Pop quiz: What do Cyndi Lauper, Taj Mahal, Tom Tom Club, Los Lobos' David Hidalgo, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Michelle Shocked, fiddler Daryl Anger, and Sacred Steelers Darick and Phillip Campbell have in common?
If you didn't immediately answer "zydeco," don't be alarmed. It's not always easy to intuit just how certain artists end up on tribute albums. Sometimes it's label-mates (A Nod to Bob has Red House musicians doing Dylan tunes) or artists personally connected to a songwriter and/or cause (Sweet Relief honors Victoria Williams and builds a fund for ailing musicians). Here, the subtitle is "a tribute to Creole & Zydeco," and the only discernible link seems to be that producer/musician/author Ann Savoy was able to corral the pack for this Louisiana sojourn.
Zydeco artists Geno Delafose, Nathan Williams & the Zydeco Cha Chas, Rosie Ledet, Sean Ardoin, Andre Thierry and Keith Frank -- and Creole fiddler Ed Poullard -- are also on board. Zydeco fans are constantly mystified that such arresting music has never crossed over beyond Rockin' Sidney's novelty "My Toot-Toot" and the occasional successes of a couple of artists, most notably Buckwheat Zydeco. In the pop mainstream, zydeco remains submerged.
Creole Bred (Vanguard), Savoy's follow-up to her Grammy-nominated Cajun tribute, 2002's Evangeline Made, doesn't fully remedy this. It's neither populated with A-list artists of the moment (if only Savoy had the juice to team Sean Ardoin with OutKast) nor are contemporary zydeco players given a real platform on which to shine (only Nathan & the Zydeco Cha Chas get a track to themselves, and they sound great). The CD, then, must be judged not as a zydeco PR campaign, but on its own musical merits.
As mixes go, this one's a mix. It starts weak, with Cyndi Lauper's tortured French vocals and stage giggles on "Allons a Grand Coteau," which even the Zydeco Cha Chas' skilled backing can't save. She fares little better on a duet with Nathan Williams on "Festival Zydeco"; the song sounded better when Williams just recorded it himself. (It might have made more sense to let Lauper do a pop version of Rosie Ledet's ribald, girl-power, English-language romp "I'm Gonna Take Care of Your Dog.")
Also early in the mix is Tom Tom Club's so-so "Only the Strong Survive," which sounds innovative only because Keith Frank's original was innovative, with the Talking Heads offshoot aping Frank. It's also an unpleasant choice of a song: Frank's lyrics call Zydeco Force's Jeffery Broussard a "creature"; it's a little painful to hear Tom Tom Club's (likely oblivious) re-airing of Frank's meanness.
Not surprisingly, most of the best music on Creole Bred happens when artists brings their own ideas to the collaboration. Taj Mahal appears frequently on tribute albums, and he's usually got the best thing going (for more evidence, check out his "Don't You Push Me Down" on the Woody Guthrie tribute Daddy-O Daddy!). With help from Cajun fiddler Michael Doucet, he sings and picks a buoyant, island version of Canray Fontenot's "Two-Step de Grand Mallet." Later, his "'Tit Monde" is more faithful to the Fontenot/Bois-Sec Ardoin original, but Mahal and Doucet -- with Geno Delafose on accordion -- wholly reinvigorate the Creole classic. Mahal's French vocals sound uncannily like the raspy, guttural voice of the late Creole great Bee Fontentot.
Instruments take center stage on "Baby Please Don't Go," a blues standard that has long been part of the zydeco canon as well. Darick Campbell's sacred lap steel lasciviously snakes around Curley Taylor's accordion melody; there's nothing "sacred" about it. Ed Poullard and Darol Anger bring a light touch to Canray Fontenot's "Old Carpenter Waltz" with a version that accents the tune's soaring melody but doesn't try to replicate Fontenot's idiosyncratic, bluesy approach.
In "Mon Homme Est Pas 'Rivé," Sweet Honey in the Rock applies its trademark a cappella harmonies to the most overlooked south Louisiana genre: women's ballads. This unusual recording of Creole home music could benefit from more exposure -- the song should become a Sweet Honey concert staple. David Hidalgo -- whose Louisiana ties include previous work with Buckwheat Zydeco -- treats "Mon Conné La Cause" like a post-war zydeco stomp, his drumming evoking former Red Hot Louisiana Band timekeeper Robert St. Julien. And Michelle Shocked -- who might seem like the most random choice of musicians here -- surprises with a simple, soulful "Paper in My Shoe" that would have been at home on her Arkansas Traveler disc.
Despite these successes, the oddest -- yet most affecting -- track appears about midway through Creole Bred. It's a six-and-a-half-minute power ballad rendering of Clifton Chenier's "I'm Coming Home," with Nathan Williams, Keith Frank, Rosie Ledet and Sean Ardoin all taking a turn. It's odd, because accordionists, like piano players, rarely ever play together. It's affecting because it's a tribute to Chenier, the artist who started out covering Ray Charles and Fats Domino, desperately wanting to top the charts and reach a commercial apex even higher than any of the guest stars on Creole Bred ever did. He never reached that goal. Instead, he invented zydeco.