By the time his 1985 “My Toot Toot” had won a Grammy, become a multiformat hit covered by dozens of artists, generated big revenue for the bumper sticker industry, and inspired my eight-year-old cousin to spend her summer vacation giving 50-cent back rubs to anyone who’d sit still for the entire song, Rockin’ Sidney had done for zydeco what Billy Ray Cyrus would do for country music seven years later—made lots of people sick of the genre as a whole.
But “My Toot Toot” turned out to be no more representative of zydeco than “Achy Breaky Heart” was of c&w. Sidney Simien himself, who’d spent most of his pre–”Toot Toot” career playing r&b, implied as much in an interview published shortly before his death last year. “I wanted to come up with something,” he said, “that the black people and the Cajun people could both relate to.”
Zydeco, with its pumping accordions, clattery sheet-metal rub boards, and increasingly funky rhythms, says it loud: it’s black and proud. Cajun music, on the other hand, with its barn-dance fiddles, keening vocals, French lyrics, and fondness for waltzes taken at Lawrence Welk tempos, is easily the Music Most Unlikely To Show Up on Showtime at the Apollo.
Reviewing Buckwheat Zydeco’s respectable Trouble (reissued this year on the Tomorrow label, www.buckwheatzydeco.com) in the August ’97 issue of the New Zealand magazine Real Groove, Kevin Byrt wrote that “most modern zydeco is only standard rhythm-and-blues played with accordion, performed by Cajun rock fans who…unlike the Irish don’t have the colorful stories and exciting rhythms to get away with driving old folk songs.” Better not talk that way in southwest Louisiana—for one thing, zydeco is definitely more forward-looking than Cajun music, and constantly on the lookout for an r&b fad to co-opt and parlay into the next “My Toot Toot.” Cajun musicians, by contrast, are preservationist, concerned not so much with hits as with keeping the culture of their Acadian forebears alive in the face of assimilation. (The most notable Cajun exception is Michael Doucet and BeauSoleil, jazzy experimentalists à la bluegrassers Bela Fleck and the Flecktones.)
When I moved to southwest Louisiana in 1987, the post–”Toot Toot” zydeco boom was under way. John Delafose had scored with the answer song “Ka-wann” (like “toot toot,” “ka-wann” numbers “poontang” among its several meanings), Buck wheat Zydeco had signed to Island and performed Dylan’s “On a Night Like This” on Letterman, Paul Simon had played and sung about zydeco on Graceland. The great Boozoo Chavis (whose feisty new album on Rounder, Who Stole My Monkey?, has become the first zydeco disc ever slapped with an explicit-lyrics sticker) had resumed performing after a quarter-century off. And the king, Clifton Chenier, still had a few months to live.
In the dozen years since, zydeco has become all things to all people. Both on disc and stage, there’s enough traditional, nouveau, double-clutchin’, and plain ol’ funky-butt zydeco to keep the cholesterol-enriched dance hall denizens of Bayou Country sweating themselves within an inch of a heart attack for years.
For the vintage roots crowd, there are Rhino’s two-disc Chenier anthology, Zydeco Dynamite, and Arhoolie’s one-disc Chenier anthology, Zydeco Sont Pas Sale. The Rhino set focuses on the blues, r&b, and
English-lyrics side of the hard-working Opelousas native’s 30-year career; the Arhoolie, on his Creole and French-lyrics sides. Arhoolie (www.arhoolie.com) also circulates I’m Never Comin’ Back, the almost–complete Depression-era recordings of Creole music’s answer to Robert Johnson, Amédé Ardoin. Both men recorded for Columbia, both recorded very little (Johnson 29 tracks, Ardoin 34), both introduced musical and verbal elements that have become the basis for popular modern styles, both were attractive to women, both were black, both met their doom at the hands of jealous menfolk, and both were buried in unmarked graves. Like Johnson, Ardoin is still more talked and written about than listened to.
Some newer zydeco stars, though, are more danced to than writ ten about. The immensely popular Keith Frank, 26, packs dance halls because of his energy and state-of-the-art sound system, but he tosses off his albums. His latest, On a Mission (Maison de Soul, www.floydsrecords.com), includes everything from Jagger-Richards and Keith Sweat to Musical Youth and Matthew Wilder, with results that recall Weird Al on a polka jag. (An accordion is an accordion is an accordion, of course.) It also boasts the ugliest album-cover art since Wendy O. Williams bit the bullet.
Check It Out, Lock It In, Crank It Up, on the other hand, the 1998 Rounder album by Frank’s chief rival, Beau Jocque (né Andrus Espre), boasts cover art showing a comic-book-hero Beau Jocque in jet-powered boots flying through the air to lay hands on the buttons of a metropolis-sized accordion. You can judge zydeco by its cover: since his 1995 Gonna Take You Downtown, Jocque and his Hi-Rollers band have perfected a superheroic woofer-whomping blend of Louisiana accordions and lubricious funk that Tina Weymouth once raved about in Rolling Stone and a friend of a friend of mine once described as the sound of two locomotives having sex.
Sometimes Beau Jocque’s motives do seem loco. His version of War’s “Low Rider” is only marginally preferable to Korn’s, his “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” almost as interminable as Guns N’ Roses’. Still, to hear him reconfigure “Cisco Kid,” “Keep a Knockin’, ” “Tighten Up,” “Tequila,” and “I’m a Girl Watcher” is to hear him leap tall Beach Music anthologies in a single bound and land in a party zone all his own.
Well, almost all. On his excellent ’98 Rounder record Turn the Page, teenage star (and Amédé Ardoin’s grandnephew) Chris Ardoin debuted “Fever for Your Flavor,” powered by psychedelic space electronics and grown-up red-clay soul vocals that welcome zydeco to the urban jungle, blackboard jungle, and rubyfruit jungle simultaneously. You can, it seems, take the accordion squeezer out of Crawfish Country after all.
Beau Jocque’s latest, by the way, is called Zydeco Giant (Mardi Gras, 1-800-895-0441)—appropriately enough, given that he’s over six-and-a-half feet tall and three feet wide with a full-throated bear growl where most zydeco artists have a voice. When I shook his paw at the beginning of an interview a few years back, I thought I’d never type right-handed again.
But where, you ask, are the women? Dancing to the men, mostly. Queen Ida is winding down at 69, and Ann Goodly, who in the late ’80s seemed poised to inherit Ida’s crown, is missing in action. That leaves two, both recording for Maison de Soul: bassist Donna Angelle and accordionist Rosie Ledet. Angelle may have the musical goods (cf. ’97’s Old Man Sweetheart), but Ledet has the sex appeal. Never one to pass up a squeezebox double entendre, she includes on her recent I’m a Woman a little something called “You Can Eat My Poussière.”
The lives and music of Chenier, Ledet, Jocque, Frank, Chenier, the Ardoins, and everyone else who’s anyone in zydeco have recently been chronicled in two books, Michael Tisserand’s The Kingdom of Zydeco (Arcade) and Ben Sandmel and Rick Olivier’s Zydeco! (University of Mississippi Press). The latter mainly showcases Olivier’s award-winning photos of musicians at rest, at play, and out standing in their fields; Sandmel’s text, while informative, is for novices only. (Bet you didn’t know that “rap is a major force within the music industry and an important expressive vehicle within the African-American community.”)
Tisserand’s book is the gold mine. The product of years of re search, interviews, and van, bus, and horse travel with zydecizers and their kin, Kingdom should do for the genre what Nick Tosches’s books have done for country and Peter Guralnik’s did for r&b and the blues—make the music seem like a mystery both worth solving and worth spending a bunch of money on.
And besides, come to think of it, what do New Zealanders know about “standard rhythm-and-blues” anyway?