Friday, February 21, 2003

Terrance Simien's getting ready to unleash the zydeco sound from his button accordion. Et toi!

Taking zydeco
to its zenith

By Gary C.W. Chun

While Mardi Gras doesn't officially kick off until early next month, Hawaii's been getting an early taste of it, thanks to the visiting Terrance Simien and his Mallet Playboys squeezing and scratching out that infectious zydeco sound. Add the liberal tossing of traditional bead necklaces into the audience, and it's almost the next best thing to being in the Big Easy itself.

Terrance Simien and
the Mallet Playboys

Where: Leeward Community College Theatre, 96-045 Ala Ike
When: 7 p.m. tomorrow
Tickets: $15 to $25
Call: 455-0385
Note: 5:30 p.m. Mardi Gras pre-show festivities with catering by Dixie Grill outside the theater. Louisiana-inspired menu to include blackened catfish, crawfish gumbo and Southern sweet tea.

Simien hopes he's been making a new fan base of "Beadheads" while touring the islands over several days. Tomorrow night's stop at the Leeward Community College Theatre should be a lively fest.

The 37-year-old button accordionist was born in the small parish of Mallet (pronounced mah-let), La., 75 miles from Baton Rouge. He is a product of the state's southwestern Creole culture, and part and parcel of that is zydeco music.

There is a distinct difference between zydeco and Cajun music, he explained, the latter representing country-and-western music grafted onto French ballads and Acadian folk tunes.

"Zydeco has a strong blues influence, and it's evolved ever since the 1690s," he said. "It's become the ambassador for the culture throughout the world."

Two instruments unique to zydeco are the accordion, introduced to the area by Germans, and the "frottoir," or scrub board, which has since developed into the metal rub board.

Simien remembers that, as a precocious teenager exposed to spirituals sung in the local Roman Catholic church and the party-hearty music of the roadhouses, he played "whatever accordion I could get my hands on. In 1979, I borrowed a piano accordion from a lady that lived down the street from my house. But I wanted to try playing a button kind, so on my 14th birthday, my daddy bought me one." (The piano accordion is a chromatic instrument, and the button is diatonic.)

"Now, with the rub board, that's an old concept that came from Africa, where someone would rub something against a small animal carcass to make a rhythm. In the early 1950s, washboards would be used to that same effect. And it was Clifton Chenier (the late King of Zydeco who gave the music its name) who designed the rub board. It's now made out of a corrugated sheet of stainless steel, although some cheaper, less resonant ones are made from corrugated tin.

"Each rub-board player has his own technique of playing it. Clifton's brother Cleveland Chenier used to use bottle openers, 10 or 12 fanned out in each hand, and others play with spoon handles or thimbles. Any way you play it, it's all part of the sound that was created for zydeco music."

Simien's own "rub-boardist," Ralph Fontenot, is his first cousin. "My keyboard player, Danny Williams, has been with the band the longest of anyone, since 1990, working and writing songs together."

SIMIEN AND the band have been road warriors over the past 15 years, taking the culture's music worldwide. (The last time he was here was 1990 for a gig at Casanova on Maui.) And he was front and center when the music enjoyed national notoriety in 1986-87, when the band appeared in and played on the soundtrack to the Dennis Quaid-Ellen Barkin film "The Big Easy," and Simien recorded a duet with Paul Simon during his "Graceland" recording sessions.

While the song they sang, a rendition of Chenier's classic "You Used to Call Me," didn't make the final cut for the groundbreaking album, it was released on an obscure regional label in a limited 7-inch-single vinyl pressing. Simien hopes to re-release it on CD one day.

He's also paid tribute to his influences on an Australian-only album in 2001, doing songs not only by forebears Chenier and Conray Fontenot, but by other favorites such as Sam Cooke, the late Rick Danko of the Band, and Bob Marley.

Last year's self-released "Creole for Kids" recording continues the educational work Simien does at home and on the road. "So far for the past two years, more than 100,000 kids have seen my ongoing program, performed in auditoriums and gymnasiums in Louisiana and the U.S."

Sen. Donald Cravins does a character narration as a cypress tree, "the oldest thing in the land, telling stories of and about the Creoles, with songs that I wrote and researched.

"My native culture is still going strong as it always has been, even though we've lost a lot of great musicians -- John Delafose, Clifton Chenier, Rockin' Dopsie, Rockin' Sidney, Boozoo Chavis, Beau Jacque -- but for every one lost, there are two or three young musicians coming up in Louisiana to take their place.

"And I do whatever I can to keep the music going. When I first started in 1981, there weren't any other young people interested in zydeco music. I guess I was a little ahead of the time. Now, my main objective as one of the older guys now -- over 20 years and still around playin' -- is to help younger people get gigs, trying to do my part like my forefathers, exposing people outside the culture to our music but also putting my own twist on it."

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