Terrance Simien brings delicious recipe of music, culture and energy to Fort Smith

interview by Peter Lewis

Terrance Simien is a Grammy-winning musician and 8th generation Louisiana Creole who has exposed millions of Americans to his unique version of Zydeco music.

At the lead with his Zydeco Experience Band, Simien is officially recognized as a “Cultural Ambassador” for Louisiana and has traveled to more than 40 countries in his 25-year music career. Those travels included a 2005 trip to Cuba as part of a U.S. State Department program, making him the first Zydeco musician to play there.

Simien’s Zydeco experience begins at 7:30 p.m., Feb. 11 at the Fort Smith Event Center (12 N. 11th St.). Doors open at 6:30. Tickets can be purchased for $45 at the door. Student tickets are available for $25 for students under 21 with valid ID.

Simien's appearance in Fort Smith is a part of the Second Street Live Concert series.

Second Street Live is a non-profit performing arts organization. While the venue at 101 N. Second St. awaits completion, the organization uses the Event Center space for its monthly concert series. The new theater is scheduled to open in the fall of 2009 and will seat between 250-270.

Peter Lewis recently talked to Simien about the past, present and future of his music and career.

What does zydeco mean to you?
TS: Well, zydeco is the music of my people, the Creoles. The Creoles have been in Louisiana for over 300 years. It's been a part of my life all of my life. I grew up hearing this music at church functions, I grew up hearing it at festivals. I grew up hearing people playing it at home on their porches. It's known world wide. We have zydeco bands in Australia, in China, zydeco bands all over Europe.

You and your wife lobbied  for many years to establish a “Best Zydeco or Cajun Music Album” voting category for the Grammy's. You're efforts were recently successful. Was that a trying experience?
TS: It was unbelievable. It was the perfect end to a story of hard work and determination. We didn't really expect the category to happen as soon as it did. Seven years for some people might seem like a long time but there have been people lobbying for a category for 10, 15, 20 years and they still don't have it... Then, to end up with an album out that year, to get nominated and to win was just unbelievable. I take my Grammy everywhere I go. People like to take pictures with it, people like to hold it, they like to touch it. And everywhere you see me, you'll see my Grammy.

If you take a look at your career, does that event (winning the Grammy) stick out in your head the most or is there another accomplishment of which you are particularly proud?
TS: You know what, I'm just happy to be playing music at this point. When I started playing music I never thought it could be a full time job. I started in 1981 and in 1985 it became a full time job. You know it's been good ever since. There's been a lot of ups and downs, more ups than downs ... but you know winning the Grammy, that has to be the highest point in my career.

So when you started out you really had no expectations for what your career as such would look like, or even if you'd be able make it a career then?
TS: You know I just loved the music when I started out. I loved it and I wanted to play it. I didn't expect it to end up a full time job. I just wanted to be able to play on the weekends if I could and do a regular job. I started my band when I was a junior in high school and my plan when I got out was, hey, if I could play music on the weekends and follow in my daddy's footsteps and be a bricklayer, I would be content with that. But it ended up being something else and thank god for it.

Did your dad play music as well, did he have an influence on you?
TS: My daddy never played music but he always encouraged me. He was proud of the fact that I was carrying on the tradition. He did everything he could to help me out. And he would sing around the house a lot but never anything in public.

I know the music is very connected to you culturally, I'd like to talk about that a bit if we could. Could you tell me about your visits to the elementary schools here in town? Is it a part of the Creole for Kidz program?
TS: That's right. Creole for Kidz and the history of Zydeco program. We are looking forward to that. The kids, they are the future. They need to catch on. It's a fun time ... We set up the whole band. I'll talk to the kids and give them a little history about Louisiana,  the culture and the music. And I'll play some songs from different areas and talk about how the music evolved.

The first man to record Zydeco music was a man named Amédé Ardoin. He sung all in French and recorded back in the 1920s and 30s. So, I'll do one of his songs and then I'll do a Clifton Chenier song. He was the king of zydeco, the man who revolutionized the music. One of the first to have a full band, and one of the first to incorporate blues, jazz, and rock 'n' roll style into his songs. I'll explain to them how we celebrate Mardi Gras, and do a Mardi Gras song. Then we'll do a song in a the oldest form of Creole music ... before the instruments were added to the music, just clapping hands and stomping feet. We'll do a little song and then talk about the food we have, our creole food. Just things like that. We have a flag, a Creole flag. We'll explain the four parts to the flag. The Creole's are a multiracial French speaking people and we'll try to explain how all this came together to form something new and unique, and it happened here in America.

You mentioned singing a song in French. I'm curious, is French or a derivative still spoken a lot in that area of southern Louisiana?
TS: Oh yeah, quite a few people. We have programs called French immersion. Where kids, if they want to, can take all their subjects in French. There are a lot of kids who really get into it ... the whole cultural thing because it's not being shunned anymore. When I was going to school, they wanted us to speak good English. And I can understand that. But if a kid showed up speaking French, then they didn't want them there. Now it's totally different.

You are also involved in a program called music matters. That's a separate entity from the Creole for Kidz program, right?
TS: That's right. What we try to do is help musicians that are coming up in the industry. Try to steer them in the right direction, keep them from signing bad contracts,help them about the road, mentor them in anyway we can. If they need help recording, then we try to get them help recording. Hook them up with entertainment lawyers,  just mentoring any way we can.

You are very active in these different outreach programs, do you ever worry about this activism overshadowing your role as a musician? Does that make sense?
TS: Yeah, that makes sense but it's not going to happen. I always take time to make music. I always try to organize my schedule in such a way that nothing gets neglected.  You know we go on the road for five weeks at a time and then all I can think about is the music. We all get together and write songs ... it's not a whole lot, it's easy to keep it all together.

Do you ever find it constricting trying to stay true to the heritage of the Creole music?
TS: Not at all. Not at all. The most traditional thing about this music is that the artists making the music were always allowed to make it in their own style. You can see how it evolved over the years ... and it never would have evolved if it just stayed the same.  Otherwise we probably wouldn't be having this conversation right now.  A lot of things wouldn't have happened if Amédé Ardoin hadn't done what he did, nothing would have came after ... Everything would have died. My definition of staying true to tradition is to be an artist, and to create like all the ones that came before me did to help bring the music a step further. And hopefully in that crowd set you might get some younger kids interested in it, because we are only here for a short time. After that it's on them. You have to keep a foot in the roots. I'm part of the root. My family has been here since 1738, so you have to keep that happening. But at the same time you also have to move it forward. And it's not hard to do. Because we all as musicians are playing traditional stuff. The majority of Zydeco musicians grew up playing traditional stuff and then graduate from that into their own stuff, their own style.

Are you working on an album?
TS: Right now I've got three different projects. I'm working on another kid CD. Because we did a song in this movie for Disney. I worked with Randy Newman on it. There's going to be a character kind of in my image playing a zydeco song. I'm finishing my second kid's CD, that's going to be out around Christmas of next year. I'm also working on another regular studio CD. I also have a Christmas CD I'm trying to finish that I might have to wait until next year to release that one.

I know you've played with a lot of people. I guess it was Paul Simon you worked with it in the early to mid 80s, is there somebody that sticks out in your head that you've enjoyed working with the most?
TS: Paul Simon, Robert Palmer ... I did a tour with Palmer back in 93 and he was a cool guy. Also, meeting Stevie Wonder ... Stevie sat in with us one night at one of Bill Clinton's balls at the second inauguration.  He was in the audience that night and sat in with us one a song. That was something else. You know, working with Taj Mahal was unbelievable. We did some shows together on a cruise ship just last week. He's one of my all-time heroes. That was insane. You just think, “wow how did this ever happen?”  It's just surreal. It's cool

Especially when you only wanted to work weekends and be a bricklayer during the week...
TS: That's it man! That's it!

How often do you guys tour during a year? Do you spend the majority of your time on the road?
TS: Yeah, the majority of our work is on the road. We'll do a 100 to 120 gigs a year.  That's an even half on the road and half at home. That's about enough for me. If I had to do more, I'd do more you know but I'd like to keep it like that.

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So I guess you're always happy to get home after a tour?
TS: Yeah, yeah ... My wife and I have been married now for 18 years, and have an 18 year old daughter.  The older I get the more I miss her when I leave. It's always good to get home but it's not good to stay home too long.

Can you talk a little bit about how that area has changed since Katrina?
TS: It's starting to come back together. For awhile there I was pretty worried because things seemed to be moving in slow motion. It seemed like it would never get to a point of normalcy. It's starting to come back now. It's going to get itself back.

Were you in Louisiana when Katrina hit or were you on the road?
TS: No, we were in Brazil. In Sao Paulo, Brazil playing in a club called the Bourbon Street Cafe. We watched it all go down on TV.

Was that a pretty surreal experience?
TS: Oh, it was unbelievable. Before we went to bed that night they said it was over with.  So we went to the bar and everyone was so happy, thank god because we were so worried. Everybody was real happy about everything, then on the TV the next morning all you see is water. People were crying and don't know how to get in touch with their people. Don't know if they're okay or not. It was very intense for awhile. And we all flew out of New Orleans so we had to be rerouted, so that took us a couple days. That was something else. That's something I'll never forget.

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