Though zydeco was one of the first ‘world music’ sub-genres out of the gates, its history has been a bit uneven. On the one hand it has the unique distinction of being one of the few styles of ethnic music from the lower 48 US states, complete with non-English lyrics and all. That’s both blessing and curse, of course, because on the other hand their natural ethnic fan base is limited, and the tastes of hipsters and intellectuals is both fickle and short-attention-span. A small genre like zydeco needs a star, too, and it’s been a long time since Clifton Chenier has lead the pack with his almost-Marley-like status within music circles. Sure, there’s been Buckwheat Zydeco and Queen Ida, but mass cross-over appeal is still lacking there. In a way zydeco has almost been a victim of its own success, since once a new genre gains exposure it’s then subject to a syndrome somewhat analogous to ‘produce or perish.’ Fortunately it gained recognition as a separate genre for Grammy Award purposes, so that’s an important recognition of its unique accomplishments.
For years now rural Cajun and zydeco music in southern Louisiana have been cross-fertilizing not only with urban New Orleans jazz and funk, but also with the music scene in southern Texas, including the always quirky alt-country scene in Austin and the Tex-Mex scene in San Antonio. This has been a creative milieu for all parties involved, offering links to polka, salsa, blues, and folk Americana in addition to the more obvious connections. Enter Cedric Watson on to the zydeco scene based in Lafayette, Louisiana, a country boy from Texas intent on re-inventing himself along the lines of his Creole ancestry and re-inventing zydeco music in whatever way works best, acknowledging its traditions while stretching its boundaries. His newest album L’Esprit Creole (‘Creole Spirit’) with his band Bijou Creole goes a long way to doing just that. The eponymous opening song ‘Bijou Creole’ sets the tone for the album, a rocker in classic zydeco style, with lots of accordion and lilting melody dutifully listing their qualifications- ‘c’est la belle musique… bon musique’… etc. You get the idea.
‘Le Sud de la Louisiane’ continues along the same lines while adding a significant blues-rock-jazz groove to the mix, complete with lead guitar, brass, and various dramatic flourishes. ‘Mais La’ returns to traditional Cajun forms, with lots of accordion and funky folksy rhythm. ‘J'suis parti au Texas’ lets Cedric show off his Cajun fiddle, almost ‘Orange-Blossom-Special’-like imitating the sound of an old car trying to make it across the state line. With the next song ‘Zydeco Paradise’ they hit their creative stride, opening with a spacey abstract intro and segueing into a zydeco style with a distinct Memphis feel. ‘Lafayette Lala’ and ‘J'suis Gone à La Blue Moon’ return to classic accordion-driven zydeco musical and story-telling form, lettin’ the good times roll and hanging with ‘mes amis’, but by then, the secret is out- these guys are capable of more than just your typical boogie-woogie. Of course what would a French Creole-language album be without a song called ‘C'est La Vie’? Not much I reckon, and they do the concept justice with their slow introspective ballad evoking the values of reflection and perseverance. The rest of the album keeps up the good work, mostly rocking, but also with real country licks on ‘Cher 'Tit Coeur’, and finally terminating in a purely fiddle-based instrumental number ‘Blue Runner’ that rocks just for the Hell of it, reminding us that we’re here to dance, not think too much.
So what has Cedric Watson got that any other zydeco fiddle-slinger doesn’t? Listen to the thirty-second opening to ‘Zydeco Paradise’ with its poly-rhythms and jazz-space and you tell me. Those thirty seconds alone could be the birth of an entire new genre, where country-boy zydeco meets sassy miss New Orleans and gives birth to a savant son who can view Heaven in a glimpse, and lay down the soundtrack to it in a flash. Is the country boy with the floppy straw hat the guy to take zydeco into the next orbit? He just might be. There is musical vision there the surface of which has only been scratched. Why else would he choose to be marketing himself through world music channels? There’s a big world out there, and I think Mr. Watson is looking beyond the next crawfish festival to put the ice cream on his apple pie. I just want to know one thing- when are they going to erect a memorial at Jay’s Lounge and Cock Pit in Cankton? While I wax nostalgic over a Saturday night long ago, y’all can check out ‘L’esprit Creole’ by Cedric Watson and Bijou Creole. It’s good.