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Overcoming Stage Plight : Louisiana-Born Musician Drags His Feet on Way to Lively Cajun Accordion Dances

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Joe Simien doesn’t like going on stage very much. When gearing up to play his Cajun accordion, the 68-year-old Lawtell, La., native sometimes gets sleepy or surly and wishes he were home.

After spending the day working in his back yard earlier this week, he was already apprehensive about his gig Saturday night in Orange: “Lord have mercy, right now all my bones are aching, and I’ve got that dance to play this weekend!”

Speaking with a soft accent by phone Monday from his home in South-Central Los Angeles, the musician said, “Sometimes I just don’t feel like going. People might come up and say, ‘Boy, if I could play like you, I’d jump up in the air.’ And I say, ‘How come you can’t play like me and get up there for me then?’ But once I do get up on the stage, I feel great.”

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If he didn’t, he probably would be the only one in the room not having a great time, for his music is an infectious squeeze-box pleasure. Like the other prime practitioners of Cajun music, Simien is able to coax everything from a happy-baby bounce to lyrical yearning from his instrument, all of it alive with the celebration and release of a workingman’s Saturday night.

Though Simien plays unadulterated old-time Cajun music, for the past 46 years he’s been removed from his original culture while living in Los Angeles. And for much of that time he’s been a buried treasure, having given up public performances for more than 30 of those years.

He began playing in rural Lawtell before he was 10, “when this music was all we had,” he said. “This was before we had electricity and everything else. It was so long ago that I used to charge 15 cents to play at a party.

“Me and a cousin of mine, we’d double up on a bike to get to these house parties, going on the mud roads. I’d ride on the back, and when he’d get pooped I’d start pumping and he’d ride on the back. For 15 cents apiece. That was quite a price, huh?

“At some of these parties, we’d start playing, people would start dancing up and down and all of a sudden the floor would bust. Bust right in half, and people just kept dancing. And the next day they’d just stick another board in.”

While still of bicycling age, he met Amedee Ardoin, the greatest legend of the Cajun accordion. Ardoin--who, like Simien, was himself of mixed-race Creole stock--gave the youngster some pointers on his instrument, as well as some encouragement. “I was too little to sing, but I played for him on his accordion. He looked at me and said, ‘Simien, if you keep that up there isn’t another accordion player in the world that will ever play like you.’ I’ll never forget that.”

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Though Simien is certainly pleased about the nationwide popularity Cajun music has found in the last few years, however modest it’s been, he’s also a little surprised by it.

“This kind of music was for what you’d call non-educated-type people, people working in the fields and like that. That’s where the feeling to it comes from.

“It used to be when you left the country and went to the city, you wouldn’t dare play the accordion. Because you wanted to be Americanized. They would call people who played Cajun music stupid people; ignorant people from the country. That’s the way it was.”

When Simien moved to the city of Lake Charles, he did indeed put his accordion away, and when he moved to Los Angeles after World War II, he played only for his own enjoyment or at his own small parties.

“My in-laws were out here,” Simien said, “and you know these kind of women that yells at you, ‘Come on, come on to California. They got money in the ground.’ Well, I was a very ambitious-type young man, so I left a good job and came here in 1947. When I got here, none of them knew about jobs. I had to go hunt down my own job. Then my children were born, and I was stuck here. I still don’t like the place.”

The biggest difference between Los Angeles and Louisiana, he said, is, “the hospitality, let’s face it. That kindness is not here. That wave-your-hat-up-to-people-and-say ‘how do’--that’s not there. You live here for years and you never even go in your next-door neighbor’s home.

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“I go to visit an old cousin of mine in Louisiana every year. She’s about 80 years old or better, but she’ll have these big country parties. And when everyone was leaving, if you had four or five in your family, she’d cooked enough to give everyone plenty food to take home with them. You won’t find that here.”

Simien and his wife of 46 years, Teresa, have lived in the same house for 32 years, in a neighborhood he said was once beautiful but is plagued now with gangs and graffiti. Having earned his living as a truck driver for 32 years, Simien retired five years ago.

He started playing accordion in public again in the ‘80s, often performing with Garden Grove musician Carolyn Russell, who now plays with the Southland’s other key transplanted accordionist, Wilfred Latour. More recently, Simien has fronted the Joe Simien Cajun Band, a group organized by fiddler Lisa Haley of L.A.’s Zydeco Party Band.

Though Simien enjoys performing with his Southern California cohorts, he maintains, “It really helps to be born with this music, to be from back home. See, sometimes they don’t know what I’m doing. It’s fine with the things we have practiced. But the way I am, when we’re playing I might come up with something I used to play when I was 10 years old. And then my goose is cooked. They all stand there and look at me. But back home, whatever you come up with they can follow you, because they grew up hearing it all.”

The songs also conjure memories for Simien that can’t be fully shared by band-mates who didn’t grow up in the prairie country of southwest Louisiana.

“On stage sometimes it makes me think of things when I was young. Some of these pieces remind me of going out riding on a horse, when you’d go way out there on the country road, just sing and test your voice out. There’s nothing bad to the memory, but you can get so deep into it you feel kind of blue, I guess. Most of the time, though, I’m just trying to get the people there to get up and jump around.”

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The Joe Simien Cajun Band will perform Cajun and zydeco music at 9 p.m. Saturday at the Sunset Beach Club, 777 S. Main St., Orange. Free Cajun dance lessons will precede the concert at 8:30 p.m. and Creole food will be available for purchase. Admission: $8. Information: (714) 835-7922.

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