Joe Hall is a happy anomaly. In zydeco’s homeland of southwest Louisiana, Hall swims in a sea of zydeco players who mix their sounds with R&B, rap, and other mainstream influences. Hall, 47, prefers the tunes of his late grandfather, King Ned, an accordionist in an era when players sang in Creole French about loneliness, poverty, and death that came knocking way too early.
Traditional Creole music is why Hall became fast friends with Nolton Semien, an accordionist more than 30 years his senior. Any hip hop-flavored zydeco paled in comparison to Semien’s fluid and articulate style.
“Nolton had this certain grit,” said Hall, who lives in Arnaudville, Louisiana. “Nobody was going to show him up. After he finished playing, everybody was going to know Nolton Semien did what he had to do.
“Nolton was more on the quiet side than the rest of the guys. But music-wise, the man just wanted to holler and holler as loud as he possibly could. This cat could play.”
Admirers are remembering Semien, who died May 22 at the Oakland Nursing Home in Eunice. He was 79.
A musician for 55 years, Semien was regarded as one of the last links between modern zydeco and its predecessor, the “la la” accordion dance music performed in rural, Creole homes. The Depression-era waltzes and two-steps of accordion master Amede Ardoin are at its core.
Semien, nicknamed “Horse,” rode those traditional songs hard. Yet in the 1970s and ’80s, Semien helped build a bridge to the future with all-English hits, like “Right On Girl” and “We All Went Down to the Zydeco.”
In 1991, the Opelousas Daily World featured Semien and his Zydeco Vamps, who dressed in capes and played, according to the newspaper, “Zydeco, Rhythm and Blues, French, Soul and a little bit of Disco.”
“That’s what was getting them work,” said friend and Creole fiddler D’Jalma Garnier. “But he really defined ‘la la’ for me.
Semien leaves a limited recording legacy that included Oh Lucille, a 2012 CD on Fruge Records. But his traditional repertoire made him a master musician at the 2006 Cajun/Creole Week at the Augusta Heritage Center of Davis and Elkins College in Elkins, West Virginia.
Joe Hall’s 2019 CD, Aye Cher Catin, starts with “Un Jour Avnir Tu Vas Souffert (One Day You Will Suffer),” a Semien original. Hall said the cover was a tribute to his inspiration.
“I can’t say enough about how much the Creole and Cajun cultures have lost with this man being gone,” said Hall. “The family didn’t announce it in a big way. His family sent him off the way he lived his life—just in a quiet way. No brags, just facts.”