Cajun fire in the blood

Seventeen-year-old accordionist Chris Ardoin is nervous. But it’s not what’s been called the “jealous game” of the South Louisiana/East Texas zydeco circuit that has him worried. It’s a plane ride to London — his first international flight.

The success of his third album Gon’ Be Jus’ Fine (Rounder, 1997) — recorded when Ardoin was only 15 — is taking the young sensation and his band, Double Clutchin’, a world away from the dance halls of their Lake Charles, La., hometown for a short European tour. But Ardoin shouldn’t be too concerned: Whether it’s Lake Charles or London, the teenage virtuoso is always right at home in his music, backed by a dynasty of zydeco legends.

Zydeco runs in Ardoin’s blood.

His family has been at the center of the music long before zydeco even had a name. Chris is the grand-nephew of accordionist and Louisiana legend Amede Ardoin (who was the first Creole musician to be recorded, back in the ’20s) and the grandson of Alphonse “Bois Sec” Ardoin. Chris’ father, Lawrence, is an accordionist who has fronted Lawrence Ardoin and the French Zydeco Band for years.

The young Ardoin says it was family tradition (and a little bit of plain old sibling rivalry) that got him hooked on the Cajun sound when he was about 3 years old. “It was my family before me, my grandfather and my daddy, [that] got my brother to learn — and I got jealous,” Ardoin remembers. He was soon singing and playing with the rest of the family.

Ardoin’s wonderfully fluid melodies engender a new zydeco sound, but band members still defer, in one way or another, to traditional arrangements. So zydeco enthusiasts who fear that this singular regional music is in danger of becoming assimilated into a blase pop sound can rejoice at the ancient notes that Ardoin mixes into his zydeco fusion.

Not only does he look to his family for musical inspiration, but lots of other artists do the same — a phenomenon not lost on Ardoin. “A lot of people’s influences are from our family,” he notes proudly. “They listen to a lot of the music and songs that my family recorded, and they jus’ add [different] words to it.”

In addition to Ardoin, Double Clutchin’ consists of rubboard player Tammy Ledet; guitarist Pandy Perrodin Jr. (the son of swamp bluesman Guitar Cable); bassist Derek Greenwood; and Sean Ardoin, Chris’ older brother, who lays down the double-kick drum beat that lends the band its name. Chris and Sean share vocals, not to mention the shouts and laughter that often punctuate the band’s music.

Gon’ Be Jus’ Fine will most likely please fans of new zydeco mutations and Cajun purists alike. Double Clutchin’ merges the old French zydeco feel with elements of R&B, funk, reggae, ska, and rap. “I try to mix everything together, not one main thing,” says Ardoin. “I try to mix blues, jazz, maybe even classical sounds together.”

Several songs on the disc pay obvious tribute to traditional zydeco melodies — “the family songs,” as Ardoin calls them — and then take on identities of their own. “Ardoin Two Step” begins as a thoughtful, scratchy rendition of one of Amede’s classic waltzes, then explodes into a driving funk sound that’s more like George Clinton than any zydeco legend. Sean sings in French on the lovely, traditional “Dimanche apres midi,” and carries that song’s syncopated rhythm throughout all the CD’s grooves.

Most of the songs on the CD were written by Chris or Sean. In the serious “When I’m Dead and Gone,” Chris makes reference to the apocalypse and wonders at the violence of the ’90s. In contrast, there’s the rowdy “We Are the Boys” (subtitled “Special Bad Boys Dance Mix” and inspired by Sean’s college fraternity days), a funky and danceable tune, and, needless to say, light on philosophical reflection.

Ardoin’s mastery of both the diatonic and triple-row button accordions holds the whole shebang together, aggressively and gracefully.

Ardoin knows he represents the future of an ancient Cajun tradition — a pretty hefty responsibility. But he seems up to the task, if humble about his role. [Zydeco’s] gettin’ pretty popular right now,” he offers understatedly. “I don’ know if it’s gonna get as popular as the blues or the country western, but it’s gonna be close.”

Double Clutchin’s new zydeco sound isn’t the only innovative presence in Louisiana today. They join Keith Frank and Beau Jocque in the dance-hall circuit that some observers have called a jealous game of rivalry for a limited audience of dancers. But Ardoin is cool-headed about his own band’s success. After all, he was only 10 years old when he first saw his picture on an album cover.

As if being a front-man zydeco musician isn’t enough, Ardoin is also a high-school student. He’s a football player who plays accordion on weekends in New Orleans clubs that he’s not even old enough to patronize.

And perhaps Ardoin has taken more than one cue from the hardest working man in show business (you know, the Godfather of Soul, James Brown). Already a studied pro, he laughingly says he’ll probably have gray hair by the time he turns 20 — but he’s getting used to the long nights and hard work.

“I don’ get any sleep,” he concludes, sounding downright gleeful.

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