When you hear Terrance Simien speak, with a slow, warm, musical cadence and a colorful South Louisiana accent, a smile is bound to creep across your face. Your heart might even skip a beat. It’s just the natural response the 47-year-old zydeco master, an eighth-generation Creole, elicits, whether he’s talking, singing (he has a three-octave range and his pipes have been compared to those of Sam Cooke and Aaron Neville), or playing one of the button accordions that fans have come to associate with him. Simien lives with his wife, Cynthia, in Lafayette, Louisiana, about 40 miles from the small community of Mallet in St. Landry Parish, where he was born. He’ll be performing with his band, The Zydeco Experience, at the Clearwater Festival on Sunday, June 16.
What is zydeco? I know you want to ‘shatter the myths’ about it.
What a lot of people don’t know about zydeco is the evolution—the music reflects the story of the Creoles. The music has evolved so much. The earliest form of Creole music, and the roots of zydeco, was jure, which was sung all in French with no instruments—just clapping your hands, stomping your feet.
You play the accordion, but it’s not a keyboard accordion. What’s the difference?
I play a button accordion—I have a single-row accordion, and a triple-row accordion by Hohner. The keyboard accordion is smoother; the button is choppier. The keyboard type is tuned in all keys; the button is tuned in certain keys. It’s basically a harmonica with buttons and a bellows to make the sound.
You’re Creole and your family has been in Louisiana for centuries, right?
The Simiens have been here since the 1700s. The Creoles have been here since the early 1700s; the first documented Creole landowner bought land in 1724. Under the French laws, people of color were protected by the law; they could own property and defend it in a court of law—or with a gun. That was the only place in the South where that was allowed, and we’re talkin’ back before our country was a country. It was a three-tier society: whites, free people of color, and slaves. Up until the Civil War, the most prosperous people were free people of color.
Many people think ‘Creole’ and ‘Cajun’ are the same. What’s the difference?
Creoles are the multi-cultural, multi-racial, French-speaking people of South Louisiana. Creole people are a mix of African, Spanish, French, Native American, and German…If you weren’t full-blooded French, you were a Creole. Cajuns are the Acadians—that’s where the word comes from—from the French-speaking parts of Canada. They started coming to Louisiana at least 50 years after the Creoles.
On your new album [Dockside Sessions, released in May], you sing a few songs in French. Is Creole French different than standard French?
It is different from Parisian French and Canadian French. Basically, it’s the French that was spoken in the 1700s. There’s also a little African, Spanish, and slang.
What is Creole for Kidz and the History of Zydeco?
It’s a multicultural ‘informance’ [informational performance], a history lesson that you can only get from the stage. We’ve been doing this for 12 years now—in schools, colleges, performing arts centers—and have reached over a million kids.
For tickets or more info about the Clearwater Festival, visit clearwaterfestival.org.