Cynthia Simien can’t play an accordion, fiddle or rubboard, but she is a zydeco and Cajun music pioneer, taking the genres to new heights. Simien is the driving force behind the new Grammy category for Best Zydeco and Cajun Music Album. The Recording Academy announced the new category last June, capping a six-year effort by Simien and her husband, zydeco veteran Terrance Simien, to establish a Cajun/zydeco Grammy.
In the past, zydeco and Cajun musicians have been nominated in the Grammy’s traditional folk category, so victories were rare. They have faced competition from Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash and other legendary figures. Ten years have passed since Lafayette Cajun band BeauSoleil won a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album. The last zydeco winner came in 1985 when Rockin’ Sidney won Best Ethnic recording for “My Toot Toot.”
Other folk genres, such as polka, Hawaiian, Native American and bluegrass, have had their own categories for years. The new category means zydeco and Cajun musicians will be nominated every year, and one will win.
Geno Delafose, who is among the nominees for the first Cajun/zydeco Grammy, already has plans for his trophy, if he wins in February. “I’m happy to be nominated, but I’m so proud of Terrance and Cynthia,” says Delafose. “I really owe that to them. They put their necks on the line and worked hard to get a category for Cajun and zydeco music. If I win this, it belongs to them.”
Six years ago, the Simiens adopted what many viewed as an impossible task. Music industry observers long believed there were too few recordings for a Cajun/zydeco Grammy. But Cynthia and Terrance took a proactive approach. Both became active lobbyists in the Memphis Chapter of the Recording Academy. Terrance served two terms on the board of governors as Cynthia became the chapter’s first female trustee. She now serves as a national trustee, the first from Louisiana.
Proposed Grammy categories need to show a minimum of 25 submissions for at least three years to receive serious consideration. The Simiens rallied zydeco and Cajun musicians to submit their recordings and even personally submitted CDs for those who were not able. As a result of Cynthia’s hustle, they met those goals, even gathering a record 41 entries one year.
To increase the local voting membership, Cynthia attended festivals and music events, promoting a Donate a Dollar campaign. Donor names were placed on certificates, showing that they helped a musician pay for $100 membership. Cynthia also recruited members of the Cajun French Music Association, tourism officials and local and state government to the cause.
The Cajun/zydeco proposal was twice denied by the Academy’s Awards and Nominations Department, yet the Simiens kept returning to the bargaining table, showing increased entries and membership.
“When the members saw that this community was bringing that much recorded product, they couldn’t deny them anymore,” says Reid Wick, membership coordinator with the Memphis chapter. “Cynthia is a go-getter. She took this on and never gave up.”
Even though the zydeco/Cajun Grammy has become a reality, Cynthia Simien is still not giving up.
“It’s up to us now to assume control of where this category is going to go by participating,” says Simien. “We drive our voting membership up because we’re the knowledgeable voting members who should be voting on these genres. We create the music. We work within the genre. It’s time for people to start participating.”