“Honey, in a bar on in a church, it doesn’t make no difference—it’s all the same.”
Zydeco. More than just South Louisiana black man’s music, it’s his sustenance. Consumed like beans and rice and cherished like religion. A mesh of cultures and musical patterns into one distinct sound. A social institution where the functions of the dance hall and the local church often syncretize, ironically, like the unity and diversity of zydeco music itself.
It’s been around Acadiana a long time, from the “La-la” days of the old one-step zydeco that originated in bals des maisons to today’s two-step dances in urban and rural clubs. But just how long no one seems quite sure. At any rate, they’ve been playing the music since before World War II, back before Clifton Chenier was crowned its king in the ’50s for turning the zydeco sound around when he introduced the bass guitar and a horn section to the traditional fiddle and accordion.
Chenier was called the Elvis Presley of zydeco and he did a lot to earn the musical recognition. For it was he who took this Louisiana French music from its weekend house party niche out into a broader commercial base. Despite his efforts, however, until recent years the Afro-Caribbean-European influenced American music sung in French has remained relatively obscure to the rest of the world. Besides a small area of California and regions of Europe where local musicians travel from time to time, zydeco territory for the most part still encompasses only a tiny patch of the earth that extends as far east as Thibodaux, Louisiana, as far south as the Gulf of Mexico, as far west as Houston, Texas, and as far north as Mamou, Louisiana.
But could that all change? Might the black Creole music one day become as big as reggae? Some say yes. Some say it’s possible. Some say zydeco’s emerging.
It’s Saturday night at Hamilton’s Club on Verot School Road. George is tending bar, Adam’s walking the floor, and William Hamilton is doing a little of both. The three brothers have owned the club nearly 30 years and they run their bar smooth as Mike Sampy plays his big piano accordion.
“Ladies and gentlemen, have mercy!” Sampy slurs into the mike. “Good God, y’all!” At that, Sampy and his Bad Habits roll into an old Clifton Chenier lick. Lillinant, 65, places her fan on the table and reaches for Ambroise’s hand. She wants to dance. Ambroise obliges, but with his hat on. Here, everybody dances. And here, nobody takes off his hat. Hamilton’s Club is Lillinant’s favorite, next to Immaculate Heart Church. At least once a month for years she and Ambroise have made this a Saturday night stopping point.
“Fait pas ça!” Sampy shouts, and hastens the beat. But nobody leaves the dance floor, not even Ambroise. Just a subtle change of mood occurs on the floor—from slow cheek-to-cheek dancing to an extremely understated, extremely calculated, extremely sexy two-step rumba.
An hour passes. Two pass. The Bad Habits are on “Zydeco Blues” now and they haven’t left the stage once. Hardly a table is without a bourbon set up, but at close to midnight hardly a soul is soused—too much dancing to get drunk. Raymond’s in uniform at the door but about all he’s surveying are patrons (mostly his friends) coming in. It’s getting late, the band will stop at 2 a.m. precisely, but the front door stays busy. Some enter in jeans, most are in their Sunday best, and a few are arrayed in cocktail gowns and evening bags or dinner jackets and hats.
But make no mistake. A zydeco club is no place to flaunt possessions. Everybody’s here to enjoy themselves. And this ain’t no pick-up bar, either. Everyone’s too busy being friendly. “My God!,” exclaims a first time visitor to Hamilton’s, “I had to shake hands three times at the urinal!”
At zydeco clubs you are yourself if you want to be. A lot of singles, they could be married or not. Who knows, who cares, all they really want to do is dance. They change partners after every song, almost like a square dance. If you can’t dance, you just do it anyway. Nobody can’t do something to zydeco.
One of the most obvious instances where zydeco has recently received national attention was when Rockin’ Sidney won a Grammy Award in 1986 for “My Toot Toot.” Other examples of zydeco awareness are popping up as well. Zydeco’s Queen Ida, from Lake Charles, has played a West Coast circuit for years and has been featured on “Saturday Night Live.” Buckwheat Zydeco has been on The David Letterman Show on several occasions. In 1985, rock star Paul Simon came to Lafayette to record with zydeco artist Rockin’ Dopsie for his mega-platinum album, “Graceland.”
The list continues. The major motion picture release “The Big Easy” featured zydeco band Terrance Simien and the Mallet Playboys in the film and several zydeco groups on its soundtrack. The movie’s theme song, “Zydeco Gris Gris,” by Michael Doucet of Beausoleil, was nominated for a Grammy.
But it is Rockin’ Sidney who, ironically, has probably done the most to make zydeco a musical household name in the country. Ironic because Sidney’s commitment to zydeco was waning when he stumbled upon the “Toot Toot” success. He was considering switching to Country & Western until his record hit. Tonight his Greyhound-sized tour bus sits parked outside Immaculate Heart of Mary Church off Surrey Street in Lafayette. The destination sign above the driver’s seat reads: “The Toot Toot Man.”
Inside the church’s gymnasium, the band members are clones in costume. Clones musically as well—Prince’s “Purple Rain” and “Kiss” blast from behind the basketball hoop in the huge, echoing gym. Mingling with the crowd seated at long folding tables is a slick looking fox in a tiger-striped lame suit. Who other than the “Toot Toot” man?
Rockin’ Sidney is gimmick from head to toe. But when he creates a song that sells over two million copies, who can hold it against the guy for having the band wear his face on their T-shirts?
“It gets so diluted.” Chris Strachwitz runs Arhoolie Records, a one-man American folk music operation in San Pablo, California. He first heard Clifton Chenier in a Houston joint over 30 years ago and later recorded nine of Chenier’s albums. Strachwitz seems to be crying as he uneasily laughs about today’s zydeco musicians. Clifton was a genius, equal to a Count Basie or Ray Charles. And could he make that accordion talk, Strachwitz remembers. So far superior a musician to all of them. As Strachwitz sees it, when Chenier went “commercial” with zydeco, traveling crosscountry and internationally with his Red Hot Louisiana Band and eventually earning a Grammy himself, quite a few of the others “climbed aboard the band wagon.” Strachwitz’s not against someone making a name for himself. But a bunch of new zydeco groups basically all doing the same thing and catering to a wider and wider audience is not necessarily a positive development.
No, zydeco didn’t die with Clifton Chenier, swears Strachwitz. It will simply evolve into something else… “but what zydeco was doing during Clifton’s reign, from the ’50s to the ’80s—nothing can touch that.” (Continued in next month’s OffBeat)