Legendary Creole Musician Terrance Simien to Play the Big Top

Paul Whyte

While there are touring artists in the area year round, the summer months in particular bring in a wide array of music acts who play at venues ranging from small bar gigs to larger shows such as the Bayfront and Big Top Chautauqua which is nestled in the Wisconsin woods and overlooks the lake just outside of Bayfield, WI.

There will be some fantastic shows coming up this weekend with acts such as Toad the Wet Sprocket on Thursday and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band on Friday. Saturday, July 26, will feature perhaps a lesser known artist, but this depends on how familiar one might be with the genre of Zydeco music.

Terrance Simien has been playing forms of traditional Creole music most of his life and when he started he was among a select few playing the genre. He went on to tour consistently for the last three decades and has enjoyed highlights in his music career such as winning two Grammys. We had a chance to talk with Terrance Simien about his experiences as a musician who has breathed new life into a genre of music that may have been forgotten. Simien is laid back, has an undeniable Creole accent and seems to be excited to share his passion for music with any and everyone.

Reader: I understand that you’re coming up to play at the Big Top Chautauqua on the 26th.

TS: Yeah man, have you ever been to that?

Reader: Yes, I come from that area, I was born and raised on the South Shore. One of the first questions I was going to ask is if you’ve been up here before.

TS: You got it. Let me ask you a question. What is that venue like?

Reader: The Big Top? Well, it is a big tent if you didn’t know and it lies overlooking Lake Superior. Besides the Bayfront, it’s probably one of the premier venues as far as a larger venue would go and it features all sorts of legendary artists.

TS: Beautiful. Looking forward to doing it. We’ve been in Wisconsin a few times. We’ve played in Stevens Point and Summer Fest in Milwaukee several times and all the way up through Minnesota. We’ve been traveling and I’ve had my band out on the road since 1985. It’s like that Johnny Cash song, “I’ve Been Everywhere.” It’s been a beautiful experience. Going to places where people haven’t heard the music and are hearing it for the first time and seeing their reaction to it.

Reader: That was going to lead me to my next question. To my understanding, you’re kind of a pioneer of Zydeco music.

TS: That’s right, Zydeco music. The music of the Creole people of Louisiana.

Reader: Explain a little about you history with that style of music.

TS: I started my own band in 1981. I was a teenager back then. Back then there were only two teenage bands playing Zydeco music in the world. My band and another band called The Sam Brothers Five. All the other guys were probably 20 years older than we were. So that’s how close the music came to extinction. Of course there were the older guys going all over the world playing the music but locally, the youth had not gotten into the music like they are into it now. It’s a big difference now compared to then because now you have teenage bands coming up almost once a month. It wasn’t like that when I started, it was considered the music of the older generation. Now it’s thriving and still growing with some of the young people putting in different influences into the traditional sound.

Reader: I’ve found that’s kind of been a trend with traditional styles of music. Specifically things like Americana, they’ve been resurfacing a lot and have been getting quite popular again.

TS: It’s a beautiful thing to see. The old style music, the traditional music, it has its own medicine. It has its own way of healing. Kids are starting to get into that vibe and be open minded. I think a lot of that has a bit to do with the internet. You have the freedom to listen, where when I was growing up you heard what was playing on the radio and that was it.

Reader: Yeah, I was just watching one of your performances a few minutes ago on Youtube.

TS: When I first started playing the music, it was pretty much confined to South Louisiana and Southeast Texas and you had some Creoles that lived on the West Coast, they kind of brought that culture with them. You had a little bit of being played in San Francisco area and Los Angeles but on a very small scale. Now, there’s bands all over the world. We’ve been to Australia and there’s like eleven guys playing Zydeco music.

Reader: To my understanding one of the highlights of your career was winning a Grammy and they had a specific category for Cajun music.

TS: Well, actually we won two Grammys. One was for the category of Zydeco and Cajun music in 2007 and just this past January, the last album we put out, I won my second Grammy in a category called “best regional roots music.”

Reader: In the end, where does your music take people?

TS: I always tell people that this music is true world music. There’s something for everybody because of the DNA of the music. My last name is Simien. My family has been in Louisiana since 1758 and we’re documented as one of the oldest Creole families in Louisiana and my ancestors come from everywhere. French, African, Spanish, Native American and German. Jambalaya DNA. The music has that same DNA. The music is influenced by all of those cultures. Everywhere we go in the world, the sound of it stirs up something inside. People of different cultures and backgrounds that connect with the music and don’t know why. It’s a world music, it’s a positive music, it’s meant to make you dance, make you smile and have a good time. I think when you have music like that you can go anywhere.