Howard Johnson."

"We weren't big-timers," Mr. Williams smiles. He speaks at a quiet clip, with a thick Southern accent; around him, on the walls of El Sido's, are posters of Chenier, and one – smaller – of Terrance. "But we worked for it. It's the same for Terrance and Cynthia. They worked for it."

These days, the neighborhood surrounding Williams's club is run-down and emptied. Across the street, a few men stand outside a junkyard, watching Williams and Simien emerge from the club. The fortunes of zydeco and Cajun music – distinctly niche genres – have flagged, Williams says, and so has patronage at the club.

Williams attributes the decline to a dilution of zydeco music which has been commandeered, for instance, by rap and R & B artists. (Cupid, an R & B star who attended the University of Louisiana in Lafayette, has been remarkably successful at blending traditional zydeco and Southern rap styles.)

Still, he says, he sees hope in the arrival of the zydeco and Cajun Grammy category, and artists such as Terrance.

"'Cause you know what?" he smiles. "The cream is going to rise to the top."