The Ardoin Family: 100 Years of Creole Music Innovation
Victory Music Review. July 2011.
Next Gen Folk Column
It’s been a while since I listened to Zydeco, that bumpin’ Creole accordion music from Southwest Louisiana and East Texas, so I’ve definitely lost touch with the scene. The last time I heard popular accordionist/bandleader Chris Ardoin, he was playing the double-clutching variety of Zydeco. So named for the constant bass beats (the drummer hits twice on the beat), Chris’ album on Rounder Records from 1998 exhibited a strong love for polished R&B at an early age. That’s not surprising. Zydeco originally formed among Creole (French-speaking African-Americans in Louisiana and E Texas… Cajuns are their white neighbors) communities from a blend of urban black and rural black traditions coming together. The great Clifton Chenier brought his love for the electrified blues of Chicago to the old Creole traditional music he grew up with, tossed in a new instrument, the scrub board, and a genre was born.
Now it’s 2011, the world’s changed completely from Chenier’s world and even from that old 1998 album of Ardoin’s, and Zydeco has followed suit. Ardoin’s new album, Alter Ego, features hip-hop beats, autotuned vocals, and supremely smooth R&B crooning. He reps a “persona”, called the Candyman, and he’s sharing vocal duties with local rappers now. Not really rapping like we’re used to in the Northwest, with our socially conscious lyricists, but rapping like the Dirty South. It’s a kind of party rap, with repetitive lyrics over strong dance beats. It’s actually pretty similar to traditional Zydeco song. I don’t see too much difference between Boozoo Chavis’ “Dog Hill” (I’m goin’ to Dog Hill/Where the pretty women at) and “Shawty Whoa” (Shawty got me like/Whoa-whoa-oh), the opening track on Ardoin’s album, which pretty successfully brings in Southern rapper Dru. Ardoin’s blend of Southern rap, R&B and Zydeco seems almost like a gimmick at times, but Alter Ego was voted Best Zydeco Album of 2009 in Louisiana, so I’ll defer to the community here. What anchors Ardoin’s music on Alter Ego is his stellar accordion playing. Even running his accordion through filters and resigning it to fills between vocal lines, his playing stands out for its quick wit and strapped rhythm. Under the Chenier school of Zydeco, blues and R&B keyboard lines ruled. Some Zydeco piano accordionists, in fact, started off as R&B keyboardists before realizing there was more money in Zydeco than in Southern R&B. But the John Delafose/Boozoo Chavis school of Zydeco brought back the old one-row button accordions and brought a much rougher, rural edge to the music. Chris Ardoin is currently bridging these two sounds. He can rip it up on the one-row, with that highly rhythmic chanky-chank sound (try “Walk Away”), but he’s so good he can make the one-row button accordion sound like a smooth piano accordion too (try “Make U Surrender”, one of the better tracks on Alter Ego). He should be this good on the accordion; after all, he grew up a member of the Ardoin lineage of Creole Zydeco royalty.
The Ardoin family is the most respected lineage in Creole music, citing seminal artists like Amédé Ardoin and Bois-Sec Ardoin. Chris’ dad, Lawrence Ardoin, is a wonderful Creole accordionist, known for his electrified Creole blues style. But I’ve seen him jamming with Creole fiddler Ed Poullard, just playing the old tunes. Lawrence Ardoin learned the older styles of Creole music, styles that are so close to Cajun music as to sometimes be indistinguishable, from his father, Bois-Sec Ardoin. Bois-Sec was a well-known accordionist and singer who rose to fame in the 1960s and 70s with the folk revival. He was brought to the Newport Folk Festival back in 1966, and performed with famed Creole fiddler Canray Fontenot. Bois-Sec came to be the voice and sound of traditional Creole music, standing apart from the newer sounds of Zydeco, though both share the same roots. He recorded with Cajun artists, like Balfa Toujours, and toured folk festivals across the US. Bois-Sec’s music, in turn, came from his older cousin, the great Amédé Ardoin, a Creole recording star of the 78rpm era. Bois-Sec grew up playing triangle with Amédé and listening closely to his music to try and capture his mystique. Bois-Sec passed this knowledge along to his sons, one of whom, Lawrence, passed the music on to his sons, Chris Ardoin and his older brother Sean (also a much-loved Zydeco artist). It’s an unbroken chain of transmission that has kept the Ardoin family front and center both in the older world of Creole traditional music and in the newer world of Creole Zydeco.
Bois-Sec Ardoin w/Canray Fontenot
Chris Ardoin’s Alter Ego has been re-released in 2011 by Louisiana label Maison de Soul, while, in an interesting coincidence, the complete recorded repertoire of his grandfather’s cousin, Amédé Ardoin, is also being re-released, on visionary West Coast label Tompkins Square. It’s a strange bit of synchronicity, but also an easy example of the power of the Ardoin family’s heritage. Amédé Ardoin is the start of this lineage, and in many ways he’s the Robert Johnson of Creole music. Like Johnson, his legend far outshines the realities of his life, and he’s come to embody the spirit of the music he helped create. Born in 1898, he recorded 34 sides from 1929 to 1934 with major labels like Columbia, Victor and Brunswick. He was a beloved dance musician, able to control huge halls of rowdy, drunk dancers without any amplification. And he was also a musician who crossed back and forth over the race lines of the American South. He played primarily with Cajun fiddler Dennis McGee (also a seminal figure in Louisiana music), and he recorded two-thirds of his music with McGee, who was white. That’s a fact lost on most music historians, who claim that integrated recordings in the late 1920s were almost unheard of. Though his life is full of fascinating stories, it’s the story of Ardoin’s death where his legend really takes off. He was frequently hired to play dances for all-white audiences, and at some point in either the late 1930s or 40s, he was attacked by a white gang and beaten nearly to death. Supposedly he had taken a handkerchief offered to him by a white woman, and this enraged a number of white men in the audience that night. Every point of this story has been contested, both by folklorists and by friends of Ardoin. But it hardly matters; the story strikes a very real chord in the imagination of Southwest Louisiana, as does Ardoin’s music. There’s something about that voice. So high and clear, like crystal, but as powerful as a hammer. His accordion playing is virtuosic, filled with rage and aggression, so intense as to be almost punk at times. And his music was influential. Most Cajun and Creole musicians of his time knew his music and his 78s well. 50 years later, when Cajun accordion music was being replaced by slick, fiddle-led stringbands, a young Cajun named Iry Lejeune would take the reins of Amédé’s legacy, cutting a series of recordings so powerful and incandescent that he brought the accordion back into the hearts of a new generation of Cajuns. Today, Amédé Ardoin’s songs are covered by any number of Cajun or Zydeco musician, and he’s seen as a defining artist in the genre.
Amédé Ardoin: Two-Step de Eunice
It’s easy to see Amédé Ardoin’s music as traditional, and the music of today’s Zydeco and Creole artists, especially Chris Ardoin, as some kind of fusion or experiment. But Amédé was the original innovator. He wasn’t singing old French ballads brought over by the Acadians, and he wasn’t playing old French fiddle tunes with his music. He wrote the majority of the songs he sang and was a deft and gifted songwriter. He tapped into the country blues that was popular in the day’s race records market, writing lyrics that lamented lost women and hard times. His accordion playing embellished the already innovative Cajun accordion traditions, at some points adding virtuosity (his use of rapid-fire triplets on “Valse de Opelousas”), at some points taking it away (his one-chord song “Blues de Crowley” which clearly foreshadows Zydeco accordion riffs). In every way, Amédé Ardoin was an innovative force in Creole and Cajun music, drawing briefly from earlier traditions, but overwhelming these influences with new musical ideas.
Chris Ardoin rides the same path as Amédé. His music too is overwhelmed by the influences of today. But don’t think for a second that Ardoin doesn’t have every right to rebuild Zydeco to his modern tastes. He knows his family’s history inside and out, and respects his roots. Sure, it seems strange to hear “shawtys”, Twitter shout-outs, and hip-hop beats in Zydeco, but the bottom line is that Ardoin is beholden to only one community: the Creole dance community. That’s the real legacy of being an Ardoin. Your job isn’t to preserve your heritage, or to play the way that folklorists think you should be playing; your only job is to keep the dance floor jumping. That was Amédé Ardoin’s great skill, and that’s Chris Ardoin’s great skill as well. Judging from the pics and videos of packed, sweaty dance floors online, the Ardoin legacy clearly continues, but with some new beats.
Video of Chris Ardoin’s new Zydeco music, “Swagga” off Alter Ego
Video of Chris playing Amédé Ardoin’s “Amédé Two-Step”
PS: If you’re looking to hear more great early Cajun/Creole music, I’d recommend a great new album of field recordings from Valcour Records. Run by Joel Savoy out of Eunice, LA, Valcour Records just released old recordings of the great Cajun fiddler (and recording partner with Amédé Ardoin), Dennis McGee. The album features some of McGee’s powerful fiddling and also stories in Cajun French.
NOTE: This article first appeared in the July 2011 issue of the Victory Music Review. Published online in the Pacific Northwest, the Victory Music Review features articles, interviews and album reviews of many acoustic folk musicians. Hearth Music writes a monthly column for Victory entitled Next Gen Folk.