Born on the bayou

Louisiana native Terrance Simien brings ‘Zydeco Experience’ to WCS

Feb. 9, 2012

By Luke Baynes

Observer staff


Grammy Award-winning performer Terrance Simien (above) appeared before a capacity crowd at Williston Central School on Feb. 2. (Observer photos by Luke Baynes)

For a guy who always performs barefoot, Terrance Simien never gets cold feet.

The supremely self-assured Simien, sans shoes, assumed the stage at Williston Central School on Feb. 2 and set the house afire.

“It’s getting kind of hot up here,” Simien said between scorching zydeco numbers, “and it’s hard for a guy from Louisiana to sweat in the wintertime in Vermont.”

Simien is a native of St. Landry Parish, La., a region considered to be the “capital of zydeco” — a form of music indigenous to French-speaking Creoles. Blending traditional Cajun music with African-American blues and jazz, zydeco was updated for the rock ‘n’ roll era in the 1950s by Clifton Chenier, known as “the king of zydeco.”

Simien and his long-standing band, The Zydeco Experience, are the modern-day heirs to Chenier’s throne, winning the Grammy Award for Best Zydeco or Cajun Music Album in 2008 — the first year of the category’s existence at the Grammys.

“Most people when they win Grammys, they put them on the shelf to collect dust,” Simien told the packed WCS auditorium, as he pulled the Grammy from a trunk and lofted it high above his head. “We take ours on the road to collect fingerprints.”

The two shows Simien and company performed at WCS on Feb. 2 were as much history lesson as entertainment. Using his “Creole for Kidz” concert program as a framework, Simien treated young Willistonians to a concise history of Creole culture, explaining that Mardi Gras means “Fat Tuesday” in French and that kids from the Louisiana countryside participate in a Halloween-like “Mardi Gras run,” in which they go door-to-door in costumes and are given ducks or chickens to be used in gumbo and jambalaya.

Mardi Gras beads were flying early this year at Williston Central School, courtesy of zydeco master Terrance Simien.

WCS Planning Room Director Eric Arnzen said the students earned the concert as the capstone of their successful participation in Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBiS), a program that focuses on reducing student behavioral problems through proactive and preventative tactics.

“It’s a reward, celebrating the students’ achievement in reaching this school goal defined by a certain benchmark where they received positive acknowledgments for positive behavior, working within our PBiS framework,” Arnzen said.

WCS Principal Jackie Parks said that the concert — performed at no cost to the school by Simien and his bandmates — was a rare chance for students to be exposed to a unique culture.

“For our kids that don’t see a lot of diversity in Vermont, this was such a great opportunity for them to see people from different backgrounds and ethnic groups up onstage performing,” said Parks.

Fifth-grader Morgan Blaine was in accord with her principal.

“It was very interesting because you got to learn about different cultures,” she said.

Blaine’s classmates, Keenan LaClair and Noah Martin, had more succinct assessments of the show.

“It was awesome,” said LaClair.

Martin said, ““It was amazing.”

Simien, speaking to the Observer backstage between shows, said that misconceptions about zydeco are widespread.

“A lot of kids, even in Louisiana, don’t know the true history of (zydeco) music, so we made it our mission to pass on some information,” Simien said.

Sweating profusely, but looking forward to his second set at WCS — despite having to be in Lake Placid, N.Y. that evening and back to Stowe the following night — Simien was impressed by the Williston crowd.

“This was such a great group of kids,” he said. “They were listening; they were reacting to the music. It was really special, man.”