When Jeffery Broussard left the Zydeco Force in 2005 to launch a new, more traditional group, he called it Jeffery Broussard & the Creole Cowboys. When Cedric Watson departed the Pine Leaf Boys in 2008 to form his own band, he called his new group Bijou Creole, French for Creole Jewel. It’s no coincidence that they both seized on the word “Creole,” which evokes an earlier era when the African-Americans of South Louisiana spoke French, played the fiddle and danced the waltz. It’s an era both men would like to revive.
Like everything touching on the racial realities of Louisiana, the word “Creole” has a long and complicated history. At first it referred to any children born in the Western Hemisphere to European colonists. Later its meaning narrowed to the mixed-race descendants of those colonists. Later still the word was applied to any African-American who clung to the French and Caribbean traditions of Louisiana. It’s this latter meaning that Broussard and Watson have in mind.
“When I left the Pine Leaf Boys,” Watson explains, “one of my main goals was to continue Creole language and Creole music. The Pine Leaf Boys could carry on Cajun music without me; I wasn’t needed to continue Cajun music the way I was needed to continue Creole music. I would define Creole as a syncretic culture; the majority of the people are African, Spanish, French and Native American descendants. When you listen to the music, you experience all those flavors, and the same is true of the food. The beat we play, four on the floor, straight kick, is pow-wow music right there, because most of us are part Native American.”
“I’m a Creole person, a French African-American in Louisiana,” Broussard adds, “and it’s all about that tradition. I grew up in this culture, and my father played this music. We grew up on farms, riding horses and playing fiddles and accordions. Some people called it Creole music; some called it la-la, but it was how the music started out before it grew into zydeco and Cajun. I see the music changing a lot, getting more into hip-hop and rap, and I wanted to get back to the origins.”
Watson is a short, slender man in a modest afro and wispy beard. Wearing a T-shirt and faded jeans, he manipulates his double-row accordion to pump out not just rhythmic riffs but also lyrical fills. His tight, unfussy band knocks out the syncopated swamp beat so contagiously that “Johnny Can’t Dance” becomes a taunt and “Bijou Creole” a rousing theme song. Most of his songs are sung in easy-going Creole French, with Watson’s squeezebox answering his every vocal line. When he switches to fiddle, he can saw out a dance pulse on “O Man” or bow sweetly on “C’est la Vie.”
“The majority of what I do at any show are tunes that I wrote,” Watson says. “Part of what makes the culture is your language. If you lose the Creole language and start rapping in English like hip-hop, you lose your culture. Nowadays the young guys don’t speak French; I don’t know why. Everyone’s becoming a bunch of sheep. Everyone wants a new car and a new TV; everyone wants to sound like the guy on TV. We’re losing our diversity. We should be accepting of everyone’s culture, but we shouldn’t be the same. Your culture is who you are; when it’s gone, it’s gone.”
Broussard, who performs May 2 at Jazz Fest, wears his rural roots when he takes the stage. With his white-straw cowboy hat, silver-plated rodeo belt and black boots, it’s as if he just jumped off a horse. He never removes his trademark toothpick from the corner of his mouth, even as he sings in a raspy, bluesy tenor and plays his single-row and triple-row accordions with fluttering triplets and melodic detours. He even switches from squeezebox to fiddle to play Clifton Chenier’s “Tante Nana” and Canray Fontenot’s “Old Carpenter’s Waltz.” He shifts from English to French to sing Joe Falcon’s “Allons a Lafayette” and Boozoo Chavis’s “Prier pour Moi.” The Creole Cowboys are not delivering a history lesson, however. They can keep a dance floor wriggling with bluesy stompers such as “I Love Big Fat Women” and “Hard To Stop.”
“Back in the day, that’s the way it was: waltzes and two-steps,” Broussard says. “If I were going to play a gig and just do fast songs all night, that would turn people off. I can’t see a band playing true zydeco or Creole without a lot of waltzes, but a lot of these new bands, if you hear a waltz at all, you’re lucky. Corey Ledet plays both; he pretty much does what I do.”
Ledet, who leads his “Zydeco Band” at Jazz Fest April 26, straddles the boundary between traditional Creole and modern zydeco. On the cover of his new album, Nothin’ but the Best, the young zydeco stars Anthony Dopsie, Dwayne Dopsie and Andre Thierry are listed as guest stars, and the tall bandleader in the dark-gray suit is cradling a huge piano accordion. While modern zydeco employs both the piano and button accordion, Creole music uses the latter exclusively.
“As a musician, I get bored quickly,” Ledet explains, “so I like to switch from one to the other. Cedric’s doing the original Creole sound, which is great, because he’s incorporating music not just from Louisiana but also from Haiti. Creole is basically people of color from southwest Louisiana who are French speakers. I speak a little bit; I’m in the process of learning. A lot of the older people know it, but they’re dying off without passing it on for whatever reason. It’s getting lost, and it’s a beautiful language and needs to be preserved. If I ever have kids, I’ll want to pass it on to them.”
Back in 2006 Ledet and Watson collaborated on the album Goin’ Down to Louisiana, recorded as an unaccompanied duo on piano accordion and fiddle respectively. Although there were three songs by the father of zydeco, Clifton Chenier, there were also tunes from such Creole musicians as Canray Fontenot and Bebe Carriere. Ledet and Watson both grew up in Houston, but they found the African-American French culture of Louisiana a magnet too strong to resist.
“In Houston,” Ledet recalls, “I got a job at 10 years old playing drums with Wilbert Thibodeaux & the Zydeco Rascals. Being a drummer helps you with your timing on the box. The accordion is the lead instrument; it has to start the song and end the song, so it sets the tempo for the rest of the band to follow. In Houston, they really didn’t have zydeco on the radio, but in Louisiana you have a lot, plus TV shows. My aunts, uncles and cousins all lived in Parks, Louisiana, and we visited them all the time. So when I came down, I’d try to soak up as much as I could. I’d record the TV shows on VHS and the radio on cassette.”
“I had cousins in Kinder, Louisiana,” says Watson, “and when I visited I turned on the radio searching for all these French stations. I found one out of Jennings where even the commercials were in French. I started taping the shows; it was the real shit—scratchy fiddle and French singing. I felt it was like a part of me, all the food and music; it was in my blood and it was my culture too. I was like, ‘Damn, this is what I need to be doing.’ When I was 14 and my great-grandmother was 97 I had the privilege of hanging out with her, talking French with her. Things like that made me feel like I should do something close to my roots. The stereotype of black youth is all they care about is rap, but that’s not nearly as close to Africa as Creole.”
Watson is an unusual South Louisiana musician in that he doesn’t have professional musicians in his family, as Broussard and Ledet do. Broussard’s father was the namesake of the legendary Delton Broussard & the Lawtell Playboys; an uncle was the equally notable bandleader Fernest Arceneaux. Ledet’s paternal grandfather, Buchanan ‘Tbu’ Ledet, played drums for Arceneaux, Chenier and Rockin’ Dopsie. Among Corey Ledet’s many cousins are the zydeco bandleader Donna Angelle and the Sam Brothers Five. Another link to the past is Broussard’s bassist and backing singer, the renowned Classie Ballou.
“I had a brother playing bass with me,” Broussard recalls, “and one night he was over-drinking. I said, ‘You got to slow down.’ He said, ‘You’re younger than me, so you can’t tell me what to do.’ So I played the gig without a bass player. I called Classie to see if he could play bass the next night and pretty soon he was playing with us all the time. When Classie joined Clifton Chenier, he gave the band such a boost; he did the same thing for Boozoo Chavis. He’s so creative; he creates his own thing the same way I do, because he’s not afraid to try things. He and I pretty much play off each other.”
You can hear that interaction on the recent album, Return of the Creole. Broussard’s composition, “Ole Blue,” is the latest in a long line of Creole and zydeco dog songs, and the singer describes his desire for a woman like a bull dog straining at his chain. Fueling that surging momentum is Ballou, not only with his funky bass lines but his comments like, “Down, boy, down, boy” and the barking he learned from his years with Boozoo Chavis.
You can hear a similar give and take between Watson and guitarist Chris Stafford on the album L’Esprit Creole. Watson wrote “J’suis Gone a la Blue Moon” as a tribute to Lafayette’s Blue Moon Saloon, ground zero for the new generation of Creole and Cajun musicians and their audiences. There’s a definite Caribbean lilt to the catchy tune, and that flavor is reinforced by Stafford’s reggae phrasing on the electric guitar. The same band followed up that studio album with a live recording at the Blue Moon, Creole Moon, that found them rocking ancient numbers from Canray Fontenot, Dennis McGee and John Delafose (Geno’s dad) with an island twist.
“Because we use accordions and fiddles,” Watson says, “people compare us to Celtic and French music, but the rhythms sound more African and Caribbean. The latter is important because most of our ancestors came from Haiti; I consider Louisiana to be the most northern part of the Caribbean. Compare merengue tipico from the Dominican Republic to Louisiana Creole music and you don’t have to be a scholar to hear the similarities. Nowadays they say everything Creole is Cajun, but if you listen to Dominican music the proof is right there in your face.”
Whenever Watson and Broussard pick up the fiddle, some people assume they’re playing Cajun music, where the violin is far more prominent than it is in zydeco. Neither man has anything against Cajun; Watson, in fact, made important contributions to that genre during his fruitful tenure in the Pine Leaf Boys. But both bandleaders insist that it’s important to keep the names straight, so each culture gets its proper credit. That’s why they emphasize the word “Creole” so much.
“Creole music—sometimes called la-la, jure or just French music—is the ancestor of Cajun and zydeco,” Watson claims. “It’s what Amedee Ardoin, a black accordion player, and Dennis McGee, a white fiddler, played back in 1920s and ‘30s. Amedee wrote a lot of those tunes, and he set the standard for what Louisiana accordion music is. It’s the trunk that leads to these various branches. That music was mixed with country music to appeal more to the whites, and that’s how Cajun music was created. And the black people mixed Creole music with rhythm & blues and that’s zydeco music.”
“The zydeco being played today is not the traditional music,” Broussard adds; “it’s hip-hop more than anything. When my father heard something that wasn’t real zydeco, he’d say, ‘Why are they messing up the music?’ If things keep going this way, our music is going to disappear, and I don’t want that happen. I inherited it from my father, and I want to pass it on to my own kids, so they know what their roots are and what the music stands for. I’m not racist or anything, but Creole music is mostly being played by Cajuns these days, and that’s OK, but it’s our music and we should be playing it too.”
“If you strip the sense of being Creole away from my children,” Watson concludes, “who are they? They’re computers waiting to have information fed into them; they’re balls of clay waiting to be molded by someone else. But of the younger kids in Louisiana’s French immersion schools, the majority are colored. They’re studying French half of the school day and when they go home, they’re speaking to their grandparents in French, so I feel a lot of hope for the Creole culture.”