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Going for It: Zydeco in the Recording Studio

Photo: (L-R) Ruben Moreno, Buckwheat Zydeco, Scott Billington, Major Handy, Lee Allen Zeno, Johnette Downing 

When I was sixteen years old, in the late 1960s, I dreamed of making records. I collected them, too, especially blues on 45 RPM discs. Yet, the men behind the records intrigued me as much as the music.

In the British blues magazine Blues Unlimited, I read about Louisiana producers Jay Miller, who recorded Slim Harpo for Nashville’s Excello Records, and Eddie Shuler, who made what may have been the first zydeco record with Boozoo Chavis for his own Goldband label. I was captivated by the work of Chris Strachwitz, whose records by Clifton Chenier on his Arhoolie label were my introduction to zydeco.

After a stint as manager of a record store in Boston, in which I fully indulged my passion for vinyl by building a larger roots music inventory than the owner thought prudent, I went to work for Rounder Records. In some ways, it was an anti-career decision, because several major labels had courted me with higher paying offers, but I loved the music that Rounder released. Maybe, I thought, I could at least be a fly on the wall as Rounder records were being made.

It didn’t take long, as the Rounder founders were open to my ideas, and not at all averse to expanding the label’s blues footprint. I can’t say that I completely knew what I was doing when I began making records for them, although I knew what I wanted to hear. In 1982, the label won its first Grammy with Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown’s Alright Again!, which I co-produced in Bogalusa, Louisiana. Then, the doors to Louisiana music flew open for me.

I made my first zydeco record with Buckwheat Zydeco after hearing him at the 1982 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. I was knocked out by the energy and precision of his set, which was presented like an R&B show. Soon, I was on the phone with his manager, Peggy Below, who took me with her parents to hear Buck at Richard’s Club in Lawtell. Such was my entry into Creole culture—old and young people dancing together; starched and pressed jeans; cowboy hats; setups of Crown Royal and Coke; and the warmth of the people in the packed club, at least after they figured out I was Peggy’s guest and not a cop.

We made both of Buckwheat’s Rounder records in Massachusetts, at Blue Jay Studio, during his first two tours of the Northeast. For the first, Turning Point, he played many songs from his live set, and engineer Glen Berger did a masterful job of capturing the energy. Noticing the thin, wheezy sound of Buck’s internal accordion pickups (the sound used on most zydeco records), we decided to record the accordion acoustically—with two microphones in front— as well as using the pickups. It’s something I’ve done on every zydeco record since. Since Buck had brought only one horn player, trumpeter Calvin Landry, we double- and triple-tracked him to create the horn section on the record, while Buck overdubbed piano and organ on several of the songs. Otherwise, you hear the band playing live.

On the follow-up, Waitin’ For My Ya Ya, we got more adventurous. Instead of trying to capture a live set, we developed several songs that were new to the band, anchored by the rhythm section of bassist Lee Allen Zeno and drummer Nat Jolivette, whom I thought of as the Sly and Robbie (the famous reggae rhythm section) of zydeco. When we came up one song short, I stayed up most of the night looking through my record collection, and brought Lee Dorsey’s “Ya Ya” to Buck the next day. I could see the gears immediately start to turn. He walked out to the piano and played the reggae-based motif that anchors the song, and we built on that. When engineer Gragg Lunsford and I mixed the song, we were still thinking reggae—a huge low end and no reverb. Rounder arrangend for Floyd Soileau to release “Ya Ya” on a 45, and it became a major regional hit, getting airplay on Lafayette rock stations. Buckwheat showed me how malleable zydeco can be—Creole soul music.

Buck soon signed to Island Records, a major label, but I was ever more fascinated with zydeco. In 1987, we recorded a weekend of bands at Richard’s Club —Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas, John Delafose and the Eunice Playboys, Willis Prudhomme and the Zydeco Express, and Boozoo Chavis and the Magic Sounds. Engineer Mark Bingham had a new Sony F-1 digital recorder, and we decided to record everything live to stereo, taking a purely documentary approach. Musician John Mooney lent us his van to use as a recording studio. The recordings came out well, although the booming bass frequencies coming through the walls of the club made us back of on recording the bass—exactly what we did not intend. Still, the project led sooner or later to individual records with all but Prudhomme.

Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas came with the recommendation of Buckwheat, who was a good friend of Nathan’s brother Sid, the “Don King of Zydeco” and a warm-hearted entrepreneur. Nathan Williams was just beginning his career, with two singles on his own label. His greatest gift may be the ability to transform to the idiomatic language of Creole culture into zydeco songs, and his “Everything on the Hog,” the title track of his first Rounder album, was the first in a long line of cleverly crafted compositions. We recorded at Southlake Studio near New Orleans with David Farrell, who had engineered the Gatemouth Brown record, and we became more confident in what we were going for—a clear, acoustic accordion sound; a fat, funky low end; and musical arrangements that would make each song distinctive. With Nathan, we aimed to make records that listeners as well as dancers would appreciate.

John Delafose was an heir to the Creole music of Amedée Ardoin and the Ardoin family, all of whom were from the area of Duralde, Louisiana, near Eunice, and his adaptation of Canray Fontenot’s “Joe Pete Got Two Women” had been a hit for Arhoolie. By 1992, I was making records regularly with David at Ultrasonic Studio in New Orleans, and I invited John and his son Geno to record there. I booked two days in the studio, as well as hotel rooms for band. John said, “Well, I don’t know about that.”

He and the band arrived at one in the afternoon on the appointed day, and we were rolling tape by two. Then, for the next two and one half hours, John and the band played at full-throttle, until we had twenty-two songs on tape. It was as if they were playing for a dance, with John becoming impatient when we had to stop to change tape reels.

When it was clear that we had our album, I shook his hand, paid him, and congratulated him on making such a great record. “Do you realize what you just accomplished?” I asked him. I told him that if he could wait for about one hour, we could make rough mixes for him to listen to on the way home. “Why don’t you send them to me,” he said. “We have to go home and feed the horses.” When my idol Chris Strachwitz congratulated me on the sound and energy of the record, I felt as if I had accomplished something, too. I learned from John how music that is so deeply rooted in a living culture can be free of the self-consciousness that can take the spirit out of recording, and that is what I came to appreciate most about zydeco—the almost universal willingness to go for it every time.

I am ever thankful for the enthusiasm and kindness of the musicians and engineers with whom I collaborated in those early years of making zydeco records. I went on to make many more, by Beau Jocque, Geno Delafose, Li’l Brian, Boozoo Chavis and others (as well as many other roots-oriented records), in what may have been the golden age of zydeco. Perhaps, we even planted some of the seeds for the scene that thrives today.

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A look back at New Orleans Music in Exile

New Orleans

Credit: Robert Mugge and crew with ReBirth Brass Band leader Phil Frazier in Houston | photo via Jazz Times

Ten years ago this Saturday, Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, displacing hundreds of thousands of residents and causing massive damage to the southern states. With the country recoiling from the blow, filmmaker Robert Mugge, who has been documenting our Zydeco Crossroads journey this year, captured the devastating shockwaves and glimmers of hope surrounding the hurricane in his 2006 documentary New Orleans Music in Exile.

[click to continue…]

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9 Places You Must Hear Zydeco

Zydeco can be heard across the U.S. and worldwide today, thanks to extensive touring by artists like the indefatigable Buckwheat Zydeco.  But here are the best places to hear zydeco.

1. El Sid-O’s Zydeco & Blues Club. 1523 N. St. Antoine St., Lafayette, LA 70501. (337) 237-1959.  Celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2015, Sid Williams’ club is the home of zydeco in Lafayette.  Sid’s baby brother is Nathan Williams.

2. Blue Moon Saloon & Guest House.  215 E. Convent St., Lafayette, LA 70501. (337) 234-2422.  Known for its Wednesday night Cajun jam, the Blue Moon also hosts Creole and zydeco artists, like Jeffrey Broussard and Cedryl Ballou.  It’s almost more fun than the law allows to dance in front of the stage.

3. Mid-City Lanes Rock ‘n’ Bowl.  3016 S. Carrollton Ave., New Orleans, LA 70118. (504) 861-1700Thursday is zydeco night at Rock ‘n’ Bowl, with all the best bands playing at one time or another, like Geno Delafose.

4. Festivals Acadiens et Créoles. A free outdoor music festival in Lafayette, Louisiana’s Girard Park, held annually in October.  Five stages run music almost continuously from noon to dark for two days.

5. New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Hang out stage right at the Fais Do-Do Stage to dance your shoes off!  You’ll hear the best zydeco and Cajun artists over two weekends in late April and early May.  Bonus points for attending their Cajun & Zydeco Festival in New Orleans, held the first weekend in June.

6. Original Southwest Zydeco Music Festival. Held outdoors in a soybean field near Plaisance, LA, this festival presents only zydeco music.  Dancers come from all over for this one, but be sure to drink plenty of water!

7.  Festival International de Louisiane. Another free festival in Lafayette, the same time as the first weekend of Jazz Fest, creating a conundrum or an opportunity, depending on your viewpoint.  Zydeco is not the focus, but is included, making it easier to get to El Sid-O’s and the Blue Moon while you’re in town.

8.  Wherever touring artists play in your area.

9.  Your home.  Adding zydeco recordings to your collection supports the music today and for the future.

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Paul Scott: A helping hand to zydeco, Creole culture

Paul Scott

Paul Scott admits he had little interest in zydeco music when he graduated from Opelousas High School in 1982. That same year, a strange concept, something called a zydeco festival, was launched in the nearby community of Plaisance.

A year later, Scott was selling tickets to the event – the Original Southwest Louisiana Zydeco Music Festival. Thirty years later, zydeco festivals stretch from California to Raamsdonksveer, Holland.

“My interest was in the fact that there was an organization putting on an event that was black owned and black run,” said Scott. “It was something that was thought of not being very popular.

“I said I’m going to go give them a hand. I was 19 years old and stood in the road selling tickets. I just kept sticking my nose in more and more. It just went on from there.”

Scott’s work in music, festivals, culture and economic development has earned him the Richard J. Catalon Sr. Creole Heritage Award. He received the honor June 7 during the annual Creole Heritage Day at Vermilionville.

Scott’s cultural activity has helped grow some of the region’s most renowned events. For 20 years, Scott served as the assistant director of the Zydeco Festival in Plaisance, which created a template for similar celebrations across the globe.

As a past board member and current production worker, Scott has seen Festival International de Louisiane in Lafayette develop into a major player on the world festival stage. His management work with the Step-N-Strut Trail Ride has helped the event attract more than 10,000 fans annually. Scott is an active member of Holy Ghost Catholic Church in Opelousas and helped mold its Creole Festival.

Besides his full-time refinery job, Scott is active in home restorations and community housing developments that help local residents find affordable places to live.

Scott said his busy life is patterned after his mentors, such as Wilbert Guillory, founding director of the Zydeco Festival, zydeco radio pioneer Luke Collins and A. J. McKnight, former Holy Ghost pastor.

“I look at this award as an opportunity bring recognition to people who helped me,” said Scott. “I was just riding the ship. Will Guillory let me tag along for all those years. So many people I used to hang with.

“We stood in front of Slim’s Y-KI-Ki (dancehall) and handed out brochures night after night after night. I thank Will for allowing me to run amuck. If it sounded good, he went with it. I didn’t mind it either.”

Scott plans to remain active in hometown and cultural activities for years to come. He hopes to inspire a new generation of activists, just as his mentors motivated him.

 

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louisiana

Credit: Beau Jocque | photo copyright The Times Shreveport, 1997

In an article for Lafayette’s The Advertiser, Zydeco Crossroads contributor Herman Fuselier highlights a new documentary called By the River of Babylon.

Don Howard and Jim Shelton have been working on the film for the better part of a decade, starting first with a focus on Beau Jocque and the music of Louisiana before expanding to include to the changing climate of the state’s natural landscape in the wetlands.

From the article:

“We started out making the film just about the music and the dancehalls,” said Howard, a professor of radio, TV and film at the University of Texas at Austin. “There’s a problem with that kind of movie because the only people that are going to get it already have it because they’ve already been there.

“We didn’t really know how to make the best film about it. Then we read this book, ‘Bayou Farewell,’ which was an introduction to what’s going on in the wetlands. We realized the dancehalls are dying on a certain level, but also the landscape itself is drowning.

“Those obviously aren’t causally related, but it seemed to be a poignant thing to make the film about.”

Read the full article here and watch the trailer below. The documentary airs tomorrow evening on WORLD Channel‘s America Reframed program. It will be available worldwide at worldchannel.org beginning Wednesday, June 17th.

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June is National Accordion Awareness Month!

Accordion

Credit: Alphonse “Bois Sec” Ardoin plays the accordion for the Duralde Mardi Gras in 1977. Photo: Nicholas R. Spitzer via Louisiana Folklife

It’s true, June is National Accordion Awareness Month, a designation made in 1989 to introduce the instrument to a wider audience. Zydeco Crossroads was lucky enough to tour the Martin Accordions workshop and showroom in Scott, Louisiana last fall, and you can watch a video of our visit below.

The family-owned business has been manufacturing and repairing accordions for thirty years, led by “Junior” Martin, his son Anthony and daughter Penny.

In this behind-the-scenes video of the shop Anthony walks us around the showroom, explaining the differences in accordion styles and pointing out the unique features of the Martin accordion. In the workshop we see how detailed the process of making an accordion is and Anthony tells us what makes him so proud of their product.

Learn more accordion facts here.

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El Sido's

Credit: Sid Williams at El Sido’s | photo by John Vettese for World Cafe

Sid Williams has been running his Lafayette club El Sido’s for thirty years now. The venue has been an integral and joyful part of the town over the last few decades, launching zydeco careers, offering a place for friends and family to gather and lending a hand to the community. But as Herman Fuselier discusses in his profile of the venue for The Advertiser, El Sido’s isn’t experiencing the level of success it once was:

El Sido’s sits idle this Mother’s Day, a sign of the times for the zydeco landmark. During its heyday, the club featured bands every weekend, Friday through Sunday.

But El Sido’s is now lucky to be open twice a month. Williams estimates 80 percent of his business has been lost to casinos, which can pay bands higher, guaranteed money and let customers enter free of charge.

Williams’ younger brother Nathan, who performs around the world with his band The Zydeco Cha Chas, emphasises the importance of the club for burgeoning zydeco musicians:

“That’s the first stage I jumped on,” said Nathan. “It was all good times. A lot of people forgot about those times.

“His club has done a lot for musicians and bands. Nobody knew him at the time, but there’s so many people there that went somewhere with the music after being exposed at the club. That’s where I got my first start.”

Read the full article on The Advertiser‘s website here and take a look at our visit to El Sido’s below.

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Richard’s Club and Boozoo Chavis: The Golden Age of Zydeco

Richard's Club

Photo: Outside of Richard’s Club in Lawtell, LA

Historians can look back to several junctures of time and place in American music when it was clear that something significant was happening. For Southern blues, it might have been Beale Street in Memphis in the early 1950s, when B.B. King and Bobby “Blue” Bland pioneered a modern blues sound that continues to resonate today. For bebop, it might have been 52nd Street in New York City in the 1940s, when Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk deconstructed jazz. For zydeco, I would argue that it was Southwest Louisiana in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Boozoo Chavis came roaring back onto the scene at Richard’s Club in Lawtell.

In many ways, zydeco as a popular music style barely survived its early years, for if its two pioneers, Clifton Chenier and Boozoo Chavis, made their innovations in the 1950s, their careers were in decline by the early 1960s. Chavis quit playing entirely, returning to his trade of training racehorses to support his family. Chenier kept working with his small band, but there was little awareness of his music outside the local Creole community. Zydeco and its cousin, Cajun music, were often maligned as backward—it was the music of poor people. Like speaking French, it was not socially progressive.

Through the 1960s and 1970s, zydeco and traditional Creole music maintained a steady if quiet presence. When Clifton Chenier signed with Arhoolie Records producer Chris Strachwitz, his star began to rise, and his records seemed finally to announce zydeco music to the world at large. At the same time, musicians such as John Delafose, Rockin’ Dopsie, Roy Carrier, Marcel Dugas, Delton Broussard and Hiram Sampy played weekend dance and some even toured occasionally. Yet, the full blossoming of zydeco was yet to come.

Boozoo Chavis was a fireplug of a man who appeared onstage in a plastic apron, to protect his accordions from perspiration, and a cowboy hat. When, in the mid 1980s, his family urged him to return to the stage, Boozoo began drawing unprecedented crowds at Richard’s Club, a long, low-ceilinged building that seemed in danger of shaking loose from its foundations when the music got loud and the dancers filled the floor. Shiny pickup trucks packed the parking lot and the shoulders of Highway 190, while Creole couples made the scene dressed in matching Western outfits with pressed jeans. Boozoo’s simple, relentlessly driving music was a sensation.

It wasn’t long before Boozoo had challengers, as a wave of new musicians emulated his raw button accordion sound. Bass player Robby Robinson enlisted Delton Broussard’s son, accordion player Jeffrey, to form the band Zydeco Force. Their sound emulated Boozoo’s groove, but with modern touches such as harmony vocals and R&B-derived chord changes, and they quickly established a following that rivaled Boozoo’s. Then, all hell broke loose.

Beau Jocque (Andrus Espre) was six and one half feet tall, and weighed 280 pounds. His husky and powerful voice summoned the spirit of the bluesman Howlin’ Wolf, and he had a keen musical intelligence. While recuperating from an industrial accident that left him temporarily paralyzed, he began experimenting with his father’s dusty diatonic accordion. Then, he and his wife Michelle began going to zydeco dances, analyzing what it was about Boozoo and Zydeco Force that made people dance.

When he hit the stage at Richard’s, Beau Jocque presented a fully formed sound that tapped influences such as Santana and War, adding an even deeper level of funk to Boozoo’s rural stomp. There was no turning back for the new zydeco sound. Parked cars were soon lined up along the road for half a mile in each direction at Richard’s, as word spread beyond the local Creole community.

Like professional wrestlers, Beau Jocque and Boozoo Chavis carried on a rivalry—the zydeco forefather versus the young upstart. It was good for business. An even younger generation took note, and soon Keith Frank, Chris Ardoin, Step Rideau and the tradition-leaning Geno Delafose joined the fray. The “double-kicked” bass drum beat inspired people from all over the country to begin dancing to zydeco. John Blancher began booking a weekly zydeco dance at his Rock’n’Bowl venue in New Orleans, and there was even a zydeco cruise.

It should be noted that, following the death the Clifton Chenier in 1987, his disciples were also having their heyday, carrying his more sophisticated piano accordion sound forward. Chenier’s former sideman Stanley “Buckwheat” Dural eclipsed his mentor’s popularity, touring the world with a tightly disciplined show. Nathan Williams and the Zydeco Cha Chas soon followed.

Yet, for a few years, it felt as if the earth shook under Richard’s Club, as Boozoo Chavis’s primordial sound came thundering back, inciting the unlikely reawakening of a regional music strain that prevails to this day. The world took notice, and it might just have been zydeco’s golden age.

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