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Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on May 31, 2000. All rights
Zydeco Music — For Dancing & Drinking
After he had made his decision to become a performer,
zydeco singer, songwriter, and accordion player Terrance Simien never
really considered other career options. He was 16 when he formed his
first band, and he began touring regionally around his southwest
home at 17. Home for him in those days was Mallet, a small prairie
town not far from where he lives now, on the outskirts of the city
of Lafayette, Louisiana. Now he leads a group of zydeco performers
called the Mallet Playboys.
"I’ve been very fortunate to be making a living all these years
doing something I love," says Simien, now 34, who visits Waterloo
Village on Saturday, June 3, and the Trenton Heritage Days Sunday,
Simien’s latest album, "Positively Beadhead," for the
Tone-Cool Records, was released last fall. It’s an artful blend that
includes a few covers, including Hedy West’s "500 Miles,"
but mostly it features Simien’s original songs, some sung in French.
A well-mixed and well-produced affair, the CD’s 12 tracks take the
listener on a geographical jaunt around southwest Louisiana and New
Orleans. The music is clearly zydeco, which comes from the blues,
but the mixing job is so well-done that a lot of these tracks have
crossover pop and adult radio potential.
Simien says he’s just an accordion player and songwriter. "Once
we make a record, it’s out of our hands," he says by phone from
a tour stop in Elmira, New York. "My wife, Cynthia, does all she
can in working with the record company and the booking agent, but
then, it’s up to the record company to get it out to all the right
places," he adds.
He says it took nearly two years to make the record, in between tours,
and his laid-back personality leads one to believe people don’t do
much of anything in a rush in southwest Louisiana.
"We recorded in a good studio, but most important, things weren’t
rushed," he stresses, "that’s so important," he adds,
hints of his French accent creeping into his speech. "You really
need to take as much time as you need so that you’re satisfied with
the way everything sounds when you’re mixing."
Simien grew up at the crossroads of State Highway 190
and Rural Route 103 in Mallet, and at that crossroads sits the St.
Ann’s Roman Catholic Church. His singing career began there. "I
was real young, it was the Catholic church, so there was no real heavy
songs, just hymns, but it’s still songs I sing from time to time,"
he explains. For example, when he’s home (which is only about four
months of the year), if someone asks him to sing at a hometown wedding
or funeral, he almost always obliges.
Simien attended elementary and high school in nearby Lawtell,
1,000. "I began playing trumpet in the school band when I was
10, and we had a great summer music program and a great teacher,"
he says. His mom is a housewife and his dad is a bricklayer who just
retired last year.
His interest in zydeco music was spurred by his older brothers and
sisters, he explains, who were always coming back from nightclubs
around Mallet and nearby Eunice with stories about the fun they’d
had dancing and drinking.
"I was a kid trying to grow up before my time, so finally my dad
took me to this club called Slim’s Waikiki, where parents were allowed
to take their children," he explains. Shortly after getting his
first taste of authentic zydeco, Simien fell in love with the music
and got his first accordion. "Before that experience, I thought
zydeco music was just for the older generation, which it was, at that
time, just a thing for the older folks," he says. He began
himself songs, and by 16 he had formed his first band.
"The first gig we did as a band was a Christmas party for a
Guard Armory in Oakdale, and we did that and a dance at the church
hall," he recalls. He explains that in the South, for many years,
there were black and white churches, but all of them had halls next
door to the main church building for wedding receptions, dances, and
"There was a zydeco dance in our parish every Friday, and 1982
was the first church hall dance I ever did, and from the church halls
I started doing clubs like Richard’s [pronounced ree-shards], Slim’s
Wakiki, the Bon Ton Roulet Club, and the Blue Angel Club."
By the time he was 17, he had assembled his first touring band and
was ready to extend the fingers of his brand of squeeze-box music
to places beyond Eunice and Lafayette. How did his parents react when
he told them he wanted to be a touring musician?
"They really supported me," he recalls. "They had seen
my progress in playing accordion and they got behind me all the way.
I was still finishing up high school, playing gigs in between. When
I finished high school I went to work with my daddy as a bricklayer
and played music on weekends."
"It didn’t take that long, I did that for maybe a year and then
my music became my full-time job," he says. "I went on the
road in 1985, and it’s been great ever since."
Simien recorded his debut album, "Zydeco on the Bayou" in
1990, but it was his appearance and music in the 1987 film, "The
Big Easy," a Dennis Quaid and Ellen Barkin thriller set in New
Orleans, and that movie’s soundtrack CD, that gave his career a
boost. Other films Simien has contributed music to include "Blue
Bayou" (1989), "The Lonesome Pine Special" (1992),
To Eden" (1995), and Cuba Gooding’s "Murder of Crows"
"`The Big Easy’ definitely helped to put my music out there, but
it also hipped a lot of people to New Orleans music, and it helped
the whole New Orleans music scene," says Simien.
Aside from some lucky breaks in the movie world, it was also Simien’s
decision to adopt the grueling lifestyle of a bluesman on tour, which
may involve challenges like a festival in Germany one day and a club
show in Boston two days later. Simien recalls that world depicted
in Willie Nelson’s movie, "Honeysuckle Rose," while he was
still a teenager.
"I was heavily into Willie Nelson at the time and it was a story
about life on the road and all the excess baggage that goes with
he explains, "I said to myself, `If I could ever live like that,
it would be fantastic!’"
Relative to the other zydeco performers, Simien and his Mallet
are on the road a lot, from February until the end of October. The
annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is a time the group
plays close to home. While JazzFest is going on in New Orleans,
other festivals are going on around Lafayette, and there is a lot
of trekking back and forth between the two cities.
Given that he grew up in a hotbed of zydeco activity
and the place where the music was born from blues and classic rhythm
and blues, who did Simien learn from? "My biggest influence on
accordion would have to be the late John Delafose, that was the hot
zydeco band at the time I was learning. But singing-wise, I love Aaron
Neville, Rick Danko, Sam Cooke, Stevie Wonder, and Marvin Gaye,"
Asked to explain the difference between Cajun music, such as the music
of Christine Balfa and Balfa Toujours, and zydeco music, Simien says
that Cajun is country-oriented and is the music of the French-speaking
white people, whereas zydeco is blues-oriented and is the music of
the French-speaking black people.
"Even with the racial barriers that were around in the South in
the ’40s and ’50s, if you were a musician and heard somebody doing
some stuff on accordion that was interesting, you respected that no
matter what color you were," he says. Looking at Simien’s photo
on the back of his CD, it’s not readily apparent what color he is.
"I have Cajun ancestors and black ancestors and Native American
ancestors. My people were multi-racial, going way back," he
"and we even have some Spanish in there, too."
The band’s live shows are high-energy affairs featuring lots of
lots of dancing by band members and audience alike, and Simien’s
solos and high, soaring vocals. Simien says he is optimistic about
the future of zydeco music in the U.S., because the novelty of the
late 1980s and ’90s zydeco renaissance still doesn’t seem to have
worn off on American audiences. You can dance to it, for one thing,
and it features such unusual instruments as rub-boards and accordions.
"There are now zydeco bands in Albany, New York, in San Francisco,
in Ohio and in Chicago," he says. "It’s great to see that
the music has inspired people from outside of the culture to want
to play it."
— Richard J. Skelly
and New Jersey State Museum, 609-777-1770. Continuous entertainment,
arts, family fun, and food. Free. Saturday and Sunday, June 3 and
4, noon to 7 p.m.
State Museum Stage: 12:30 p.m., Nine Fold Muse. 3 p.m., Ron Kraemer
& the Hurricanes. 5:30 p.m., Eddy Wilson Band.
Dazzling Mills Family. 2:30 p.m., Universal Creative Arts Ensemble.
3:30 p.m., the Dazzling Mills Family. 4:45 p.m., Universal Creative
Arts Ensemble. 5:45 p.m., Dennis Guitar Rogers Band.
2:30 p.m., Johnson Singers. 3:45 p.m., Plex. 6 p.m., Swing con Seis.
Ernie White Band. 5:15 p.m., Terrance Simien.
4 p.m., Grace Little. 6:15 p.m. St. Phillips Baptist Mass Choir.
p.m., Joe Zook & Blues Deluxe. 4 p.m., Craig Hayes & the United
5 p.m., Latin Flavor.
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