It's February, and the excitement and anticipation buzzing through Acadiana aren't over Mardi Gras. The 50th annual Grammy Awards " in great part due to years of tireless stumping by industry insider Cynthia Simien " include a new award category for a recording made in the Cajun and zydeco genres. By the time this issue of Gambit Weekly hits the streets, the awards will have been announced, and though there was no way to predict the winners when I talked to nominee Roddie Romero, the wait itself has been pretty exciting. 'It's been a long time coming," Romero says, fresh from a nominees' lunch in Lafayette hosted by Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu. 'It's been a long path for me and my band as well. I feel that it's amazing that it's finally here, finally established. It's just incredible for our culture."
It's been a particularly long path for the 42-year-old Romero, who's been playing zydeco-influenced music since age 12. (The piece of Louisiana legislation that allows underage performers to play in bars with a parent or guardian present was known as the Roddie Romero Bill.) Remembering a recent article he read that claimed the award should have been instituted a decade ago, he wonders if it shouldn't have been added even earlier.
'I always feel like an ambassador for Acadiana and for Lafayette," he says. 'But the people that were the real pioneers (were) Dewey Balfa going up to Newport and playing zydeco to folk audiences, or Clifton Chenier going to Paris." He remembers the '80s when Buckwheat Zydeco's popularity and fellow 2008 Grammy nominee Terence Simien's appearance on Paul Simon's chart-topping Graceland spurred a trend of south Louisianan artists signing to major labels " Stanley 'Buckwheat" Dural on Island, Zachary Richard on A&M and Rockin' Dopsie Sr. on Atlantic. 'I feel like it could have happened 20 years ago. It seemed like the record industry knew before anyone else."
The long-awaited category doesn't come without a measure of controversy. The seven nominees (due to a three-way tie for one spot) cover both traditional Cajun and zydeco styles as well as one non-Louisiana-based artist, and inlcude musicians who infuse the standard rhythms with pop styling " drawing questions as to whether the two styles should be lumped into a single category, and whether innovators on the folk theme should be eligible for nomination at all.
Romero and his longtime band, the Hub City All-Stars, know this argument well. Their 2007 album, the La Louisianne Sessions, is a cornucopia of southern Louisiana styles that includes blues, swamp pop and a Fats Domino cover along with traditional Cajun melodies cut at the legendary studio the record is named for, with pains taken to replicate the recording techniques and equipment of the '50s and '60s. It also includes some of Romero's more rock-influenced originals, which will be familiar to listeners from his days as a teenage accordion rocker. According to Romero, it's a tricky subject to address; the fact that south Louisiana has preserved its musical traditions so well over decades is a unique gift. But for an art to be genuinely alive, it has to evolve.
'I've got mixed emotions about the combined category," Romero says. 'It is generalizing two beautiful cultures that parallel each other. But as far as the progression " where music is going and where it's been " it's generated all kinds of subcultures: traditional, contemporary, dancehall Cajun. The zydeco that's hot right now, I don't know what to call it; it's along the lines of hip-hop with an accordion."
As a teen, he says, he updated the sounds he heard around Lafayette " 'Wednesday nights at El Sid O's, or Lil Buck Sinegal playing the meanest blues" " with rocking drums and electric guitar. Later on, he grew to appreciate the roots of his style, but he never wanted to reject the way the music had naturally evolved for him, in his own hands " or in anyone else's.
'When I got older, my ears opened bigger and I discovered where all that came from," he says. 'I've been criticized over the years for not being the most traditional. But music is the way you feel, and you don't feel the same every day."
- Roddie Romero is one of the nominees for the first Grammy Award given in the new category for Cajun and zydeco music.