9th Ward Ramblers
Juan Christian Küffner correctly calls his band Zydepunks' moniker a "misnomer." For catchiness' sake, or economy's, the New Orleans-based five-piece's name
only squeezes in two of the more than half-dozen different strains of folk music that routinely intersect and overlap in its songs.
Zydeco and punk rock are well represented, of course, but so are Cajun, Irish, Slavic, German, Jewish, Latin and even classical music, resulting in a high-speed collision of ethnic traditions that manifests itself in song titles like "Boudreaux Crosses the Danube" and "A Fistful of Oysters." It's an idea that sounds like it was hatched in some graduate-school musicology lab, but Küffner says the group's origins are much more down to Earth.
"I just liked the music," says the former street musician, who plays accordion and fiddle and sings. "I think it's something a lot of people do. If you listen to bands from Europe especially, but also from South America, there's been that tendency to combine new music forms with traditional forms for a long time. For every folk culture or language you can think of, there's probably some kind of combination out there — I think it's just an extension of that."
Now consisting of Küffner, violinist Denise Bonis, drummer Joe Lilly, bassist Scott Potts — the only native New Orleanian in the group — and single-named accordionist Eve, Zydepunks grew out of another "Cajun punk" project of Küffner and Lilly's around 2004. The band released its debut, 9th Ward Ramblers, that year; three more albums have followed, most recently 2008's Finisterre.
The front man, who speaks four languages and calls himself an "over-self-educated" amateur historian and voracious reader, divides music into "listening music" and "dance music." Like other groups that season traditional folk music with 100-proof punk (The Pogues, Gogol Bordello), Zydepunks fall squarely into the latter category.
"I think the stuff you take from traditional folk music is often traditionally dance music, and it tends to be pretty driven," Küffner says. "And some of the beats and rhythms can be similar, and some of the arrangements or forms of the songs can be similar across really different genres."
Beyond that, Küffner adds, Zydepunks' source material shares many common lyrical themes. Or perhaps one big one.
"They all tend to be more about real life, and that's certainly true for all of the folk genres," he says. "Real people doing real things. Some of it can be pretty heart-wrenching."
Finisterre opens at breakneck speed with Zydepunks' updating of the traditional Jewish song "Papirossen In Gan Eden," and reels through rambling Pogues-like narratives "Angel Whiskey" and "Blood Song," Spanish chanteys "Por la Orilla del Mar" and "Cuando Creceran las Flores" and hot-blooded rockers "One More Chance" and "Long Story Short." The album is laden with images of ships, sailing and the sea.
"We live so close to the water here," notes Küffner, "I think it's just inevitable."
The tempos rarely let up even when the subject matter turns dark, as it does on "Song for Mike," which Küffner wrote about a friend who was murdered in 2006, and "Dear Molly," which grew out of the band's forced relocation to North Carolina in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. "Molly" is an anomaly on Finisterre in two ways: It's a slow ballad, and one of the few songs written after the storm.
Küffner says Katrina cleft Zydepunks in two, with some members before the hurricane hit never returning to New Orleans, and that it took a good two years for the band to completely regroup. On the other hand, he admits, "there weren't many other bands here when we started playing again, so we instantly had a lot of room to become popular."
Besides drawing accolades along the lines of "one of New Orleans' most rousing live performers" from the local media (Offbeat weekly, specifically), the band has played both of New Orleans's major music festivals, the Jazz & Heritage Festival and French Quarter Festival. In the polyglot musical culture of their hometown, they've never had any difficulty moving back and forth between the city's alternative and roots-music scenes, but Küffner has noticed a change in the group's audience over time.
"We had a much rougher crowd when we first started, and we played a lot of punk shows, and I think it's almost flipped now," he says. "I think a lot of the punk kids have gotten a little bit bored with us because they've seen us often enough. Some of them still come out, but it's not what it used to be, and we've attracted more of a genteel crowd since then."
When Zydepunks go on the road, though, Küffner says invitations to world-music festivals far outnumber those to similar alternative events. Thus, the group usually winds up as one of the loudest and hardest-rocking bands on the bill, which holds true for their first appearance at the Houston International Festival.
Of all the artists spread out over iFest's multiple stages this weekend, perhaps only Houston's Los Skarnales — with whom Zydepunks have played several shows, both here and New Orleans — and Sideshow Tramps can match their speed, volume and intensity.
"I think that works well," Küffner says. "It does add to the variety. Festivals are pretty loud anyway, so because it's outdoors it doesn't make too much of a difference sometimes in terms of the volume, but [in the past] I've generally found that both organizers and the fans have responded very positively to the change in sound and dynamics."
In the past year, Zydepunks have eased up on the gas pedal — at least offstage. The band took a break after Küffner and his wife had a baby about nine months ago, and has been gradually preparing to record another album. With busy careers outside the band — violinist Bonise plays in a New Orleans-area symphony, and bassist Potts teaches community college and runs his own recording studio — Küffner says Zydepunks are more than happy to pass on the punk-rock road-dog lifestyle.
"We try to do maybe three tours a year that aren't particularly long," he says. "If I was 18, I could do it, but we're significantly older than that. But I like the way we do it. It gives us a lot more free time."
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