Since 2001 members of the Louisiana French-language music community — those who play zydeco and Cajun music — have been lobbying the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) — those guys who give out the Grammys — for a category of their own.
Earlier this month at the 2007 Grammys, a category for Cajun/ zydeco music was included for the first time ever. And Terrance Simien, a Louisiana accordionist and singer known for his unconventional approach to a music that had been steeped deeply in local tradition, was the first one to win the Grammy.
“I’m just glad someone from Louisiana won,” says Simien in a telephone interview from his hotel room in Cleveland, where he was playing a couple of gigs. “It would have been a big disappointment to everyone in Louisiana had someone from there not won.”
Simien is in Princeton this week for a Black History Month mini-residency with Princeton Regional Schools. “We just like to teach the kids about the music and the culture, connect them with a part of their country, give them a little bit of American history they might not have heard about.”
On Wednesday, February 20, Simien will perform and speak about post-Katrina south Louisiana at the YWCA Princeton. On Thursday, February 21, at 4 p.m., he will speak at the Princeton Public Library about the history of zydeco, and later that evening at 7 p.m., he and his band will hold a workshop and jam session at Princeton High School for high school musicians (reservations are necessary). On Friday, February 22, Simien will perform a Katrina Relief Benefit Concert for New Orleans at the Princeton Regional Schools Performing Arts Center at Princeton High School on Walnut Lane.
“Well, post-Katrina, things are still moving pretty slow. There is still a lot of work to be done,” says Simien. “But things are coming back slowly. If we get lucky with the hurricane season, maybe in a few years New Orleans may be normal again. If you go to New Orleans today and avoid seeing some of the neighborhoods where people live, then the city would look like nothing happened. But when you see that some of the neighborhoods are still looking like the day of the storm, that’s when you see that we still got a ways to go.”
The post-Katrina dispersal of people outside of New Orleans, many of whom have not come back, threatens the city’s unique cultural heritage, says Simien. “There is a huge void. Most of everything we know about the city that attracts tourists comes out of the poor neighborhoods, the projects, from the food to the music. That’s why people come to Louisiana. A lot of the jazz music, the Mardi Gras Indian music, the funk music, came from the people who came from these neighborhoods. Rock and roll — Fats Domino, Lloyd Price.
“These people are among the last people who are coming back, and some are still not coming back. We’ve got to try to figure out a way to get these people back in their homes, and living comfortably. After experiencing that trauma, it’s hard to go back and say this will never happen again. We have to make sure the levees will be built right this time, and when a hurricane comes, there will be better plans. All these issues have to be addressed.”
Zydeco, the music Simien plays, is a lively combination of Louisiana Creole folk music, the blues, soul, and rock. Formerly a regional party music confined to southern Louisiana, zydeco and its cousin, Cajun music, are now established parts of American popular culture and music.
“It was wonderful, a wonderful experience,” says Simien of his Grammy sojourn. “We played the night before, at a club called the Mint, and we had a lot of people from Louisiana. Our lieutenant governor came out to Los Angeles, and the mayor of Baton Rouge, and a bunch of others came out to support the new category. And the next day, we were actually the first band to open up the show.”
Simien, 42, lives in Lafayette, LA, with his wife Cynthia, who has been his manager for the past 18 years, and their daughter. He comes from the Creole-of-color community of southern Louisiana, a fascinating French-speaking African American subculture.
People who fit the term “Creoles of color” reflect the diversity of southern Louisiana and eastern Texas and, more recently, California, Michigan, and the rest of the United States. They are people who descend primarily from a combination of African or Afro-Caribbean ancestry and French and Spanish roots. This is, in reality, a distinct community from the Cajuns of that region, who are a distinct rural ethnic group, descended from settlers who came from the Canadian region known as Acadia, and they speak a different dialect of French. There are also people in New Orleans known as Creoles. Those of color share a similar heritage with those Creoles of color outside the city; those who are not are the upper-class or self-perceived upper-class descendants of French and Spanish settlers to the area.
Simien grew up in rural Mallet, LA, in south-central St. Landry Parish. He speaks with an accent rarely heard in Louisiana, a fascinating lilt that is a combination of black and white Southern, French and Brooklynese. He is the son of a bricklayer and a homemaker who sang in the local Catholic church choir. Simien ascribes his singing talent to his mom. Later, says Simien, “My brother, who is a Catholic priest now, and my sister, who is a nurse, were the choir in the church. He sang and she was the organist.”
As a youth he was turned on to the music of Clifton Chenier, the first King of Zydeco, but it was also others like John Delafose, Rockin’ Sidney, Queen Ida, and Stanley “Buckwheat Zydeco” Dural who influenced him. His junior high school band director, Robert Wilhite, taught the trumpet-playing Simien how to read music. At the age of 13, Simien, with his father’s blessing, first started learning how to play the accordion. At 19, he started his first band, and he has been playing the music ever since.
Since then, Simien has been traveling all over the U.S.A. and outside the US, preaching the gospel of zydeco. One of his most cherished memories was his trip to Mali in 2006, because he said that Mali and Senegal are the parts of Africa that have given more of their culture to Louisiana than anywhere else in Africa.
So where did the term “zydeco” come from? “No one will ever know,” says Simien. “But we were playing in Hawaii, and I met a young lady from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. After the show she came up to me and told me that that word ‘zydeco’ is very similar to a word they have in the Congo, ‘zaiko langa langa.’ I was blown away. That was my first time hearing that connection. In the St. Martinville area, they used to call the dance “le zydeco,” and where I grew up they used to call ‘the dance a la la.’ So you have zaiko langa langa, and you have the dance a la la. And Africans have been in Louisiana for 300 years. That may be the only part of an African word that has survived in the Creole communities. I would bet my life that that’s where the word zydeco came from.”
“Race, Culture, and the Post-Katrina Diaspora,” Wednesday, February 20, 7:30 to 9 p.m., YWCA Princeton, all purpose room, 59 Paul Robeson Place. Music andconversation with Terrance Simien and Joshua Guild. Free. Reservations required. 609-497-2100, extension 335 or E-mail email@example.com.
The History of Zydeco Music, Thursday, February 21, 4 to 5 p.m., PrincetonPublic LIbrary, Community Room, 65 Witherspoon Street. Talk by Terrance Simien. For all ages. Free 609-924-9529 or www.princetonlibrary.org.
High School Musicians Workshop and Jam Session, Thursday, February 21, 7 to 8:30 p.m., Princeton Regional Schools Performing Arts Center, Princeton High School, Walnut Lane. Terrance Simien and the Zydeco Experience Band. Free. Reservations required. 609-806-4300 or www.prspac.org.
Relief Benefit Concert for New Orleans, Friday, February 22, 7:30 p.m. Princeton High School, 151 Moore Street. Terrance Simien and the Zydeco Experience Band present a benefit concert highlighting three days of student workshops. $25. 609-806-4300.