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Back in 1997, Lil' Brian Terry paid tribute to a particularly distinctive slice of the local scene in the song "H-Town Zydeco," the opening track on his groundbreaking CD Z-Funk (Rounder). While the hip-hop-influenced lyrics celebrate the vibrancy of Houston's burgeoning nouveau zydeco culture, they also include a reference that some listeners probably still don't get: "I'm talking about H-Town," Terry sings. "HTown get down / At the Crosby Fairgrounds / H-Town zydeco."
Those in the know, predominantly die-hard fans of the polyrhythmic accordion-based Creole music, easily get the reference. For the past six years the little eastern Harris County town of Crosby has established itself as home to one of the region's premier zydeco festivals. This annual event (replete with all manner of on-site vendors, gumbo cook-offs and a dance contest) provides a major showcase for the finest zydeco talent from the Gulf Coast cradle of East Texas and southwest Louisiana.
"Man, I tell you, we started small in Crosby, but it's just gotten huge," says event founder Stephen Delasbour. "We take a rodeo arena and convert it to a concert theater. The normal arena capacity is approximately 10,000, but we reconfigure the place, enlarge it so the grounds hold nearly 20,000."
Noting that this year's gathering has been expanded to encompass three days of performance, Delasbour proudly claims to offer "11 of the hottest zydeco bands in the world." And while one might expect such hyperbole from a festival promoter, a quick scan of the lineup at least partially validates the claim.
The lineup also provides a quick education to anyone who still thinks zydeco is the exclusive province of old Creole men. While Rosie Ledet remains one of the few prominent female bandleaders of note, other women -- and even a few white male -- bandleaders are starting to emerge. What's more, the face of first-rate zydeco is getting younger. With a few exceptions (such as the indefatigable soon-to-be-septuagenarian Boozoo Chavis), old-timers are being supplanted by a new generation of players, many still in their twenties or thirties and many possessing a postmodern sensibility that speaks to mainstream urban audiences.
As Delasbour is quick to point out, his festival draws fans of all ages. But the event's rapid growth through the late '90s corresponds directly with the emergence of youth-culture-friendly zydeco acts with names such as the New Breeds, the Outlaws, the Floaters and the Bad Boys. Part of Delasbour's success undoubtedly comes from his willingness to accommodate this younger crowd, people who most commonly experience zydeco as a mediated art form (as opposed to their ancestors, who mainly absorbed it as live acoustic music at barnyard dances and house parties).
Among the anticipated highlights will be the first major home-turf performance by Lil' Brian Terry and the Zydeco Travelers since the release of their latest CD, Funky Nation (Tomorrow Recordings). Co-produced by Stanley Dural Jr. (better known as Buckwheat Zydeco, the point man in the music's international breakthrough in the '80s), the disc features 12 original tracks composed by the bandleader and his brother Patrick Terry (a.k.a. Heavy P), who also plays guitar and sings background vocals in the band.
The title track repeatedly references "B.S.T.," which is shorthand for Barrett Station, Texas, a small, historically African-American community in the eastern part of Harris County near Crosby (and the family home of the Terry brothers). Never heard of the place? Well, get hip quick. While electric guitar, bass and drums dig a groove as deep as the nearby Trinity River, the 27-year-old front man works his accordion into a vibrating frenzy. "Nationwide is where we're takin' our sound / And B.S.T. is where we're puttin' it down," Terry raps. Each chorus concludes with the emphatic couplet, "We from Barrett Station / It's a funky nation."
Says festival head Delasbour: "That is the best zydeco CD I've heard in a long time. And our show will be its coming-out party."
The emergence of women bandleaders is also a noteworthy development this year. "For the first time we've got some great female accordion players at our festival," Delasbour says. In addition to Dora & the Zydeco Bad Boys, the lineup includes the Zydeco Boneshakers, the Lake Charles, Louisiana-based band that features not one, but two female players, Ann Goodly and Samantha Pocarello.
And if gender breakthroughs alone aren't enough to signal a new age, there's also the issue of race. "Wayne Toups is bringing something totally new to Crosby," Delasbour says, in a bit of understatement. Although casual observers often confuse white Cajun and black Creole culture (and erroneously interchange the two labels, as if they were synonyms), anyone who has spent quality time in a southwest Louisiana town such as Eunice, Opelousas or Mamou can attest that the two ethnically distinct groups remain largely segregated (often, but not always, by mutual choice). So it's a bit of a coup that Toups, who proudly identifies himself as "full-blooded coon-ass" (read: white Cajun), headlines Sunday's program.
But then again, Toups is not your traditional Cajun musician. In fact, he long ago coined a term to describe his unique hybrid sound: "zydecajun."