H-Town Zydeco

Dr. Roger Wood and James Fraher serve up another heaping helping of Houston music lore

These bands don't just act like rappers. They also dress like them and comport themselves on stage with gangsta swagger. Some of the younger bands are not above cussing out and dissing the competition.

There's not just latter-day rap in the radical zydeco blender -- there's also pop. I have in my collection a Step Rideau instrumental called "Dry Bayou Drive" that is a take on Phil Collins's "That's All" with an acoustic guitar solo, and then there's J. Paul's "What About How I Feel?" which quite simply has to be heard to be believed. Who could ever have guessed that a zydeco rendition of Wham's "Careless Whisper" would work so well? "That to me is part of the magic of zydeco, whether you come at it from the blues perspective or a pop perspective," says Wood. "You hear something and it sounds familiar and yet exotic."

Texas Zydeco also delves into the reaction to these trends. Some in the younger generation are embracing zydeco's past -- much as country singers like Dwight Yoakam and Steve Earle invigorated country music in the '80s with their old-timey sounds, there's now a neotraditionalist zydeco movement that's embracing the old waltzes, the blues element, and even in some cases the Creole French language that has all but disappeared. Brian Jack, Robert "Ra-Ra" Carter and rising Sugar Land-bred superstar Corey "Lil' Pop" Ledet are all either playing old-school zydeco or learning to speak and sing in Creole or both. And then there's Cedric Watson, a 23-year-old Creole fiddler from San Felipe, out near Sealy. Watson's music harks all the way back to the pre-zydeco days of musicians like AmŽdŽ Ardoin and Canray Fontenot.

Watson's is a beautiful, heart-tugging story, wonderfully told by Wood, but too long to relate in this space. Throughout the book, Wood's writing takes on the verve of the zydeco world, as do the pictures shot by his longtime collaborator James Fraher. The Chicagoan's shots by and large have a less formal feel than those from Down in Houston. Wood says that Fraher was in a portraiture phase when he met him, but that Fraher widened his scope as they worked together on Down in Houston and maintained that vision throughout Texas Zydeco.

"By the time we started this project, he had a well-honed eye for portraits, but also a sense of 'Let's get the place,'" Wood says. "Like Down in Houston, this book is as much about place as it is people, and if you'll look in the book there's a portrait of just a swamp, and there's another taken from the top of the San Jacinto Monument that's a portrait of the Houston Ship Channel. The photos are not just portraits anymore -- they are portraits of people in place. There is so much information in his photos -- it's beyond just his composition of his lighting or whatever. A great photographer always makes a writer look good -- there are people who will open up these books and say they are great and probably haven't read a word of my writing."

All in all, both the pictures and the words in Texas Zydeco go a long way toward convincing me that if you had to pick one style of music to define what Houston sounds like, it might be zydeco. Sure, hip-hop might be more popular, but only the chopped and screwed stuff was invented here, and it is both an acquired taste and a branch off a tree that was planted elsewhere.

Zydeco has got just about everything else in it: blues, a little country and today, a lot of rap, soul, funk and pop. It unites young and old, black and white and every shade in between. You can hear it everywhere from restaurants like Pappadeaux and Jax Grill to little fairgrounds in the suburbs to parish halls all over town to gritty dives in the Fifth Ward. As Wood relates in the book, the word "zydeco" was invented here by local Creoles to distinguish it from the older music from back home, and it was local folklorist Mack McCormick who codified its spelling.

It sounds like home. It was invented here, it is ours, and it is us. Wood and Fraher have documented the proof. The Texas Zydeco Book Signing Party and All Star Jam is Sunday, September 24, noon to 6 p.m. (music starts at 2 p.m.), at Sig's Lagoon and the Continental Club, 3700 Main. The Zydeco Dots and many special guests will perform. Sneak preview book signing on Saturday, September 23, from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. For more information, call 713-533-9525.

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