It is not every day that someone is labelled a “saviour,” but one look at the life and career of Terrance Simien provides ample proof that he is in fact worthy of the label of saviour for his efforts to preserve a piece of his Creole heritage. The world is full of a variety of cultures, both large and small, but the Creole culture is perhaps one of the most pervasive yet overlooked cultures on the planet. Kreol Magazine interviews Terrance Simien.
There are some 15 million individuals on planet Earth that identify as Creole. These people are spread around the globe from the southern swamps of Louisiana, to the tropical islands of the Caribbean, to the island nations of Seychelles and Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. They identify as Creole, Creol, and Kreol, and while their lives are different in each region, their backgrounds are remarkably similar and incredibly unique to their heritage.
Terrance Simien was born into the Creole culture of southern Louisiana, one of the oldest Creole cultures in the world. Simien was born on 3 September 1965 in Mallet, Louisiana in St. Landry Parish. He is an eighth generation member of a family that has been in St. Landry Parish since the earliest days of settlement in the area. Terrance has spent much of his life immersed in his native Zydeco music, a genre that many have credited Terrance with saving from near extinction.
In order to understand just how pivotal Terrance’s career in Zydeco has been to saving the genre, one has to look back at his upbringing. Growing up in southern Louisiana, Terrance was exposed to his Creole culture’s signature musical form early on by his father and other family members. From a very young age Simien knew that music was going to be his first love, and it was Zydeco that got his blood moving.
From around the age of three Simien could tell that music was going to be his passion. The very beat of the music, the joy the listeners got from hearing it, and the way it made him feel pulled Simien into the world of Zydeco. He described his early interactions with music in an interview with Kreol Magazine as follows:
“Well you know, we used to have dances in our Catholic Church. I grew up Catholic and we had fundraisers and one of the fundraisers was Zydeco dancing once a month in St Anne’s Catholic Church in Madrick, and that was one of my first experiences of hearing live music. I can remember I was probably 3 years old and I just loved music, period! The way I got into playing music was when I started singing at the Church first and then at 10 years old, I joined a school band and my first instrument was a trumpet and as a teenager…”
Terrance was particularly drawn in by Zydeco after attending some dances and other performances with his father. During his youth, Zydeco was at a critical juncture as a genre. Many of the genre’s greatest performers were reaching old age and younger generations either weren’t interested or didn’t care about Zydeco. It appeared that this distinctly Creole musical genre could be faced with extinction.
When asked about his early career in Zydeco and his beginnings, he had the following to say:
“I went out with my dad to some of these Zydeco dance-offs and at that time, Zydeco music was considered the music of the older generation. I mean there were very few teenagers that were into the music. I can remember going out to teen dances where popular music played at the time and it just felt so uptight. The atmosphere was so tense. You wanted to dance but you felt you couldn’t dance because you felt you might do something wrong and then the kids would tease you after that. But when I went to the Zydeco dance, I followed my dad, I was probably about 13 years old, and I can remember going ‘well there would just be old people there but I’m gonna go and I’m gonna have a good time’ but to my surprise when I got there, I saw some teenage kids my age that was out there with their parents … so I started dancing with them and we started having a good time. Let me just go and enjoy the music, you know. So that really got me into the music and then I started listening to the music and what the music was saying and really feeling the music on that level and said ‘well yeah, I wanna see if I can play this’ so I bought an accordion and taught myself how to play a few songs and the next thing you know I got a band and that’s how it started for me.”
Simien and his band mates, now known as Terrance Simien and the Zydeco Experience, represented just one of two active Zydeco groups in their early days during the 1980s. Few groups existed at this time to bring Zydeco to the masses, and Simien’s group worked hard to keep their Creole culture alive and well. He never sought to produce billboard topping hit songs and platinum albums, for him it was about preserving Creole’s cultural roots and preventing the death of Zydeco.
The big break for his group came in 1987 when he produced tracks for a feature film starring Dennis Quaid. The movie, appropriately enough, was entitled The Big Easy, His music appeared in several parts of the film. Simien described this breakthrough moment for his band to Kreol Magazine: “Well I’ve been playing Zydeco music since 1981 and we’ve been lucky. We worked hard but also been lucky. I’ve had my music featured in several films. The first one was ‘The Big Easy’ and I had two songs … This was in 1987 and I also co-wrote a song with the lead actor, Dennis Quaid, and the song was used as background music to the love scene. At the time it was a real racy kind of love scene and it was kind of like the talk of the movie, you know, on top of everything else. But that kind of got me started. That really helped me establish and since then I’ve been touring constantly.”
From there, Terrance Simien and the Zydeco Experience began to take off. Over the years his band has travelled the globe and performed some 7,000 live events for music lovers in over 40 different countries. His travels even took him to other Creole regions of the world, in particular a trip to Seychelles and Mauritius in 2006. The group performed four shows on the island of Mahé in addition to three shows in Mauritius.
Simien likely did not set out to save Zydeco, but nevertheless he has managed to preserve a unique cultural art form for Creole generations to come and continues his efforts through live performances and education. In addition to performances with his band, Terrance and his wife and band manager Cynthia work tirelessly to educate and advocate for Zydeco music among the younger generation.
Through a number of groups, Terrance and Cynthia hope to keep Zydeco alive for future Creole generations to enjoy. Creole for Kidz and the History of Zydeco is a music education program the couple started in 2001 which has impacted some 500,000 children, teachers, and parents in 20 states and countries like Brazil, Paraguay, Canada, Australia, and the Dominican Republic. The couple also founded MusicMatters Inc., a non-profit organisation that nurtures emerging musical talents.
Simien may never acknowledge the accolades some bestow upon him as a saviour of the genre, but his actions and tireless work have done nothing less than save Zydeco. His musical group and advocacy groups have helped raise awareness of Zydeco in younger generations of Creoles and brought attention to the genre outside the Creole world as well.