Celebrating with a Creole beat

Ferrence Simien and the Mallet Playboys brought their jazzy Zydeco sound to the Cranbury School.

By: Matthew Kirdahy
   Terrance Simien and the Mallet Playboys brought a jazzy sound to the Cranbury School that most of the students have never experienced.
   And when it was over they wanted to know where they could get more of this Creole sound called Zydeco.
   Zydeco is the music of the French-speaking Creoles of south central and southwest Louisiana typically heard on Mardi Gras, which translates to Fat Tuesday in English. Mardi Gras is celebrated in New Orleans and other parts of the world two weeks before the start of Lent.
   On Feb. 20, Mr. Simien and his band members Ralph Fonteunot, Jose Alvarez, Demetri Erdoxiadis and Sammy Neal played a short set at the school as part of their East Coast tour. Mr. Fonteunot said the band tours the country year-round, but its busiest season is during Mardi Gras.
   "I thought it was good," fifth-grader Delano Hebert said after the short set. "My parents have been to New Orleans to see the band before. We’ve listened to it on the radio. It’s lively. It makes you get up and dance. I want them to come again."
   Mr. Simien and his band travel around the country playing Zydeco music in venues such as Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall in New York City and at numerous folk festivals from Rhode Island to Ontario, Canada, to Texas and California. His music is on the movie soundtracks for "The Big Easy" and "Exit to Eden" and has been on the TV show "CNN Worldbeat."
   The Parent Teacher Organization sponsored the event, co-coordinated by French teachers Michele Guye and Anahita Diana.
   "Oh, the kids loved it," Ms. Guye said. "I was surprised because they’re not used to that music. (Mr. Simien) really knew how to relate to the audience."
   Fifth-grader Christian Enos has never heard the music before, but said, "it was fun."
   "It was pretty cool," fellow fifth-grader Alyssa Torske said. "I like that they got people up to perform. It was nice to hear different music than pop."
   Mr. Simien stood at the front of the stage holding an accordion, one of two primary instruments that creates the Zydeco sound. The other main instrument is the frottoir, or rubboard, played by band member Mr. Fonteunot.
   Mr. Simien, started the short set of songs with a Creole music history lesson.
   "This is one of the few percussion instruments created in the United States," Mr. Simien said, pointing to Mr. Fonteunot’s rubboard, which he wore across his chest. "That’s called a frottoir. Let me hear you say frottoir."
   The audience shouted the response.
   "Everybody, that’s Ralph. And he’s going to come out there and pull a few of you up on stage so you can jam with us," Mr. Simien said.
   While Ralph was pulling willing participants on stage, Mr. Simien distributed beaded necklaces, one of the more popular parts of the Mardi Gras celebration.
   He explained that the bead’s colors, purple, green and gold, represent justice, faith and power, respectively.
   After that, Mr. Simien got the crowd pumped. "Cranbury," Mr. Simien shouted. "Somebody scream."
   Then he engaged the students in the oldest form of Zydeco music — jure. There are no instruments in jure tunes. People provide the beat by stomping feet and clapping hands. Together, the students, Mr. Simien and the Playboys clapped and sang the song "to-to la Mardi Gras."
   Mr. Fonteunot pulled Ms. Guye on stage to play the frottoir with four-grade teacher Donna Tarantino on tambourines and substitute teacher John Murphy also playing the frottoir.
   That’s when the screams grew louder.
   "I don’t often feel like dancing because I’m not very good at it, but by the second song I was ready," Ms. Guye said.
   That seemed to be Mr. Simien’s specialty, getting everyone involved. He had the student body focused on what they couldn’t get enough of — the music.
   "He really knew how to relate to the audience because that’s a tough crowd K through eight," Ms. Guye said. "It was good for the kids because most of them never heard that music before. I loved the jure part. Ms. Diana and I even had some of the students come up to us and ask where they can find this music on CD."