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5 questions: Terrance Simien
One of zydeco's living legends on 'the medicine in the music'
Terrance Simien is an eighth-generation Creole (Photo: Michael Weintraub)

At 46, Terrance Simien is now one of the grand old men of zydeco.

He’s part of the second wave of musicians keeping the Creole music of Southern Louisiana alive; most of the old guys are long gone.

As a songwriter, bandleader and music historian, Simien has traveled the globe many, many times in his three professional decades, speading the Cajun gospel.

An eighth–generation Creole from St. Landry Parish, the Grammy–winning Simien sings and plays accordion, trumpet and piano. He’s had his own band since 1981 – first called the Mallet Playboys (named after his home neighborhood) and then Zydeco Experience.

It’s this band – accordion, rubboard, drums, bass, guitar and percussion – that will deliver the zydeco goods in two Savannah Music Festival–sponsored shows Oct. 22 at American Legion Post 135.

It’s a dance party – don’t forget to wear the right shoes! – but, as Simien likes to say, you don’t have to dance to experience and enjoy the sheer joy of this music.

That’s one reason he and his wife, Cynthia, created the “Creole For Kidz” program, which brings the music and history to young people the world over.

You’re called The Ambassador to Zydeco. Is this a title you take seriously, or are you just a guy playing really cool music?

Terrance Simien: When I started traveling with my band back in 1985, to D.C. and New York, very few zydeco artists had performed in that area. Early on I just had this attitude “Look man, I’m playing this music, I love it and I want you to love it too.”     

But as time went on, you had a lot of people asking a lot of questions. I had to do some research of my own to get the history right. Most of the history comes from our ancestors, who handed it down orally. As a kid, I was always interested in hanging out with the older members of the community, and always wanted to find out what things was like way back in the day. So I can understand why people want to know more. I try to give out information that’s accurate and from the source. It’s a part of history that’s so different from anywhere else. Although most people that want to hear this music, that’s all they want, and that’s cool, too.

Why is zydeco referred to as melting pot music?

Terrance Simien: It involves so many different people from so many different places. This is my family tree: I’m part French, African, Spanish, Native American and German. And most of the Creoles whose families have been in Louisiana as long as mine had that cultural mix. And all these different cultures influenced the music, the food and why things are so different.

Why do you think people from all over the world respond to it?

Terrance Simien: If you’re French, you’re part of it. If you’re African, you’re part of it, Native American, Spanish, German, you’re a part of it. The Germans were the first to bring the accordion to this area. I think people subliminally, when they hear the music, if they’re from any of these cultures they connect with it. It’s an Old World sound, and people can identify with that immediately. Something about the medicine in the music that people can feel, you know?

After 30 years of playing zydeco as your job, do you ever get weary of it?

Terrance Simien: I say this in all honesty, every night I experience so many different things playing this music – ups and downs and like they say, it creates a turnaround. It’s a blessing to be able to, number one have work, and have this kind of work. I think until I die, you know, I’m gonna always be excited about playing for people who want to hear this music, and the way they enjoy it. The way they react to it. I think the older you get, the more you understand what the music is actually doing – not just for yourself, but for the people that you’re playing it for. I look forward to it.

There are strong elements of blues and R&B in your music. Tell me about that.

Terrance Simien: When I started playing this music, I was 16 years old and I was totally into the old, traditional style of the zydeco Creole music. That’s what was moving me the most at the time. But I also listened to R&B, and music from the ‘60s. I love the music from the ‘60s, the folk and the rock. I just try to fuse some of that stuff in with the zydeco music. And that’s been a tradition – Clifton Chenier back in the ‘40s was fusing blues and jazz, and a new sound, rock ‘n’ roll. Taj Mahal talks about he was listening to Clifton Chenier and really loved his approach to the blues. Mick Jagger talks about it - his brother Chris Jagger has a zydeco band.

That’s something I try to tell people, too: The traditions amongst the artists is to be creative and create your own style within the style. A lot of these younger guys are starting to do it now, with hip hop and the contemporary stuff of the day. And it’s awesome. It’s bringing young kids to hear this traditional music as well as hearing something that for them is relevant for the time. This time, you know?

Terrance Simien & the Zydeco Experience

Where: American Legion Post 135, 1108 Bull St.

When: Saturday, Oct. 22

At 3 p.m.: $20, $5 children under 12

At 8 p.m.: All tickets $30