THE dark-haired, distinctly Gallic-looking singer steps to the front of the stage at the rock club Tramps in Manhattan, both hands on his button accordion, and breaks into a rollicking Louisiana zydeco tune with a driving backbeat. He shouts out a few words in French, and several people in the front jump from their seats and start to dance. ``I'm a militant French Francophone from Louisiana,'' says Zachary Richard (pronounced ree-SHAR) in an interview a few days after his performance here.
But in spite of his strong feeling about his Louisiana roots, Mr. Richard is known as the ``bad boy'' of Cajun music. Since the early '70s, he has been mixing Cajun and zydeco music with rock and roll, Afro-Cuban jazz, and African pop music - alienating the purists and minimizing the appeal of his work for audiences in French-speaking Canada and in France.
Cajun music, of course, is Louisiana's traditional European-style pop music, while zydeco is the more blues-influenced music of the same region.
``I've caught a lot of flak from purists,'' says Richard. But he maintains that Cajun music has absorbed diverse influences throughout its history - that it's never really been pure: ``There wouldn't be any music in New Orleans if the black man hadn't brought his rhythm and the white man his tuba.''
Now Richard is busy spreading his eclectic music around the United States on a tour timed to coincide with the release of a new album, ``Women in the Room.'' He has recorded 10 prior albums on foreign and independent labels, but this latest is the first on a major US label, A&M's Americana Series, which presents ethnic music. His timing is good, since Cajun and zydeco music have become popular with a wider audience in the past few years with artists like Michael Doucet, Beausoleil, and Buckwheat.
Richard calls the new release ``a songwriter's album.'' He explains, ``I want to be a storyteller. I'm trying to create my own little universe. It's in Louisiana, but I want it to speak to every man. I'd like to be able to touch people ... and to make them feel things about life in Louisiana, whether they're Cajuns or not.''
Richard grew up in a bilingual Louisiana family, where he learned about Cajun history from his French-speaking grandmother, who liked to talk about Acadia, the Canadian homeland of the Cajun people. At the same time, he was a fan of rock and roll on the radio, just like other American teens.
``In 1965, I was riding in the first Mustang convertible in Lafayette, Louisiana,'' he recalls, ``when [the Rolling Stones'] `I Can't Get No Satisfaction' came on the radio. The skies opened, and a finger pointed at me and said, `Play rock and roll.'''
Richard laughs at the memory, but he did just that.
``I was into Neil Young and Bob Dylan and the Byrds, and later on I was introduced to the blues. I played harmonica in a blues band.''
In the late '60s, he moved to New York for a while, where he played in the streets. Then, after the era of anti-Establishment protest died down, Richard went off to the country to find himself. He bought an accordion, moved into his uncle's old shack, and started to dig into his Cajun musical roots.
``It opened up this whole world that I was vaguely aware of. ... I don't think I was aware of the significance that it would have in my career at that time. This was the early '70s. Nobody was into Cajun music in Louisiana except the old people.''
Nevertheless Richard put a band together called the Bayou Drifter Band (known also as the Bayou Des Myst`eres). ``We played in these clubs for three or four people. I had been playing in rock-and-roll clubs all that time, and what I wanted to do was bring the old music to the new clubs. I had to bring it up to date.
``But at that time, I wasn't able to make the synthesis. I'd play a Cajun tune with the accordion - and it was Cajun music. Then I'd play `Johnny Be Good' with the guitar - and it'd be rock and roll.''
Now, 20 years later, Richard says he's ``getting the hang of it, creating a rock-and-roll sound that incorporates elements of Cajun and zydeco music as well.
That's why ``Women in the Room'' includes, among the more rock-influenced numbers, two old songs - ``La Ballade de Howard Hebert'' and ``Aux Natchitoches'' - as well as ``Zack's Zydeco,'' an updated version of a traditional tune. ``I want to bring this music to a wider audience without compromising my past and without compromising the integrity of the musical style that I'm involved with. I want to define myself by south-Louisiana music, but I don't want to limit myself to those styles.
``You know, you get into this Cajun/zydeco bag and it's like `Yeah, good times, have fun, dance around, sweat.' That's part of it, and that's probably the most important thing I do in terms of the celebration of the tribe.
``But it's like the old fiddle player told me: `Man,' he said, `you play music for people. You play a little bit for their head, a little bit more for their heart, and most of all for their feet.'''
Zachary Richard's performance at Tramps was part of a national tour, where he is a headliner at some venues and is opening for Jimmy Buffett at others. He performs tomorrow night in Denver, Colo., and continues on the road through Aug. 19.