Cajun music and zydeco have long flourished as family affairs. The Chenier, Balfa, Ardoin, Savoy and Delafose dynasties all come quickly to mind, and so does the Rubin family. The late accordionist Alton Rubin (1932 - 1993), better known as Rockin’ Dopsie, fathered four sons who proudly celebrate his zydeco legacy today. And Dopsie’s son Dwayne fronts his own group, the aptly named Zydeco Hellraisers. "On Up In Flames" they unleash a supercharged musical that’s simultaneously traditional, contemporary, and futuristic.
Dwayne’s most obvious tie with tradition can be heard in his rough-edged singing, with its striking similarity to blues legend Howlin’ Wolf and the powerful zydeco vocalists Beau Jocque and Zydeco Joe. The latter two’s influence is especially obvious when Dwayne sings in French, as heard here on “Dopsie’s Zydeco.” In addition, his choice of the diatonic button accordion harkens back to such rural-tinged players as his father, Boozoo Chavis, and John Delafose. At the same time, Dwayne’s aggressive-yet-nimble playing bears the mark of a modernist whose adventurous phrasing flirts with rhythmic mayhem but always resolves right on time. His choice of notes and licks also venture far afield from the melodic/harmonic realm of zydeco’s blues-based mainstream – and yet they always fit, too. Dwayne’s deft accompanists, guitarist Shelton Sonnier and saxophonist Carl Landry, are similarly daring yet equally well-grounded soloists. The band’s fierce groove is further insured by the powerful three-man rhythm section of bassist Dion Pierre, frottoir player Alex MacDonald, and drummer Calvin Sam, from a popular zydeco band of the 1980s known as The Sam Brothers Five.
As a songwriter (all the selections here are original) Dwayne reveals a strong a sense of composition as he draws on influences from classic blues, zydeco and basic rock to country, ‘70s funk, and a touch of hip-hop. At moments these diverse elements all swirl together to create a poly-rhythmic hybrid that underscores zydeco’s Afro-Caribbean roots. Consider “When You Coming Back Home?,” which gains momentum and builds tension through a hard rocking, unusually elongated verse structure. It then climaxes in a burst of a capella vocal funk reminiscent of “Dance To The Music” by Sly & The Family Stone. In terms of lyrics, Dwayne tends to focus on unabashedly gushing tributes to his wife, Lauren. His songs have a sweet, ingenuous sentimentality that is truly affecting. For instance, he succinctly describes the opening track, “Feel So Good,” as “how I felt when I first met Lauren. I looked into her eyes and I knew she was the one.” In zydeco, as with many traditional genres, the same familiar songs tend to be played and recorded interminably, increasingly losing their punch with each repetition. Avoiding this repertoiric rut makes Dwayne’s sincere personal statements all the more refreshing. He exuberantly honors zydeco’s bottom-line purpose as dance music, but his words and music are never predictable.
With Up In Flames, his fifth album, Dwayne Dopsie emerges as at age thirty as an important and accomplished young zydeco bandleader. As such he joins a cadre of successful sons including C. J. Chenier, Geno Delafose, Little Nathan Williams and Chris Ardoin. “I’ve been playing since I was four,” Dwayne recalls, “and I learned by watching my dad. I enjoy all kinds of music, every genre, but zydeco is my love. Zydeco is soulful music, it’s old music that you can’t teach someone or learn from a book, and I was always fascinated with it. I’m glad that I stuck with, and I’ll tell you what – I think my dad would be very proud.”
– Ben Sandmel
Ben Sandmel is a New Orleans-based journalist, folklorist, producer, and drummer. The author of Zydeco!, a collaborative book with photographer Rick Olivier, Sandmel released a book about the New Orleans-based rhythm & blles singer Ernie K-Doe.