News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

CJ Chenier bringing accordion legacy to Sisters Folk Festival

CJ Chenier is bringing zydeco music to Sisters for Sisters Folk Festival.

CJ Chenier — son of legendary zydeco musician Clifton Chenier — started playing music at a young age, learning piano in second grade. He then moved on to learning the saxophone and that was his main instrument throughout his young adult life. He started playing with Clifton Chenier and his Red-Hot Louisiana Band in 1978 at the age of 21, playing saxophone.

“When my Dad became ill, I started playing with him and learnt by watching him perform,” said Chenier. Chenier eventually started learning to play the accordion, the instrument that his father had made famous with his zydeco music.

Clifton Chenier is known as the “King of the Zydeco,” being the man that coined the term for the style that originated from music being played in homes, traditionally with the accordion, drums, and bass guitar. Zydeco evolved from “La-la” music.

Culture Trip describes it this way: “Coming from the French-Creole colloquial expression for poverty les haricots sont pas salés, or “the snap beans are not salty,” this cross-fertilization of musical styles came to be popularly recognized as zydeco when Clifton Chenier released his song, Zydeco Sont Pas Salé in 1965.”

Not only did Clifton Chenier coin the term “Zydeco,” his son CJ saw the development of the washboard instrument.

“My father came up with the washboard made from steel, instead of the wooden one used to wash clothes. They created it to be hung from the neck and played as an instrument,” said Chenier. That washboard instrument is traditionally known as vest frottoir.

Out on the road with his father at 21, Chenier began to learn the accordion by watching his Dad play.

“It really was the best time of my life touring around with my father,” he recalled. “My musical career was really taking off.”

After Clifton Chenier passed away in 1987, CJ and the Red-Hot Louisiana Band decided to keep going.

“I was the youngest guy in the band, and we decided to keep the tradition alive,” said Chenier. CJ Chenier became the lead accordion player in the band, playing a variety of traditional zydeco songs and blues music.

“Playing with the band was a transformation because I didn’t grow up listening to blues, I more listened to my father’s music and funk music playing in a garage band,” said Chenier.

For Chenier, the audience is the reason for playing zydeco music.

“The audience has as much fun as us playing and zydeco music brings people from all backgrounds, ages and types together,” said Chenier. “One of things with zydeco music in general is it gets people up and dancing. It doesn’t matter what genre, it brings all types together.”

Zydeco music blends blues, soul, and traditional Cajun music into one genre that is upbeat and considered “party music.”

The accordion theme is ever-present this year with the 2021 poster featuring Beulah the Badger playing an accordion, and having CJ Chenier playing several sets.

This is CJ Chenier’s first time to the Central Oregon area, and he hasn’t been in Oregon since playing the Oregon Zoo with his father in 1978.

“I’m just excited to be there and as we say in the south, ‘come on out and pass a good time’,” said Chenier.

For more information on this year’s Sisters Folk Festival, visit www.

sistersfolkfestival.org.

 

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