American Routes Shortcuts: Terrance Simien

Jan 13, 2017

Terrance Simien
Credit American Routes

Each week, American Routes brings you Shortcuts, a sneak peek at the upcoming episode. Zydeco Accordionist and Creole culture advocate Terrance Simien has been a world traveler with his south la music. Terrance Simien brought country zydeco to the public with the popular urban New Orleans film, the big easy in the late 1980s. 20 years later, Terrance’s advocacy was responsible for the creation of the Grammy award category, for best zydeco or Cajun album. And he won the Grammy that year, for this recording: Terrance Simien and the Zydeco Experience, Live Worldwide.
None of these promotions would’ve been possible without Terrance’s youth and family life in the small Creole community of Mallet, LA.

TS: Well, growing up in Mallet was real simple. I mean, we had - it was all about family, it was about church, it was about music, it was about food, and it was about having as much fun as you could between all of that.

When I started going out to the dances as a teenager, I started really checking out the accordion and thinking, yeah I think I might be able to do that, you know? And listening to the melodies and stuff, and just looking at the bellow, you know, the in and out, the buttons, you know? And it just made me want to play, so my dad bought me one and I taught myself how to play it.

NS: What is it that made you stick with that accordion, which in the big world of America at the time wasn’t exactly considered the instrument to go out and make a success on?

TS: Well, it’s something that I really became passionate about you know? I really felt the pride of the history of the music, you know? And I was in the minority at the time. There weren’t too many kids my age wanting to play.

NS: I suppose a lot of people got to know about you when the film, The Big Easy came out, and you did at least one kind of traditional Zydeco number there on stage.

TS: I had just started my band in ’81, so I was just playing like for four years, and you know I get this call from these guys who was doing the movie. And they did the audition in New Orleans and usually during an audition, you play one of two songs but they had us keep on playing. And we played for probably, I would say almost two hours.

TS: “Oh Yeh Yal” was a song that I wrote that had that classic groove to it. And it was a scene where people were dancing- they wanted to create that kind of feel, you know, that was authentic. And that song was the one that fit.

NS: Terrance, you of course also became known as a person who received a Grammy, and it went to a recording called “Live Worldwide,” which you really emphasize your breadth of your relationship to other kinds of music in the world.

TS: Well, I you know, I kinda take the same approach that Clifton Chenier took. Clifton Chenier fused this music with so many different things. And he fused the blues, the jazz, the early rock and roll, into the music and made it his own. And that’s the way I feel about my approach to what I do. It’s a fusion of a lot of things.

NS: On Zydeco Boogaloo, it almost sounds like you’ve got a couple of Michael Jackson riffs in there.

TS: Yeah, we do, we do. You know, we used a little Michael Jackson thing in there, in honor of the King of Pop. If you look at the history of Creole music, from the Jouer to Amédé, to Clifton, to where it is today, it’s always been like that. I always tell people the most traditional thing about our music is that it evolves. That it stays connected with today, but it also stays connected with yesterday.