The washboard is flicking a quick carrying beat that shakes through you and pulls you to your feet — the accordion is rocking warm, and a low voice coasts over it, laughing. Terrance Simien, the internationally acclaimed two-time Grammy-winning musician, and his band are playing Zydeco, folk music of Southern Louisiana.
It is a music that comes from many voices, he says — the Native peoples of the Gulf, a flicker of Irish reels or Spanish guitar — and through them all, it holds a pulse from Africa.
And he will come to Mass MoCA for a night of music, storytelling and joy on the eve of Juneteenth, to celebrate the holiday of emancipation, to lift people and give hope. He is planning a night of Louisiana music, he said by phone from home, weaving in traditions from New Orleans and the islands and more.
“We have a lot in common,” he said, “in the music, in the food and in the culture too —. people used to call Southern Louisiana the northern rim of the Caribbean.”
“… Creoles are the Black and multiracial French-speaking people of Southern Louisiana. We know our country is diverse, not just where we come from but everywhere. It makes us unique.”
He feels it all the more powerful to perform on this night. Juneteenth celebrates freedom. On June 19, 1865, the Union Army reached Texas, the last U.S. state to enforce slavery at the end of the Civil War — as a holiday, Juneteenth honors people who have lived enslaved, on a day when they became free.
Communal celebrations have honored the day for many years, and President Biden recognized it as a national holiday in June 2021.
“Not too many people know about that holiday,” Simien said, “and I want to explain what it is. In the 1980s, we used to play Juneteenth in Houston with (Texas blues guitarist and Blues Hall of Famer) John Clyde Copeland, and I’m from Southern Louisiana, and I didn’t know what Juneteenth was.
“It’s important to let people know it’s a celebration of our people who were enslaved once and were able to be emancipated. We remember the sacrifices our ancestors made and the suffering they went through so we could be here.”
‘We remember the sacrifices our ancestors made and the suffering they went through so we could be here. — Terrance Simien’
“It can’t be remembered enough. People who were people like everyone else had to suffer slavery, and it did happen in this country. We give homage to our ancestors who had to endure that terrible time, and we will never forget the sacrifices they made.”
It is a part of history he has too often felt suppressed, he said, and he has seen the power of revealing it. He often performs in schools and for children, at home and across the country, teaching not only his music but the people, past and present, who create it.
Having a connection to pride, heritage and culture can make a difference, he said, especially for kids from poorer neighborhoods, where they are having a hard time just being kids — it can give them a sense of being part of something larger than themselves. Zydeco reached him when he was their age.
“I started getting into music as a young teenager,” he said. “When I was about 13, I would go to zydeco dances — at Richard’s Club, at the Bamboo club … I’d go with my dad. At that time, 1979 or 1980, it was considered the music of the older generation, and some parents would bring their kids, and we would dance and hang out.”
The clubs and dances gave him an alternative to popular places, he said. As a whole, the atmosphere felt relaxed, and he would come on his own to dance and hang out and enjoy in the music.
“So Zydeco created that for me and the kids there,” he said, “and we’re trying to create that place to be — whatever age you are. People are dancing and getting into it in Southern Louisiana, and we take that spirit when we go out, around the world.”
‘It’s important for people to understand where the music comes from. Creole people have lived in this community for more than 300 years. — Terrance Simien
As he travels, he is learning and performing traditional music and writing his own songs, he said, inspired by conversations, listening to others, dreams and stories he has heard growing up … many people and places.The music leads him into activism and creative work. He is writing a book now and working on film projects, different ways to bring zydeco culture and music from the source.
“It’s important for people to understand where the music comes from,” he said. “… Creole people have lived in this community for more than 300 years — it’s a combination of ideas from all over the world, and the root of it, the strength of it, comes from African influence.”
That combination reaches widely — Native and Indigenous influences, French, Spanish, Italian, Irish.
“We have Jambalaya DNA,” he said, laughing.
But he can hear African melodies and rhythms holding the music together from the beginning. In the oldest Zydeco music, a form called the Juré, musicians played with hands and feet and voice as instruments. Two folklorists and musicologists who recorded the music a century ago — Alan and John Lomax, who traveled the world — said Zydeco had the most African sound they had heard in the U.S.
No one knows exactly where the word Zydeco comes from, Simien said, but he once met a woman from the Democratic Republic of Congo who told him it reminded her of a word in her grandmother’s language — zaiko langa langa — and the word meant to dance. (Zaiko Langa Langa is also the name now of a popular DR Congo band.)
“Where I grew up,” Simien said, “we called going to a zydeco dance a lala, and in the St. Martin’s area 40 miles away they called a dance a zydeco — so I think it came from that word, to dance.”
He too has heard some of his music at the source. When he performs, he wears a Fulani hat from Mali, West Africa — he got there when he was traveling to play music in 2006.
‘It was amazing to perform for people (in Mali) — the music there is unimaginable, it was so good — even guys just playing in the streets — and the instruments …’ — Terrance Simien
“It was amazing to perform for people there,” he said. “The music there is unimaginable, it was so good — even guys just playing in the streets — and the instruments! The Ngoni (a six-stringed instrument played by griots, storytellers), the Kora (a 22-stringed harp like a lute) — the banjo evolved from the kora.”
“… The whole world contributes to all the good we know today. … Native and Indigenous and African — there’s so much they’ve contributed to our identity as American.”
He hears Native influences in Zydeco too, in the Juré. The Juré musicians would have gatherings, he said, like Native gatherings then and now. Juré musicians would sit around a fire and pass around a jar of liquor.
“And you’d have to create a verse of a song first,” he said, “about anything that happened that week or that day. You’d put your two cents in, and you’d get a drink for it. That’s how it was. It was some of the limited way people of color had to enjoy ourselves — music was always where we found joy in hard times.
“We have to remind ourselves, our ancestors sacrificed a lot so we could be where we are at this point. When it’s not written down in the history books, sometimes all you have is the music to keep the culture alive.”