Zydeco's Terrance Simien honors his musical forebears via 'Ancestral Grooves'
Like everyone else, twice Grammy-winning Zydeco artist Terrance Simien has been sidelined during the COVID-19 shutdown.
But Lafayette, La.-based Simien used his “off” time wisely: He completed another ambitious album production--Ancestral Grooves—which fits in snugly with previous releases like The Tribute Sessions (2001), which honored the history and culture of the music that inspired him, Creole for Kidz, and the The History of Zydeco (2002)--an offshoot of his international educational program of the same name.
Those albums were recorded with Simien’s band the Zydeco Experience. Ancestral Grooves is credited to Simien and his Krewe De Monifique (Magnificent Krewe) super group featuring brass band trumpet player James Andrews and Zydeco accordion ace Keith Frank, along with the likes of Dirty Dozen Brass Band saxophonist Roger Lewis, former longtime Bob Dylan band drummer and producer of Simien’s Grammy-winning 2014 album Dockside Sessions George Receli, and Simien’s daughter (and “swamp soul” recording artist in her own right) Marcella Simien.
“This record is for the ancestors, as well as for the people today who are listening to them,” says Simien, “because we can’t remind people enough how important their contributions were—and will always be. And that their sacrifices will always be important to be retold and celebrated, because we wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for them.”
A unique blend of the roots music created by the region’s early African-American and French-speaking Louisiana Creole inhabitants, Ancestral Grooves celebrates the history and music heritage of rural South Louisiana and New Orleans in bringing together the neighboring Zydeco and brass band traditions. Available on all digital platforms and at Simien’s website, the project commenced in January, 2019, as a collaboration between Simien, an eighth generation Louisiana Creole who has long explored and expanded the Zydeco genre, and Frank.
“We’ve admired each other’s music for many years—and are friends,” says Simien. “We started throwing ideas around about songs and the direction, and Keith suggested one song, ‘Bon Ton Roula,’ and I went back and listened to it and became even more intrigued.”
The song was originally a major 1950 R&B hit for Cajun/Zydeco-styled Clarence Garlow, who wrote it and likewise hailed from Southwest Louisiana.
“It was probably the first record that the Creole community made that big,” notes Simien. “He was talking about Zydeco, Creole and the la la [rural dance music]--all stuff that related to us and our culture. He gave the world a window to see what Louisiana culture is all about before Hank Williams’ ‘Jambalaya,’ which people like to credit as one of the first songs about it, but ‘Bon Ton Roula’ was the actual first, and people today still have trouble saying the phrase correctly--but they all know it, and that it means, ‘Let the good times roll.’”
Simien recalls meeting Garlow “at a French la la/Zydeco dance” in Beaumont, Texas, where Garlow had moved as a child with his family.
“He and my dad were speaking French to each other, and my daddy was so excited to introduce me to this man who was an icon and a legend, and I’ll never forget it as long as I live—probably almost 40 years ago.”
As for the rest of the Ancestral Grooves project, “it pivoted in April, 2019, during [New Orleans] Jazz Fest.”
“We did a gala and James Andrews was on the bill,” recalls Simien. Raised in New Orleans’ historic Tremé neighborhood and known as “Satchmo of the Ghetto” (also the title of his 1998 album produced by Allen Toussaint and featuring Dr. John), Andrews is Trombone Shorty’s older brother and mentor, and has played with brass bands including the Tremé Brass Band, Junior Olympia Brass Band, New Birth Brass Band and his own James Andrews & the Crescent City Allstars.
“You know how musicians are when they get together,” Simien continues. “We hugged each other and started talking and he said, ‘Man, we need to do a record together!’ And I said, ‘Yeah. That’s a good idea,’ and from that came the idea to fuse Zydeco and brass bands.”
The project had to be put on hold until last year when Simien’s father and sister died a month apart that fall.
“Then we got back to working, and in February, we went into Dockside Studios and laid down some tracks one month before the COVID--and then everything changed.”
All of the 23 artists comprising Krewe De Monifique (also including Andrews’ cousins and nephews and Frank’s siblings, and totaling 21 people of color and seven multiple-Grammy winners) had been very busy with their own projects that were likewise stalled. Yet the project was finally completed in mid-summer after additional production at studios in New Orleans, Memphis, Chicago, Atlanta, and Drasco, Arkansas—in addition to Dockside, in Maurice, La.
“There’s Keith Frank, of course--the boss of Zydeco,” says Simien. “He’s made his living in the Creole community as a great musician and songwriter--and legend performer. And James Andrews—Satchmo of the Ghetto—who taught his brother Trombone Shorty how to play. He’s the real deal, from the Tremé neighborhood, which is the oldest Creole community in New Orleans.”
From left, Ian Blumenstein, Terrance Simien, Keith Frank and Ancestral Grooves co-producer Dustin Cravins
“My daughter Marcella’s singing on many songs. There’s the great Roger Lewis, who played with Fats Domino and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. George Receli—my brother—who played with Bob Dylan and Loup Garou, and my core band. They all brought their magic.”
Simien notes that he’s been touring with horns in his band over the last five years, so Ancestral Grooves’ Zydeco/brass band concept came naturally.
“We collaborated with everybody pretty much in choosing the material,” he says. “We wanted James to do at least three songs with the brass band on his material.”
Simien also figured that “Bon Ton Roula/Let the Good Times Roll” was a perfect song for Marcella to sing.
“Keith’s playing accordion and I’m singing background vocals, and a little intro at the beginning in French,” he says, also singling out “Tomber Amour Encore/Fell In Love Again” (co-written with longtime Zydeco Experience keyboardist Danny Williams), for “really fusing Zydeco and brass band together.”
And he cites the closing memorial “Tribute to Art, Allen and Mac”—Art Neville, Allen Toussaint and Mac Rebbenack—which features Marcella singing a medley of “All These Things,” “Southern Nights” and “Such a Night.”
“I and James had a friendship with all three, and they’re a big part of why music from Louisiana is popular and important—and they’re giants who influenced not just us but many others.”
And, of course, they’re ancestors—if more recent than the deep roots of Ancestral Grooves. The album’s cover art goes all the way back: A vintage photo entitled The Only Original University Singers of New Orleans, circa 1877-1897.
“We made this record for our ancestors, and also for ourselves,”says Simien. “It was a great opportunity for us to come together and do something that was fun and that we could all feel proud of, but mainly it was for our ancestors—to educate and make people understand that they struggled in unimaginable ways with racism, with hate, with the things we can’t even imagine and that’s so painful for them to even talk about.”
But, he adds, “they still brought the music forward.”
“They had a mission: to make things better for the next generation. That’s always been what our people in the Creole community have done—whether it was music or whatever. It’s to make things better for the next generation. We have that mission, too.”
Bringing that mission up to the present, Simien says, “being that the times are the way they are today--with the pandemic and the struggle for racial equality--it reminds me of the Civil Rights Movement back in the 1960s. So we felt even more obligated to do this record to remind people--and to remain mindful ourselves--that if it weren’t for the sacrifices made by our ancestors, we wouldn’t be here today.”
Ancestral Grooves, then, “shows the unity in the Creole community between the city musicians and the country musicians—so it’s another statement, just like all my records. I’m hoping people like the music, but also learn a little bit about the history of the artists that we featured songs from.”
Simien concludes: “Long live the ancestor grooves!”