LAFAYETTE, La. (AP) — Lena Charles grew up in Opelousas hearing the rhythmic tunes of zydeco, a genre of music that became a big part of her life from a very young age.
The unique mixture of rhythm and blues, soul, Cajun, and Creole music, born in the living rooms and back roads of St. Landry Parish, has been around for more than half a century.
“This music is our culture for me, there is no way to separate them,” says Charles, now president of The Original Southwest Zydeco Festival. She’s seen her favorite artists go from small get-togethers to big stages and from Acadiana to across the world.
The term “zydeco” describes not only a genre of music but also extends to a style of dance and type of event tied to the Black Creole culture in South Louisiana.
During segregation, Black people lived in very close communities and worked in similar industries like farming, construction and domestic work. The ways Black Creoles could enjoy recreational time were limited. But, as the proverb goes, “necessity is the mother of invention.”
House dances became a popular pastime as a result. People would bring food, gather, sing and dance into the night. Zydeco was the music played at these parties, featuring a repetitive chorus, French lyrics, and instruments like washboards and accordions.
This tradition continued for several years and grew in size and popularity. The sound we know as zydeco music found its footing in mid-century. Clifton Chenier, the “King of Zydeco,” is celebrated for bringing the music to the mainstream of Black America in the mid-1950s.
The term zydeco has several origin stories but the most widely accepted is that it came from the saying “Les haricots ne sont pos salés” which translates loosely to “the beans are not salty.” Chenier used this phrase as a title for one of his early hits. Chenier also designed the rubboard vest, known as the vest frottoir, one of the most used tools of zydeco.
Throughout the 60s, 70s, and 80s zydeco music spread to neighboring states like Texas and Mississippi and even further out into California. It gained national attention after Rockin’ Sidney’s smash hit ”(Don’t Mess with) My Toot Toot.” The song became a Top 40 hit and was the first zydeco to gain airplay on pop, country and rock stations.
The song went on to win a Grammy in 1986 for Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording. Chenier and Queen Ida also won Grammy awards during this golden age of zydeco. As the big names were enjoying their moment in the spotlight a new generation of musicians was emerging.
Terrance Simien was among this new wave. He grew up in St. Landry Parish in the small community of Mallet as part of one of the most well-known Creole families in the area. Simien began playing zydeco during high school and formed his first band.
“I got my mom to get my dad to buy me an accordion for my 15th birthday,” he says. “And I started teaching myself how to play, after a few months, man, I could play just about all the John Delafose songs.
“Then at 16, I started my band in 1981 and the rest is history. At the time, we were one of two teenage zydeco bands. The rest of the guys playing the music were at least 15 to 20 years older than us. That’s how close our music came to being extinct.”
During the late 1970s, many members of the Opelousas community and surrounding areas feared that the music they cherished would die. This group become known as The Treasures of Opelousas and they formed the first zydeco festival in 1982. Now known as The Original Southwest Zydeco Festival, this September marked 40 years that it has celebrated Creole culture and zydeco music.
Simien still writes and performs music more than four decades after founding his first band. He and his wife, Cynthia, have also spent years educating others about the importance of zydeco. In 2007, the Recording Academy approved the couple’s motion to add Best Zydeco or Cajun Music Album to the Grammy awards.
This move was huge for the entire genre as it once again launched the music into the mainstream and created a platform for artists. Simien won his first Grammy award with his band Terrance Simien and the Zydeco Experience in 2008 and a second in 2013.
He and Cynthia also started Creole for Kidz to help pass down the knowledge and history of Creole culture to future generations. Since its founding in 2000 Creole for Kidz has spread its message to over 500,000 students and educators around the world. The program focuses on zydeco and Creole history along with the music providing an immersive and educational experience.
Simien considers music a gift from God and hopes the current and future generations of musicians are able to use this gift for good. With festivals, educational programs, and artists touring year-round the future of zydeco looks bright. From house dances to Grammy stages and wherever the music may go next, zydeco is truly a Louisiana treasure.