When rising zydeco star Ruben Moreno opens the Louisiana Cajun-Zydeco Festival on the morning of Sunday, June 7, it will become evident how zydeco continues to advance its cultural horizons from its paradigm. Moreno isn’t the typical Louisiana-weaned Creole—nor is he from the Cajun heritage-playing zydeco tradition like Horace Trahan and Travis Matte—but instead grew up in Houston’s second ward, a.k.a. “Segundo Barrio,” a predominantly Mexican-American neighborhood. Though his grandfather was Creole, he grew up in a Latin community absorbing the music of his grandmother’s era as well as the contemporary Latin sounds on the radio.
Still, his aunts took him to his first zydeco dance at age 10. There, the unexpected thrill of a lifetime occurred when he met an old family friend, the sharp-dressed, swashbuckling Leroy Thomas and his father Leo “The Bull” Thomas. The two invited Moreno, already a budding rubboard player, to join them for a few numbers. The moment he stepped onstage, he had an epiphany and instantly recognized his life’s calling: to be a musician as well as an entertainer.
At age 12, he began playing accordion. Through Mary Thomas, a sister of Clifton Chenier’s and a zydeco radio show host herself, he met practically every zydeco artist coming through the area. His professional career was jumpstarted with a call from CJ Chenier’s cousin Walter Chenier towards the end of 2007. “Hey man, CJ needs a washboard player for the East Coast,” Moreno recalls him saying. “I said ‘All right,’ and went to Chicago for three weeks. That was the greatest time of my life. I went on the road and I stayed on the road.”
Besides Thomas and Chenier, at one point or another, he has also played with Geno Delafose, did several west coast dates with Jeffery Broussard and several tours, including one of Germany, with old school practitioner Lynn August.
He counts Buckwheat Zydeco as a personal friend and recently hung out backstage at Buck’s Jazz Fest show, taking advantage of the opportunity to network with musicians and industry professionals.
With two albums under his belt—2011’s traditionally-based Por Ti Volare and his recently released more progressive Compliqué (Complicated)—Moreno sees zydeco continuing to push forward in so many ways. But what it’s really about, he says, is who influences the artist and how he expresses himself. Sometimes Moreno is questioned if he’s really playing zydeco. “They come up to me and they say ‘Oh no, that’s not zydeco. I have heard zydeco before,’” Moreno explains. “And I’ll ask them ‘Who are your zydeco idols?’ Oh well, they’ll say ‘Beau Jocque.’ Well okay, he took ’60s-’70s pop and funk hits and incorporated it into zydeco. How’s that any different? And the same with the King of Zydeco Clifton Chenier, he was playing top 40s, Ray Charles, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Ella Fitzgerald and all types of swing and rock ’n’ roll hits on the accordion. It’s the same concept but a different era.”
If zydeco keeps pushing forward, Moreno will be one of the reasons why. Last year he and West Coast zydeco phenom Andre Thierry, producer of Moreno’s two albums, were involved in a pan-cultural collaborative project with Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo and the nonprofit Los Cenzontles Cultural Arts Academy of Richmond, California to bridge the commonalties of zydeco and Latin music. Historically, the two cultures have paralleled each other. One of the songs, “You Will Cry,” sung by Moreno on the resultant Shades of Brown album, came by the way of Ry Cooder. “It has a great back story,” explains Eugene Rodriquez, Los Centzontles executive director. “This popular East Los Angeles singer named Little Julian Herrera, who was a real star in the neighborhood back then [the ’50s], recorded ‘You Will Cry’ and Ry had turned me onto that. Ruben sang it, and wow, Ruben is the reincarnation of Little Julian!”
At the concert, Bonnie Raitt was in attendance, “All of a sudden, Ruben turns into superman. He comes alive onstage and he’s just a big ham all over the place dancing,” Rodriguez says. “Bonnie Raitt just went bananas. Wow, I thought, that was an interesting transformation.”
“We have the same traditions and the same values, the same background, experiences and history somewhat, you know,” Moreno explains about how the cultures are alike. “And the music is similar, the language, the expressions, the food, the fact that we celebrate and we dance and that is a big part of who we are in our culture.”
“And all of that ties in and brings us closer together. And that’s what I try to express through my music and live performances,” Moreno continues. “Playing in Houston where the whole crowd is mainly people of color, the one group is mainly African-American and Creole and the other is a mixed race of Latin background and they are all dancing the same and having a good dance high. It is a good time to come together and just really celebrate.”
“I’m kind of building this bridge right here,” Moreno said. “I don’t know how it’s happening, but I am going with the flow. I’m not going to fight it, that’s for sure.”