WRITTEN BY ROB NAGY
For Digital First Media
Grammy Award winning recording artist Terrance Simien is on a mission to preserve the heritage, integrity and longevity of zydeco music.
“I’m a roots musician from the source,” says Terrence Simien, while on tour in Hawaii. “I’m from the southern part of Louisiana, where the music was born. I grew up 10 miles away from the city of Opelousas, which is the birthplace of zydeco.”
“The origin of zydeco music dates back to the 20’s, when people were doing jure´ [French for juror]. The Creoles would sing soulfully – almost confessing or testifying to the jure’, which was considered the most African sounding music in America,” added Simien. “There would be gatherings, and people would stand around in a circle clapping their hands, stomping their feet and passing around a jug, and drink and start singing. Everybody would have a verse in the song, and it would usually be something that happened during the day or during the week or years ago, something funny or something sad. The music went from that to where the accordion and the fiddle and the triangle and washboards and all added to it. It just kept evolving like that.”
Inspired by the late Clifton Chenier (heralded as “The Daddy of Zydeco Music”), Simien, while still in his teens, surfaced in the early 80’s fronting his first zydeco band, “Terrence Simien and the Mallet Playboys.”
With many of the originators of this style of music having passed on, Simien felt a responsibility to keep the rich history and the artistry alive lest it fade away.
“People came from the Caribbean to New Orleans with African, Spanish, French and native influences. It was all mixed in,” says Simien. “Listen to that old ska music. That’s when you hear the similarities between that and zydeco. But it’s also a Creole thing. We are all Creole people with that Creole connection. It is all about honoring the traditions and the source of the music,” added Simien. “I’m very into the preservation of the freedom of identity the music has always had.”
Zydeco came to the forefront internationally in the late 40’s and early 50’s. Artists like Clifton Chenier, who was the first to label the genre as zydeco music, added electric instruments and amplification to the mix. Chenier ultimately caught the ear of rock and roll disc jockey Alan Freed. He joined Freed on his concert tours, sharing the stage with artists like Etta James and Chuck Berry.
“That was the first time that zydeco music had gotten that kind of exposure,” recalls Simien. “His music was really the first to get out of Louisiana on that level. He was the most famous artist that traveled and made records – a great songwriter and musician. He was the baddest of the bad (laughs). Clifton Chenier will always be the king of Zydeco!”
With dozens of collaborative and solo recordings under his belt, Simien and his longtime band, “Terrance Simien and the Zydeco Experience,” won the first Grammy Award for Best Zydeco or Cajun Music Album in 2008 for “Live! Worldwide.”
In 2014 Simien’s album “Dockside Sessions,” featuring traditional zydeco songs and works by Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead and Toots & the Maytals, won a Grammy Award.
Simien has contributed music to TV movies and commercials as well as the films ”The Princess and the Frog,” “The Big Easy,” “Exit To Eden” and “A Murder of Crows.”
Whether he is sharing the concert stage or the recording studio with Paul Simon, Dr. John, Stevie Wonder, Dave Matthews or Los Lobos, Simien remains a vibrant and noble ambassador of zydeco and Creole music education and advocacy.
A self-proclaimed student of American and world history, Simien and his “Creole for Kidz” music program visited the Ukraine with stops in Kiev, Dnepropetrovsk and Georgia in 2012.
Teaming with his wife and business partner Cynthia, Simien created the “Creole for Kidz & The History of Zydeco” performing arts program. Launched in 2001, “Creole for Kidz” has touched the lives of more than half a million K-12 students, teachers and parents throughout the U.S. and abroad.
“Every year we reach thousands of kids,” says Simien. “They really get into the music. It’s the type of music that’s fun and energetic. The history behind it connects with a lot of different cultures and a lot of different people that came together in Louisiana, just like all of America.”
“We work with kids from all different economic situations,” added Simien. “We would really like to reach the kids from the lower economic situation. Kids are kids, no matter where they come from. I think the kids from the lower economic situation don’t get a chance to experience something like what we have.”
“Having their faces light up and seeing they really connected with the music,” says Simien, “I feel like I gave them a vision outside the unfortunate situations that they come from. Just that vision alone, something that simple with the music, can bring them into a different place.”
In 2003, the Simiens founded “Music Matters, Inc.,” a non-profit advocate for music artists in Louisiana offering gratis services with emergency financial assistance, access to musical instruments and equipment and help in negotiating performance contracts. They have also raised thousands of dollars to send zydeco and Cajun music Grammy nominees to the Grammy awards.
“The older I get, the more I see what music is doing for people. It’s such a blessing to be able to do what I’m doing. I’m the luckiest man in the world. I smile a lot because there is a lot to smile about (laughs).”
IF YOU GO: Terrance Simien and the Zydeco Experience will perform at the Sellersville Theater; located at 24 West Temple Ave., Sellersville, on Thursday March 19, at 8 p.m. Tickets can be purchased by calling (215) 257-5808 or on-line at www.st94.com.
To stay up to date with Terrance Simien visit www.terrancesimien.com.