The 2014 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival celebrated Buckwheat Zydeco twice. The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation gala feted the band with an all-star lineup including accordionists C.J. Chenier, Terrance Simien, Nathan Williams and Rosie Ledet, bandleader Rockin' Dopsie Jr. and guitarist Lil Buck Sinegal. Chenier, Simien and Dopsie also joined the band for a tribute at the New Orleans Fair Grounds April 26 (unannounced guests included Cajun troubadour Zachary Richard and Mayor Mitch Landrieu on rubboard).
"The more the merrier," says Stanley Dural, who took the nickname Buckwheat from the Our Gang character. "Performing on stage with great people — I like that."
Buckwheat Zydeco and several Acadiana bands return to New Orleans this week to headline the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation's Louisiana Cajun-Zydeco Festival.
Buckwheat Zydeco has had a steady lineup since Dural started the band in the late 1970s, and festivals offer him the opportunity to play with other Acadian musicians, but it's a tight-knit community. Dural joined zydeco pioneer Clifton Chenier's band as an organist, but he originally met the legendary accordionist at home.
"My dad was a mechanic," Dural says. "He was the only one who was allowed to handle Clifton's cars. [Chenier] was at the house two, three times a week."
Chenier preferred Cadillacs and often brought them by Dural's home.
Dural's father also played accordion, but not professionally. He liked the blues and Lightnin' Hopkins particularly, but he played traditional Creole music, which musicians including Chenier and Rockin' Dopsie Sr. updated and fused with R&B to create zydeco.
Dural learned to play piano at age 5, and got an organ when he was 9. His interest in popular music led him to join a funk band, but when he switched to zydeco in Chenier's band, it also worked as a reconciliation with his father's musical preferences.
"[Band members] said, 'Buckwheat is going crazy,' when I decided to play zydeco," Dural says. "I took up the accordion. I didn't know I could play it. I did it because my dad couldn't stand my music, and I didn't like his. I had a funk band (Buckwheat & the Hitchhikers). He said I needed to play like Clifton Chenier."
Dopsie and Chenier opened doors for zydeco, and Buckwheat Zydeco become one of the genre's most traveled bands. It probably didn't hurt that Dural liked to play Jimi Hendrix songs on accordion. He has collaborated with U2, Eric Clapton and many others, and he's been one of the most familiar faces of zydeco outside of the "boudin circuit" — between south Louisiana and Houston, where Clifton Chenier's son C.J. Chenier lives (Dural met C.J. while traveling to Texas with Clifton's band). More recently, Dural performed with The Roots on the final broadcast of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.
Dural plays the Cajun-Zydeco Festival before going on tour, and he's always looking for ways to reach new audiences, particularly younger ones. In March, he announced the successful completion of a $30,000 Kickstarter campaign to fund a web series. It will feature music from shows filmed at El Sid-O's Zydeco and Blues Club in Lafayette as well as short segments about his life and Acadiana. He already has filmed a crawfish boil in his backyard and a segment about cars. His father shared his mechanic skills with all his children.
"All the boys in my family learned how — and the girls too," Dural says.
For the cameras, Dural worked on a 1977 Ford LTD II, but he has 19 cars in his collection, including a 1936 Oldsmobile and a 1937 Chevy.
He's also focused on maintaining a mix of older and younger fans.
"I have to give 50 percent to the older generation and 50 percent to the younger generation," Dural says. "That's how you keep it going."
Buckwheat Zydeco's most recent releases include Lay Your Burden Down in 2009, followed by an album for children, Buckwheat Zydeco's Bayou Boogie, in 2010.
Dural sees younger musicians innovating as similar to what he did, and necessary.
"They're taking it in a different direction," Dural says. "But they have to do that because of the younger generation."
He's not afraid of zydeco getting too far away from its traditons.
"You wonder where you are going, don't forget where you come from," Dural says. "If you lose the roots of your music — if you don't have that identity, then what do you have? This is what brought you here."
At the festival, Buckwheat Zydeco is joined by veteran Cajun band BeauSoleil avec Michael Doucet (with Jo-El Sonnier), as well as young Cajun and zydeco bands, including Lost Bayou Ramblers and Dwayne Dopsie & the Zydeco Hellraisers. Bruce Daigrepont, Sunpie and the Louisiana Sunspots, Rosie Ledet and the local Cajun-influenced pop band Sweet Crude also perform.
After seven years at the Old U.S. Mint, the festival moves to Louis Armstrong Park, making it the third Jazz & Heritage Foundation festival in the park, along with the Treme Creole Gumbo Festival and the Congo Square New World Rhythms Festival. The stage is at the St. Ann Street entrance to the park at North Rampart Street, and there are food vendors, an art market and kids' activities. The foundation also sets up misting tents and there are Cajun dance lessons between performances.