Mixed roots

Ter­rance Simien and the Zy­deco Ex­pe­ri­ence play Sky­light

Pasatiempo - - NEWS -

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.”

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