Terrance Simien and the Zydeco Experience play Skylight
Today, zydeco can be heard the world over, with bands as far-flung as Japan and Australia taking to the stage with keyboard accordions and rubboards. But as recently as the early 1980s, zydeco was headed for extinction in its own birthplace. At the time, among the Creole community of southwestern Louisiana, zydeco was performed by a dwindling number of aging musicians. Its biggest luminaries, Clifton Chenier and Queen Ida, were well into middle age. But in 1984, the World’s Fair came to New Orleans, and on one of the concert stages, a teenage bandleader by the name of Terrance Simien led his Mallet Playboys through weeks of spirited zydeco performances to an awestruck audience.
“We were young and youthful,” Simien said. “Our audience had never seen an accordion like that, had never seen anyone play a rubboard. Even for many people who grew up in New Orleans, it was their first time seeing a zydeco band. Right then, I knew this music could go beyond the dance hall; it could go beyond Louisiana.” And it’s coming to Santa Fe on Tuesday, May 19, when Terrance Simien and the Zydeco Experience perform at Skylight.
As a zydeco musician in southern Louisiana, Simien found himself in the right place at the right time. By the end of the 1980s, he had toured the U.S., Europe and Africa. His music was featured on the soundtrack to the 1986 movie The Big Easy. Even Paul Simon came calling while recording Graceland. Though Simon ultimately used another Louisiana band for the zyedco-inspired track on that 1986 album, the folk crooner gave Simien the tapes of their recording session, and Simien released “You Used to Call Me,” a stripped-down roots-music hit that features Simon on guest vocals.
As an eighth-generation Creole, Simien grew up steeped in zydeco tradition. Mostly sung in a French patois, the music employs a German accordion atop Cajun, Creole, and African-American melodies and rhythms. “Creoles are multicultural, multiracial people. I’m French, African, Spanish, Indian, and German. There’s aspects of all those cultures in the music,” Simien said.
As a performer and recording artist, he has always pushed the boundaries of the genre’s sound. “There’s a saying: if it ain’t changing, it’s dying. We were the first zydeco band to fuse reggae and New Orleans funk music, like the Meters and Second Line kind of thing. Today a lot of the young guys are adding both hip-hop and rap to zydeco. That’s not my thing. I guess I’m a little too old for that.
“What people call traditional should be called predictable. For real tradition, you got to go back to when music had no instruments, when it was just singing, foot stomps, and hand claps,” Simien said, referring to juré, the 19th- and early-20th-century music of Louisiana Creole field workers that would form the basis for zydeco. “You listen to some of that old stuff. When Alan Lomax came here in the 1930s to record the French music, he said it was the most Africansounding music he had heard in the United States. It’s got a similar vibe with a lot of music in Caribbean cultures. Culturally speaking, southern Louisiana is actually the northern rim of the Caribbean.”
In 2000, to both preserve his culture and ensure a future audience for zydeco, Simien started Creole for Kidz as a multicultural performing-arts program exploring the history of zydeco, blues, and other American roots music in the South. Simien developed an original album of kid-oriented zydeco. His project got an unexpected boost in 2009 when Disney asked Simien to collaborate with songwriter and composer Randy Newman on a song for The Princess and the Frog, an animated film set in Louisiana that featured the studio’s first African-American princess.
“The kids now always make a connection with the Disney movie,” he said. “We get them involved hands-on with the music. They learn where these instruments came from, the different artists who were pioneers, the food we eat — all these things we only do down here in Louisiana. It’s very rewarding to see them learn about something they are not going to find in schoolbooks. It’s been the most joyous and rewarding thing I ever did in music.”
For the fiddler, pianist, guitarist, drummer, and accordionist, teaching his Louisiana Creole culture represents both a return to his roots and a level of success he never thought he would achieve as a young man. “I first started playing zydeco in high school as a teenager in 1981. I used to dream about playing music. But the reality for me growing up was that it was going to be a part-time gig. I went to school for welding. My dad was a bricklayer. I was going to follow in his footsteps and do music on the side.”
Last year, Terrance Simien and the Zydeco Experience won their second Grammy for Dockside Sessions, which received the award for the best regional roots music album. More than 30 years into a hobby that is now a life’s work, Simien feels like he did when he played the World’s Fair as a teenager. “I felt like it wasn’t possible, like it wasn’t happening. Instead, it was like an amazing dream come true.”