Will the real Sean Ardoin please stand up? Ardoin carries the most historic name in zydeco, yet he’s a chameleon of relentless reinvention that’s starting to bear big fruit.
Sean is the grandson of Creole accordion legend Alphonse “Bois Sec” Ardoin, whose cousin Amede’ recorded songs in the 1920s and ’30s that many consider to be the seeds of zydeco and Cajun music. In the 1990s, Sean, his brother Chris and their Double Clutchin’ Band added modern-R&B flavors to zydeco that had young Creoles dancing and imitating in the studio.
Sean cranked up the contemporary even more with his band Zydekool before a spiritual renewal drove him from music for eight years. By 2009, Sean was back on with Christian zydeco, a groove that left some fans wondering if they should two-step or run to confession.
No one’s running away from his latest brainchild, Creole United, a gathering that includes his father Lawrence, Jeffery Broussard, Andre Thierry and other zydeco veterans and newcomers performing fresh tunes, in French and English, in a Creole genre often stuck on nostalgia. Sean was inspired to put a zydeco spin on “Happy,” the Pharrell Williams feel-good song of the millennium.
Radio stations that usually shy away are putting zydeco “Happy” in rotation. Lake Charles, Sean’s southwest Louisiana hometown of 73,000, has adopted the tune for a promotional video.
New Orleans can get happy with the past, present and future Sean Ardoin during the Louisiana Cajun-Zydeco Festival on June 14-15, in Armstrong Park and at d.b.a. on July 4.
You’re part of this historic family in zydeco and Creole music. But at the same time you’ve always welcomed change.
I think it was Zig Ziglar who said, “When you’re green, you’re growing. When you’re ripe, you rot.” It took me a while to understand and embrace that zydeco music must change in order for it to live and thrive. Anything that stays the same eventually goes away. Change is inevitable and change is good.
Once I embraced the fact that change is good, it reduced my stress level of wanting to be a zydeco purist. As a black Creole who grew up listening to Creole music and playing Creole music in a Creole family, it’s what God has given them to express it. If they call that Creole music or zydeco, I got to rock with that. They’re authorized to do that.
We can’t keep following the same template and making the music stagnant for so many years. Fresh and different angles are good things.
Change can mean so many things. What does it mean to Sean Ardoin?
Change number one is I’m back and back with a vengeance. I’m back with a determination to preserve the culture, while at the same time pushing it forward. With the Creole United project, it caused me to really assess about how I feel about my roots. My passion for the music has been revived. I have a really strong desire to see that the music stays active, relevant and we also preserve the culture at the same time. I really think we can do that. We have some very talented individuals.
You used the words, “I’m back.” Where have you been?
I stopped playing music for about eight years. I was basically getting stronger in my faith and getting to the point where I could be a light out in the world, and realizing you can be a Christian and play music. Some people don’t understand that. It’s my job. It’s who I am. I give all the glory to God when I do it. It makes people feel good. It makes their lives better.
It’s just like a knife. A knife is a tool. If you use a knife in a bad way, then it’s dangerous. It’s a bad thing. But a knife can be used to cut meat, give you something to eat. It can cut you out of a bind if you get tangled. Music is just a tool.
I chose to use it to bless people’s lives. People tell me, “Your music just makes me feel so good. If I was down, I’d put your music in and it picked me back up.” That is just amazing. How can you not do that?
Without a doubt, in your mind, music is your calling from God.
This is—straight up—my calling and my gift from God, to do music on a high level and bring joy to people’s lives.
Is this what gave birth to Christian zydeco for you?
That is definitely what did it. I had to get the music out of me. This was also a need for some people. Every time I would go to a church, there was somebody saying, “I’ve been praying for this. I’ve been trying to figure out how to do this the right way. This is exactly what I’ve been looking for.”
Now you’re covering “Happy” and a lot of people are talking about it. How did that come about?
I was actually sitting in my car and I heard it on the radio. I heard the deejay say, “Pharell has been pushing this song. I like it. It makes me happy and I hope it makes you happy.” A lot of people say they hear a higher power or an inner voice. I like to call it the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit said, “If you record this song, people will hear you.” So I recorded the song and brother, people have been hearing me.
I’ve been getting calls from everywhere. I’ve been giving the song away, but people want to buy it. People are loving it. It’s just really cool.
You’re giving away downloads of this song and you’ve always embraced technology. Why do you do that?
I embrace technology because if it’s there for you to use and if the industry is using it, then why not? Not using technology today is the equivalent of growing up in the ’60s and not using amplified instruments. That’s how important is it right now. If you’re not using technology, then you’re pretty much in the dark ages. People can’t find you. You can’t find them. They can’t follow you. They don’t know where you are or what you’re doing.
When you’re playing, you always end the show telling the crowd to text you for a free download.
I tell them to text GETKOOL to 88704. That connects people to me. They can get the “Happy” song from me, a free download. They can play it any time they want.
But it puts you in connection with me. Studies have shown that about 90 percent of emails are deleted and not even opened. But 90 percent of text messages are read. So you go from sending them something you hope they might click on and open to something you know they’re going to read.
I don’t inundate them with texts. I only let them know when something is going on. I keep in touch with them. In this day and age, your fans want to know what you’re doing and who you are. We have more access than we’ve ever had. We, as artists and musicians, should be comfortable with that so we can survive and thrive in this new technology era.
Speaking of surviving and thriving, what’s the future of zydeco? Can it thrive and survive?
With the city of Lake Charles doing a video and the buzz around the song, Pharell is going to see the video. He’s going to like it so much and ask me to perform it with him—and he’s going to produce me as an artist.
I’m actually playing alternative Creole music. If I say zydeco, we [Ardoins] don’t actually come from zydeco. We come from Creole music. We play the diatonic accordion. We come from French music. Alternative Creole opens the music up to bring it wherever we go. We did such a great job of promoting zydeco, people now have a preconceived notion of what it is. If you don’t come at them with something from 1985, they don’t think you’re playing zydeco.
Labeling and branding is everything. People’s perception is their reality. So if they perceive me as a 1985 band and I come out doing 2015 stuff, there’s confusion. But if I say alternative Creole, they’ll say, “What is that?” And I’ll say, “That’s this.”
I see Pharell producing a single for me and, in effect, bringing Creole music and the culture to the world. I know the culture, so I’ll bring that along with me. You can’t go without the culture. The culture is what makes the music so hot.
Some people will read this and say you’re crazy. But look at what’s happened already.
I’m already out on the edge. When I did “Happy,” I was already out on the edge. I don’t have a problem being out in the deep water. The people who are really successful in life, they all say the same thing. Keep doing what you do and being the best person you can be. If it’s good, everybody will catch up to you.
I’ve been doing this for 30 years. I’ve never wanted to do what’s already been done. I’ve always been the guy doing R&B, rock, reggae and mixing it to zydeco. They thought I was out there but, today, that’s what everybody is doing. So, it’s a perfect time for me to come back. Timing is everything. I’m excited for the future of zydeco and Creole music.