A FEW MINUTES WITH… Terrance Simien
Interview by Don Wilcock
Zydeco is where blues was 55 years ago. In 1960, during the folk boom, blues was considered a subtext or footnote to folk music. Today, the energetic music of the Creole culture of Louisiana called zydeco is lumped together with polkas, Hawaiian music, brass band music from New Orleans and Cajun music by the Grammy Awards into a category called Best Regional Roots Album. The style gets second shrift from Americana media like No Depression, and zydeco bands struggle to get booked at the myriad of blues festivals across the country.
Vocalist and accordion player Terrance Simien and his band the Zydeco Experience are on a crusade to give zydeco music a higher profile. They’ll play a free concert tonight at Shepard Park in Lake George.
Simien is in the eighth generation of one of the earliest Creole families that settled in Mallet, just north of the Lafayette area of St. Landry Parish in Louisiana. “I grew up black,” says Simien, “but I’m part French, African, Spanish, native American and German. I’ve got more European ancestry than I do African ancestry, but I’m part of all my ancestry.”
Zydeco is a gumbo – an African word – of influences resulting from the mix of cultures that settled southern Louisiana in the 18th century. Ruled by the French, the Africans in the area were treated better than their counterparts in the British colonies. The French settlers instituted the Code Noir (Black Code) that freed many of the slaves who bred with Spanish and French colonists. Some went to school in Europe and developed a sophistication for improvising in the music they learned there and brought back home. Simien brings an almost jazz-like application of these myriad of influences into the 21st century with a high degree of excitement.
He was first exposed to zydeco music when his dad took him to dance halls in Mallet in southern Louisiana, and he saw few young people in the crowd. As a teenager he listened to Luke Collins’ one-hour zydeco show on Saturday afternoon radio, taped the broadcasts and taught himself how to play the piano accordion by listening to those tapes. He was determined not to let the style die.
“I started my band in ’81, and this year it’s been 34 years that I’ve had the band, and when I first started traveling I’m thinking, ‘Well, I don’t know how long I’m gonna be able to do this.’ Now after all these years I look forward to every gig more than I ever did. It just gets better. It’s gotten better in so many different ways. The fact I can be playing after all these years and still have people come out and see us and are more into it than they were a few years ago when I was younger. I just have a new level of appreciation for the music as a whole. The music and the experience of being on the road and meeting wonderful people all over the world and just connecting with people through the music has been way better than I ever could have imagined.”
He’s done more than 7,000 shows in 40 countries. Born in 1965, Simien has shared the stage with Dr. John, the Meters, Marcia Ball, Dave Matthews, Stevie Wonder, Robert Palmer, Los Lobos and Paul Simon, who he credits with teaching him to effectively use harmonies in his music. Louisiana musician Dicky Landry is quoted as saying Paul Simon had been looking for a zydeco component to bring black South African accordion music to his album Graceland.
“Paul Simon came to Louisiana. Dicky was the one who was organizing the whole session. Paul Simon actually wanted to record Buckwheat Zydeco, and they did the session together, but Dicky said, ‘Well, you should listen to these other two bands as well, and see what you think about that.’
“So the other two bands were my band and Rockin’ Dopsie, Sr., who has passed away, and he ended up using a Rockin’ Dopsie, Sr. song on Graceland. While we were in the studio doing like a 12-hour session, he said, ‘Well, play me a song that you like, and do the singing and all that.’ So I did, and it was ‘You Used to Call Me,’ that was written by (The King of Zydeco) Clifton Chenier, and he went and put background vocals on it. He said, ‘Ok, we can’t use these for Graceland, but I’m gonna give ya this song here, and you can put this out on you own with my voice on it.’
“(Paul Simon) was all about music, man. He’s all about music, and if you listen to my songs, I have a lot of songs where I use harmony, and that all came from that one session. Hearing Paul Simon do those harmonies on that one song just opened my mind to, wow, this is what this can sound like, you know? That’s what inspired me to want to do harmony in our music. He’s amazing. He’s amazingly creative. He’s all about music and just my experience with him was totally positive, man, and I love him to death. It’s an experience I’ll never forget.”
Simien, a two-time Grammy Award-winner established Creole for Kids in 2000 and has worked with more than 500,000 students, teachers and parents in 20 states, Mali, Dominican Republic, Brazil, Paraguay, Canada and Australia. He and his band have just returned from a three-week tour of northwest Russia, the Urals and ancient sites in Siberia.
“Politics is one thing and just getting with people on a personal level is a whole other thing,” he says about Russia. “Everywhere we went people opened up their arms. They couldn’t understand our language, but once I started, people got into it, and there was no talk of politics.
“We have sanctions on ’em and all that, but you could never tell. We were there, and everybody was pretty much happy to see us, and I learned a lot about Russia, how different each part is. When we went to Siberia, that was a whole other vibe. Leningrad was another vibe. St. Petersburgh was another vibe, and it was just a wonderful experience, and it really shows that when music starts playing, all the stuff is out the window. All that stuff don’t really matter no more.”
Simien found the Ukraine to be much worse off than Russia economically. “Four years ago for one dollar, you’d get eight Ukrainian dollars. Now for one dollar you get 23 Ukrainian dollars. So, that’s how bad that currency has fallen, and there’s a much different story. The Ukrainians are not going to give up. They want to keep their independence from Russia, and the sense I get from the people there, they’re gonna fight to the last man before they give that up, and I don’t blame ’em. They’re better off free and independent than they are any other way. This country should be able to have their own government and their own dealings.”
In 2008 Simien and his wife Cynthia helped establish the new category for the Grammy Awards, “Best Zydeco or Cajun Music Album,” of which he was the first winner. By 2014 that category along with 31 others had been eliminated, but he won under a new catch-all category called “Best Regional Roots Album” for Dockside Sessions, his ninth album.
“There’s a few of us out there that still do it, that travel. Buckwheat Zydeco does a lot of traveling just like me, and there’s a few of us out there. I feel good about what I’ve been able to accomplish and how we help change the conversation as far as Creole goes. There’s more people aware of Creole now, and it’s like that was never my full intention. I wanted to just play music and have some fun.”