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."
"Zydecajun is a form of music that I like to think that I created, back in the early '80s," Toups says by telephone from his Lake Charles home. "It involves a Cajun musician with an Allman Brothers attitude, mainly a guy that can really sing like a rhythm and blues singer. We mix it all up in a big gumbo and call it zydecajun because it also has a Creole zydeco feel to it, you know, the funky rhythms. It's a musical fusion of a whole bunch of different styles."
As this year's release, Best of Wayne Toups (New Blues Records), consistently demonstrates, Toups's forte is not so much the accordion as the vocals. On songs such as "That's What I Love About My Baby" and "Take My Hand," his earthy, emotive crooning evokes the best qualities of blue-eyed soul. Though he has not written much himself, Toups is a real-deal song stylist who can transform a wide variety of source material into tasteful swamp pop.
"Basically, I like to do songs that have great stories and good hook lines," he says. And because of his focus on lyrical content, Toups tends to deliver more sophisticated poetry than the standard Cajun or zydeco number offers. For instance, he has impressively covered tunes by established songwriters such as Carole King, Gerry Goffin ("Standing in the Rain") and John Hiatt ("Stand Still").
This isn't to say the man can't get down with the accordion. In fact, Toups recently completed studio time for a new CD titled Little Wooden Box (forthcoming on Shanachie Records). As indicated by the title track, Toups shuns the larger piano-key accordion and concentrates all his efforts on its less technically complex forerunner. "I play the squeeze box only," he says. "I've got my hands full with that son of a bitch. I only have seven notes and ten buttons, so I've got to make do with what I've got."
And somehow he does, compensating for any limitations he might confront as an accordionist with an abundance of energy and that righteous voice. "We're not your typical laid-back Cajun-style group," Toups says with a laugh. "My band is not for the weakhearted. That's for damn sure, man."
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Given the prevalence of younger zydeco bands and fans at the Crosby festival, Toups surely need not worry about the crowd's ability to keep up the pace. For example, Saturday headliner Keith Frank is regionally famous for playing lengthy, nonstop sets of hard-driving, accordion-fueled "dance trance" music. This intensely popular 25-year-old bandleader also performs a repertoire that is both traditionalist and progressive.
On one hand, Frank (unlike Toups, Terry and many others) still sings some numbers in French dialect, songs such as "Donne-mon Ça" ("Give It to Me") and "Ça Joué Ma Musique, De Tuer les Herbes" ("When I Play My Music, I Want You to Kill the Grass," a nod to the dancing that occurs during an outdoor performance). On the other hand, he can lay down a hip-hopping track like "What's His Name," which clearly owes a large debt to Snoop Dogg. He has even crafted a zydeco tune out of "Movin' On Up," the theme song to the '70s-era TV show The Jeffersons.
Come to think of it, maybe Frank's weird blend of the old and the new accurately epitomizes zydeco culture. After all, it has always been about mixing disparate elements to create something unique. As this year's festival should prove once again, whatever zydeco is, it's still evolving.
The Original Zydeco Jamm Festival 2000 takes place at the Crosby Fairgrounds, 14920 FM 2100, on the weekend of March 17-19. Showtime for Friday, March 17, is 7 p.m. Featured acts are Nooney & the Zydeco Floaters and JoJo Reed. Showtime for Saturday, March 18, is 1 p.m. Featured acts are Keith Frank & the Soileau Zydeco Band, Step Rideau & the Zydeco Outlaws, Lil' Brian Terry and the Zydeco Travelers, Bryan Jack & the Zydeco Gamblers, Dora & the Zydeco Bad Boys and Nooney & the Zydeco Floaters. Showtime for Sunday, March 19, is 2:30 p.m. Featured acts are Wayne Toups, J. Paul Jr. & the Zydeco New Breeds, Chris Ardoin & Double Clutchin', and the Zydeco Bone Shakers. Three-day tickets are $33. Single-day tickets are available at the gate and at Fiesta stores. For more information, call (281)471-5060.