On the Spot: Michael Tisserand

by Nick Pittman

Michael Tisserand discusses his new book, Krazy: a Life in Black and White

6:30 p.m.

Tuesday, March 7

Lafayette Public Library, 301 W. Congress St.

The author of ‘The Kingdom of Zydeco’ talks about the book, its reissue and who will next wear the crown.

How did you wind up writing this Kingdom of Zydeco?

I had started writing about zydeco for offBeat Magazine. My friend Robert Mugge, who has documented Louisiana music in several projects including a movie that is not coincidentally titled The Kingdom of Zydeco — he let me cop the title — encouraged me to see those articles as chapters in a book. Happily, I was able to convince a publisher to see it that way too, and I quit my job at Gambit Weekly [a staff position he held after contributing to offBeat[ and moved out to Lafayette for a year to follow around accordion players.

How long did you work on it?

I’d done a fair amount of previous interviewing and writing but devoted a year in Lafayette for nothing but research, and spent another year finishing the writing. There’s a picture of me at my laptop in the hospital room the day after my wife gave birth to our first child, in January, 1998. So I’m pretty sure I was on a final deadline that day.

Why was the new edition published?

It’s in part a publishing story: Arcade, the publisher of The Kingdom of Zydeco, had gone bankrupt, and it was becoming harder to locate out-of-print copies of the book. Thankfully, Skyhorse Publishing, which has acquired Arcade’s catalog, was enthusiastic to release a new version of the book and get it back on the shelves and in readers’ hands. I also felt it was a good time to reintroduce some of the voices in the book. At the time when I researched and wrote the book, zydeco was in a major transition. Clifton Chenier had passed away, and now the flame was about to be passed forward by musicians such as John Delafose and Boozoo Chavis.

At the time, I was curious to see what happens as traditional music progresses from hand to hand — what ideas and understandings about the world are passed along with the music. Much of my writing centered on possible tensions between tradition and change, cultural continuity and artistic creation and how musicians themselves talked about those issues. Looking back, the book now serves as a portrait of a time in zydeco that has now passed, when many of the music’s pioneers were still filling the dancehalls. I’m very fortunate that I was able to spend time with such great artists as Canray Fontenot, Boozoo Chavis and so many more. I also added a new introduction that brings the story up to date, as well as revised the “Keys to the Kingdom” section to help people find zydeco recordings, documentaries and venues. I’m very happy that Francis X. Pavy’s great painting returned to the cover of the book and grateful to Philip Gould and other photographers who allowed their work to be used again. But of anything in the new edition, I’m most grateful — and deeply honored — by the new foreword that Buckwheat Zydeco generously contributed before his death.

Michael Tisserand
Photo by Cecilia Tisserand

What do you think is the biggest change in the genre since the first edition?

The most obvious change is the invigoration of the music by younger players such as Keith Frank, Sean Ardoin, Chris Ardoin, Leon Chavis, Nate Williams, Curly Taylor and others (most of whom grew up in longstanding zydeco families) who work rap, R&B and Southern soul into the sound. This had begun with Beau Jocque and Keith Frank at the time I was writing the book, and these ideas have continued to take hold. We’ve yet to see where it might lead. I think the school work that Terrance Simien is doing is also a fantastic addition to the scene, with young listeners around the world encountering zydeco for the first time. At the same time, perhaps the most remarkable thing to me is that artists like Geno Delafose and Nathan Williams are still at it, not tiring, still fresh and energetic and creative and still keeping close to the dance floor. It’s really a remarkable achievement.

With the passing of Buckwheat, who do you think is the next in line to rule the kingdom of zydeco?

Nobody will ever replace Buckwheat Zydeco. His passing is a great loss. His great contributions to zydeco — and just to music itself — will live on. That said, I think the notion of kings of zydeco had started to fade away years earlier. It had started as a grand show by Clifton Chenier and moved on to different performers until it sort of ran its course. I hope now that people recognize that zydeco is a great traditional music that has always been moved forward by majestically talented artists offering a wide variety of styles, from Chenier to Chavis to contemporary players like Cedric Watson. It’s my hope that the book will help serve as a reminder of the music’s roots in the work of Amédé Ardoin and offer a few ideas of the directions it might take in the future. The title was always intended to shift the discussion from who might be the king of zydeco, to examining the cultural riches in this great musical kingdom.

If you could hear any one of the subjects one last time who would it be?

Boozoo Chavis. In his carport on Dog Hill on a hot Labor Day afternoon. With his family at his side, and Leona Chavis at the back table selling boudin. And Beau Jocque standing there right in front, just finished with his set, cracking jokes in French.

Nick Pittman is a freelance entertainment and feature writer. To contact him, email [email protected].