Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Cedric Watson: Creole Cowboy in Chicago

Composer Cedric Watson

Cedric Watson strode lithely onto the stage at Old Town School of Folk Music with more than a hint of swagger, and on accordion, fiddle and vocals, shared his unique take on zydeco, the iconic music of the French-speaking black Creole culture of south Louisiana.

A San Felipe, Texas native who now resides in Lafayette, Louisiana, Watson creates music reflecting his own eclectic cowboy culture that includes Spanish ancestors from the Canary Islands (located between Spain and Northern Africa) and African as well as Native American and French heritage. As a result, the music he plays with his group Bijou Creole is an irresistibly tasty brew, replete with infectious polyrhythmic grooves inspired by various rhythms of the African diaspora.

The auditorium at Old Town School was packed with couples dancing, some doing a traditional Cajun two-step, others just being inspired by the West African and Caribbean side of the music and shaking body parts with abandon. The band’s percussionist, Zydeco Mike, masterfully scraped his rub board, in addition to performing on bongos and African drums, and added a touch of reggae Rastafarian culture to some of the tunes. Another less familiar element for a zydeco band was Lance Foster´s clarinet, which added a warm and textured layer to the melodies played by Watson. On the bass, renowned multi-instrumentalist D'Jalma Garnier III kept the groove smooth, and on drums, the son of Watson’s mentor and Cajun music great Edward Poullard, Ryan Poullard, laid out a second line New Orleans street beat, upon which the Watson’s voice glided and soared.

Percussionist Zydeco Mike
We were treated to a veritable array of traditional Louisiana roots music including waltzes and seriously down-home bluesy tunes, often nuanced by influences from places in the pan-Creole world that Watson likes to bring in to his music, like Haiti and the French Antilles. Many of the songs were in Creole, so Watson narrated the tales behind some of older Cajun tunes. For example "La Chanson De Limonade" (The Lemonade Song) is about drinking lemonade on Sundays to get over a Saturday night hangover. And before breaking into a mournful yet still lively fiddle jig called Cochon de Lait, which means, "suckling pig", Watson shared the tune’s story (complete with squealing pig sound effects and finger-licking) about the six to twelve-hours slow roast of a cochon de lait. It was the perfect example of zydeco´s special gift – on the one hand, it’s an earthy music, intimately connected to the tastes and sights and smells of a particular land, yet those experiences are somehow distilled into melodies that speak to all of us in the languages of sheer joy, raucous exuberance and profound longing. 

Clarinetist Lance Foster
I had the chance to speak briefly with Watson before the concert, while he was dealing with the travails of a broken accordion mere hours before the performance. “The business part of music can be hard,” he sighed, “There’s a lot of things that have to be done for the performance to happen.” But then he added emphatically, “The music part is great.” As to my question as to what made zydeco special, he concluded: “Things haven’t been easy. I come from a poor family; it was a hard life growing up. The music is the only way I can express happiness, express myself in a happy way. That’s why I chose the zydeco.”

Like the sound of that? Then check our exclusive live footage of the show:

Text, photos and videos by Catalina Maria Johnson (Chicago, Illinois)
blog comments powered by Disqus