Students get schooled in zydeco

Advocate staff photo by BRYAN TUCK -- Northside High School senior Mike Rubin, left, performs Tuesday with zydeco performer and Northside graduate Nathan Williams at the school.
Advocate staff photo by BRYAN TUCK -- Northside High School senior Mike Rubin, left, performs Tuesday with zydeco performer and Northside graduate Nathan Williams at the school.

Lafayette Parish students received a lesson in the roots of zydeco from musician Nathan Williams and music professor Mark DeWitt this week.

The two visited high schools in the district with a brief lesson and performances on the history of zydeco as part of the Acadiana Center for the Arts’ “Touring Arts” program that is supported by the parish school system.

Williams told students at Northside High, his alma mater, on Tuesday that he learned from zydeco’s founding father, the late Clifton Chenier.

“Clifton Chenier took this accordion and put it to zydeco,” DeWitt said.

Before that, the accordion was more synonymous with Lawrence Welk, he said.

“The things he could do with it made people pay attention big time,” DeWitt said of Chenier.

DeWitt polled students in the audience, “How many of you have heard of Clifton Chenier?”

A few hands went up, which has been the norm at the other high schools Williams and DeWitt have visited, DeWitt said.

Williams performed a few different stylings, playing Chenier’s iconic “I’m Coming Home” for students and a few of his own songs.

A few brave students danced on the gymnasium floor. Others clapped in time with the music.

“I hope I’ve opened their eyes to where the music comes from,” Williams said after the performance.

Younger musicians, like Williams’ son, who performs as Lil’ Nathan with the Zydeco Big Timers, add more hip-hop stylings to the genre to appeal to a new generation of fans, Williams said.

“It’s good because it keeps the music going rather than let the music die,” he said.

Williams was joined by two Northside seniors, Nicholas Richard and Mike Rubin, who plays with his family’s band, Rockin’ Dopsie Jr. and the Zydeco Twisters.

Williams told students that he has written about 60 songs and, after the pending release of a new album, he will have 11 albums.

Williams and his band, The Zydeco Cha Chas, have toured around the world, playing venues and festivals sharing the music with fans in Japan, Norway, Poland and across Europe, he said.

DeWitt told students they have an opportunity to study traditional music genres like zydeco.

The University of Louisiana at Lafayette has a degree program in traditional music and local musicians instruct courses on accordion, fiddle and songwriting, he said.

The university began the degree program this fall, however, traditional music classes were added to the School of Music curriculum a few years ago as part of a community grassroots fundraising effort to create a program in honor of the late musician and pathologist, Dr. Tommy Comeaux.

In 2010, DeWitt was hired to lead the program and holds the first Dr. Tommy Comeaux Memorial Eminent Scholar Endowed Chair in Traditional Music.