Accordions at the 2014 Grammys

Ever since the Polka and Cajun/Zydeco categories were eliminated from the Grammys, it’s been tougher for accordion-toting artists to bring home Grammy hardware. But that didn’t stop some of our favorites from breaking through at this year’s event.

Los Angeles’s La Santa Cecilia has been building a national following over the past couple years and won Best Latin Rock/Urban/Alternative Album last night for their major label debut, Treinta Días. If you haven’t heard their unique and lively fusion of rock, jazz, and latin rhythms—and the incredible voice of Marisol Hernandez—check out their NPR Tiny Desk Concert.

Louisiana’s Terrance Simien & The Zydeco Experience won Best Regional Roots Music Album for their Dockside Sessions. Not only is Simien a fantastic musician, he was a key figure in the creation of the short-lived Best Cajun/Zydeco Album Grammy back in 2008 (which he later won).

Zydeco legend Clifton Chenier was also honored posthumously with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. If you watched the prime-time show last night, you may have noticed that The Beatles received the same award. Pretty good company for the King of Zydeco, eh?

MP3 Monday: 2010 Grammy Winners

Last night’s Grammy Awards weren’t just about Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, and the wonders of Auto-Tune. At the pre-telecast awards ceremony, a handful of accordionists picked up awards, too. Let’s review the big winners:

Best Cajun or Zydeco Album: Buckwheat Zydeco

The Cajun/Zydeco category has only been around for three years, but it’s already produced three different winners. Buckwheat Zydeco played organ for the legendary Clifton Chenier’s band before picking up the accordion and, since Chenier’s death in 1987, has become zydeco’s best-known (and most mainstream) artist. Lay My Burden Down is probably his most mature album to date, mixing his party-time zydeco with inspired covers (including “When the Levee Breaks”).

Best Tejano Album: Los Texmaniacs

We reviewed this album last summer and were excited to see it recognized last night. Both Texmaniacs leader Max Baca and accordionist David Farias have shared in other Grammy wins, but this was the first for their group that combines blues and rock with traditional conjunto. On Borders y Bailes, released on Smithsonian Folkways, they breathe new life into the century-old music of the Texas Rio Grande Valley.

Best Norteño Album: Los Tigres Del Norte

With more than 32 million records sold in their 40-year history, Los Tigres have long been the kings (or “Los Jefes de Jefes”) of norteño music, so their victory was no surprise. What’s surprising, though, is that Tu Noche Con… is their first live album. Los Tigres take their role as spokesmen of the people very seriously, and the album contains a great mix of the politically and socially-charged corridos, rancheras, ballads and cumbias that have built them a loyal following.

And finally, for those wondering how 18-time Grammy winner Jimmy Sturr would fair after the polka Grammy’s demise last year — he lost to Loudon Wainright III for Best Traditional Folk Album. There’s always next year.

Grammy Nominees Announced

The Best Polka Album award may be gone, but there are still plenty of accordions among the nominees announced yesterday for the 52nd annual Grammy Awards. The Best Cajun/Zydeco Album category is full of them:

The accordion is apparently mandatory in the Best Norteño Album category, too:

There are also a handful of accordionists scattered through other categories. Los Texmaniacs and Sunny Sauceda are both vying for Best Tejano Album, Weird Al Yankovic is up for Best Comedy Album, and David Hidalgo’s accordion was a key ingredient in Bob Dylan’s Together Through Life, nominated for Best Americana Album.

And finally, many thought that the demise of the polka award would spell the end of 18-time winner Jimmy Sturr’s Grammy run. Not so fast — Jimmy and his orchestra garnered yet another Grammy nomination; this time, for Best Traditional Folk Album. The competition will be stiffer but, after all these years, I know better than to bet against Jimmy Sturr.

Blair Kilpatrick Answers More Questions

Accordion DreamsToday we’re closing the book, so to speak, on our Q&A series with Blair Kilpatrick, author of Accordion Dreams: A Journey into Cajun and Creole Music. In her last set of responses, Blair discusses her accordion collection, the SF Bay Area Cajun/Zydeco scene, and her dream “accordion lunch.”

If you could have lunch with the accordion player of your choice, who would it be and why?

That’s a difficult one. There are two Louisiana legends from the past I’d love to meet: Creole accordionist Amédée Ardoin (1896-1941) and Cajun accordionist Iry LeJeune (1928-1955). Iry, who recorded much of the core Cajun repertoire, was heavily influenced by Amedée, so I imagine they’d enjoy getting together. That would be a wonderful fantasy lunch—even though I’d have a hard time keeping up, since the conversation would be all in French.

But if I had to choose, I’d share one more meal with Creole accordionist Danny Poullard, my friend and teacher, who died in April of 2001. He was the guiding spirit of the Bay Area’s Cajun-zydeco scene. He gave away his music so freely—he had weekly jam sessions at his house, and he was so proud of his many protégé’s who went on to play in bands of their own. He also taught at music camps all over the country. My band was the final one to be shaped by his garage jam sessions. He even suggested our name, Sauce Piquante. He heard us perform as a full band just once, five days before he died.

So I’d love to bring him back to let him know how things are going—and to tell him he’s not forgotten. I hope he’d like my book. So much of Accordion Dreams is about my time with Danny. He was a tough but loving mentor—so I’m sure he’d offer a few tips about my accordion playing—and maybe even about the book, too!

MP3 Monday: Clifton Chenier

Since tomorrow is Mardi Gras, it seems fitting to kick off the week with some zydeco from the King of Zydeco himself, Clifton Chenier. Influenced by both early Creole musicians like Amédé Ardoin and blues musicians like Professor Longhair, Chenier took the French Creole music of rural Southwest Louisiana and blended it with blues and R&B to create the sound that became known as zydeco. And unlike other Cajun/Creole accordionists, Chenier preferred the louder, more flexible piano accordion to the smaller, more traditional diatonic. But, as he liked to tell his son C.J. Chenier, “whatever you put into this instrument, that’s what you get out of it.”

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Blair Kilpatrick Answers Your Questions

Blair KilpatrickRecently, we asked readers to send in their questions for Blair Kilpatrick, author of Accordion Dreams: A Journey into Cajun and Creole Music. Thanks to everyone who responded — and congratulations to Mister Anchovy, who won our drawing for a free copy of the book. Today, in her first set of responses, Blair describes how she was drawn to the accordion and the musical life that she and her husband share.

What inspired you to choose the accordion, as opposed to another Cajun instrument?

Good question. But I never did choose the accordion. It chose me.

It came to me in a dream. Literally. A series of recurring dreams, strange and vivid. I was at one with the instrument, almost dancing with it. It felt like the accordion was playing me. I’d wake up in the morning with the sensation still lingering in my hands. This was peculiar, since I wasn’t a musician and had no memory of ever laying my hands on an accordion.

My unlikely passion for Cajun music had begun on a birthday trip to New Orleans, when I heard some recorded music — it was a Beausoleil tape — on a swamp tour. After that, I became consumed with the sound: buying up cassette tapes, listening constantly, going to monthly dances put on by Chicago’s one and only homegrown Cajun band. After nine months of listening, dancing, and dreaming music, I finally gave in: I had to find an accordion.

So it didn’t feel like a choice or decision — it was more like succumbing to a consuming passion. A sensible person would have stuck to Cajun dancing, or maybe picked up the guitar or triangle as a first instrument. (Later on, I did learn to play them both, along with some very basic fiddle.)

After the fact, I’ve tried to analyze what it is about the particular sound of the Cajun accordion that appeals so strongly to me. My first teacher at music camp, a very young Steve Riley, described it this way: loud and crude. It is, in some ways. Cajun accordion also has a very percussive quality, because of the inherent nature of a single row diatonic instrument. It’s like the wild skirl of the bagpipes or the wail of a blues harmonica — it moves you. Or it doesn’t.

More recently, I’ve begun to suspect the accordion resonated so strongly for me because of my Slovenian roots, which were mostly discounted when I was growing up. But that’s another story.

MP3 Monday: 2009 Grammy Winners

While the headlines around yesterday’s Grammy Awards focused on the artists featured during the CBS telecast, we’re turning the spotlight on those noble, accordion-toting winners who flew under the radar at the pre-telecast ceremony.

It was no surprise that Jimmy Sturr walked away with his 18th Grammy for Best Polka Album. This was Sturr’s fourth consecutive win and, at this point, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where anyone else wins this category. (Per our interview with Jimmy three years ago: “I’ll [step down] when the New York Yankees do.”)

Meanwhile, Beausoleil avec Michael Doucet took home the Grammy for Best Zydeco/Cajun Album. (Initially, we heard that Steve Riley won this award, but it turns out there was some confusion because both albums have the same title.) Unfortunately, I don’t have any clips from their winning album — but I did find one place where you can buy it online:

Conjunto legends Los Tigres del Norte won once again for Best Norteño Album. They’ve already collected numerous Latin Grammys over the years and appear to have extended their dominion over the main awards ceremony as well.

One of our longtime favorites, They Might Be Giants, won their second Grammy, this time for Best Musical Album for Children. The Here Come the 123s album and DVD has been in heavy rotation in our household for months and nothing calms our fussy baby faster.

If you know of any other accordion artists who won hardware at the Grammys last night, let us know!

MP3 Monday: Cedric Watson

Cedric WatsonWe’re two weeks away from the Grammys and, while you probably won’t see Cedric Watson on TV, he could walk away with the Best Cajun/Zydeco Album award. A skilled multi-instrumentalist — he plays both accordion and fiddle — Watson is part of the recent Cajun/Zydeco youth movement that includes his old band the Pine Leaf Boys, Feufollet, Lost Bayou Ramblers, and many others. On his self-titled solo debut, Cedric creates music with strong Creole roots, playing a variety of old-school zydeco styles, original material and Creole traditionals.

Blair Kilpatrick’s Accordion Dreams

Accordion DreamsI love hearing stories of how people fell in love with the accordion, so I’m really looking forward to Blair Kilpatrick’s new book, Accordion Dreams: A Journey into Cajun and Creole Music. Kilpatrick was a happily settled psychologist, wife, and mother when a trip to New Orleans sparked a passion for Cajun music and the accordion. Today, she lives in the San Francisco Bay Area — the largest Cajun/zydeco scene outside of Louisiana — and plays accordion in her own Cajun-Creole band, Sauce Piquante.

The book details Kilpatrick’s pursuit of her unlikely obsession with Cajun culture and the accordion, from the Chicago’s Cajun dance scene to a folk music camp in West Virginia and trips to Louisiana and even France. But it’s really about embracing new experiences and how you can chase your dreams at any age.

“… I moved the bellows just a little, my finger depressing a single white button, one of the low notes on the treble side. I bent my ear close. There—I heard it! A throaty whisper that promised to turn into the real thing once I really let go. I could already picture it, and I could practically feel it: bellows pumping, air rushing, all four reeds vibrating in the thrilling growl and wail of a Cajun accordion in full voice. The accordion of my dreams.”

If you live in the Bay Area, there’ll be a release/dance party for the book on February 10th at Ashkenaz in Berkeley. The event will include a reading, book signing, and a performance by Sauce Piquante.

25 Songs: John Delafose

Zydeco music is filled with families where the torch (or accordion) has been passed from generation to generation — families like the Ardoins, Broussards, Cheniers, and Delafoses. John Delafose comes from the first tier of zydeco accordionists, along with Clifton Chenier, Boozoo Chavis, Rockin’ Dopsie, and others. With his band, the Eunice Playboys, Delafose played strong syncopated rhythms on both button and piano accordion for packed dance floors throughout the Gulf Coast. He passed away in 1994, but his son Geno Delafose is currently one of zydeco’s most popular artists, having garnered one of the first-ever Cajun/Zydeco Grammy nominations last year.

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