Zipping and grooving

Dave Schwab

Thu April 28, 2016 9:00pm

The Bayou Brothers band members see themselves as more than just musicians. “We’re ambassadors for zydeco,” said drummer Ric Lee of Chula Vista, who is acknowledged by other players on his musical team as their quarterback, their “song caller” who calls out selections the way an NFL quarterback calls out plays.
Lead guitarist Jack Stephens of El Cajon concurred that the Bayou Brothers are “apostles” of zydeco music, spreading the gospel wherever they go.
“We go to different places and we play this kind of music for people who haven’t heard it before,” Stephens said. “We make them fans of it.” Bayou Brothers owns another important distinction. “We are the senior band on the (San Diego) scene,” claimed Lee about he and his colleagues, who are all playing their own brand of music — and fully enjoying it — past their mid-century marks. Asked what they liked most about zydeco, and why it’s their preferred style, each band member had their own take.
“For me, it’s the accordion,” said John Chambers of Imperial Beach, noting he’s played that instrument since age 8, until it sort of went out of style when rock ’n’ roll came in. “I’m getting back to my roots,” said Chambers adding, with the help of zydeco and improved technology, the accordion is making a combeback. “The accordion is a happy, traditional sound, and it’s actually being synthesized today with a digital accordion,” said Chambers. “It makes it much easier for an old guy like me to play, because some of those big (old) accordions are so heavy.”
For bass guitarist Danny Basscat of Santee, audience reaction to zydeco is what he likes most about it. “Business people where we play come up to me and say, ‘When you guys are here, all my customers are smiling,’ ” Basscat said, noting, “The music’s infectious. It makes you feel good. You want to dance.” Basscat adds the zydeco grooves are attractive for bass players too because “they’re so fun.”
Sista’ Judy, the core band’s female member, likes her role playing rub-board because “I get to facilitate a lot of audience reaction.” Judy added she “started dancing and fell in love with the music” from the get-go because “it’s so happy. You can’t be sad when you’re listening to zydeco.”
“It’s happy music,” agreed drummer Lee. “The rock band ... I could take it or leave it. But I love the Louisiana music.”
Stephens likes the fusion of styles, the merging of French and African-American cultures present in zydeco. “You got the beat and the accordion and there’s a lot of rhythm involved,” said Stephens. “There’s a lot of freedom for the guitar player. My roots are blues and rock, so I fused that in and it works.”
Zydeco’s exact origin is disputed, other than that it hails from Louisiana’s rural Cajun country. The Cajuns were French Canadian ex-patriots who emigrated to Louisiana. Usually fast tempo and dominated by the button or piano accordion and a form of washboard known as a rub-board, zydeco music was originally created at house dances where families and friends gathered for socializing. The earliest recorded use of the term may have been the country and western musical group called Zydeco Skillet Lickers, who recorded the song “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No Mo” in 1929.
Of her homegrown rub-board, Sista’ Judy, who chose the name to contrast with the brothers in the band, said, “It started out, literally, as a washboard because the Cajuns were using household instruments in the poor rural south. (Eventually) they took their wooden washboards (rub-boards) to auto repair bumper shops to make them out of metal, and that’s where they were invented.” Zydeco is “blues speeded up, it’s a close cousin,” added Sista’ Judy.
“Blues and zydeco are very related,” concurred Lee. Lee said Bayou Brothers perform about 200 gigs a year throughout Southern California as well as other parts of the country, even internationally. He noted they were one of the first zydeco bands to play in Great Britain and Mexico.
The Bayou Brothers headline the annual Gator by the Bay, San Diego’s zydeco, blues and crawfish festival, this year being held May 5-8 at Spanish Landing Park across from San Diego Airport. Other venues on the local circuit they play include Humphrey’s on Shelter Island, Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach and Tio Leo’s in Linda Vista. “And concerts in the park (everywhere) all summer long,” chimed in Sista’ Judy.
What kind of crowd is drawn to zydeco? “Dancers, young people — everybody,” said Stephens. “Anybody with a blues bent.” “First we get the kids, then the parents follow,” added Lee. Sista’ Judy talked about what makes the band stand out. “What differentiates the Bayou Brothers from most other zydeco bands is we’re much more versatile,” she said. “We can do a gig and throw in funk and rock and blues and ballads.”
“We have a play list,” noted Lee but he added all of them have played so long, and in so many different styles and venues, that they can play most any popular song of virtually any genre. “Somebody says, ‘Hey, Margaritaville,’ “and we can play it,” said Stephens. “We just play the music that we like,” said Lee when asked about their play preferences. “We take popular songs and we zydecoize them. That seems to ring true with a lot of people. We have musical freedom. We make it our own.”
Asked if the Bayou Brothers will be around 10, 20 years from now, Lee’s reply was, “Are you kiddin’?” What’s the secret of the band’s longevity? “We like each other,” said Sista’ Judy. “That’s a good thing.”
“We’re truly a family,” concluded Lee. “It shows in the performances.” Find out more about the Bayou Brothers at www.bayoubrothers.net.