Sandra Broussard Davis, 60, sits in the empty recesses of the Acadiana Center for the Arts’ black box theater, her aqua lacquered nails resting neatly on the lap of her oversized, paisley-print tunic. Her headscarf, a Pantone-perfect match to her polish, is knotted in a dainty rosette — or fiery sunburst, depending on your point of view.
It’s the eve of International Women’s Day, and Davis and her group, The Broussard Sisters, are preparing for the opening night of Femme: A celebration of women in Acadiana Music. They will perform three songs in the juré tradition — a call-and-response, instrument-free style, born in the communities surrounding her native Opelousas.
She hands me a piece of paper, saying, “This is all you need to know.” And, after reading a few sentences, I see she has a point: “My father, the late Delton Broussard, was well known as a French Creole musician,” it reads in a school teacher’s precise script. “My mother was the late Ethle Mae Sonnier Broussard. My brothers played traditional zydeco. My grandfather was the late Joseph Emoi Sonnier…”
Davis hails from zydeco royalty. But even if you didn’t have a record of her lineage, it would only take a few minutes of watching her on stage to verify the authenticity of her art. Alongside her sisters, Davis performs with her entire body — and soul — oscillating between poised pancake claps to stage-shaking, staccato stomps that could put any snare drum to shame.
Davis took some time before the show to share what sparked her passion for traditional music, why it’s important for her to continue performing and what she hopes to pass down to future generations.
Can you describe your musical background? How did you learn juré?
My background is with my family. They are very traditional. My father is a well-known French Creole musician and so were my mother and grandparents. My brother is known as the Creole Cowboy. My sisters all sing and play instruments and so does my son (Jimmy Seraile Jr., known as “Lil Pookie”), grandsons and all my nephews and nieces.
Juré is a different dance — it’s different from Zydeco. We are Catholic, and during Lent we had no instruments. So they would use sticks, old tubs to hit on, washboards and anything they could use to make their own music. They would go from house to house playing. They would sit on the porch and make their own music. While they would sing, my mother and her sisters would make a circle and dance, clapping, stomping and moving from side to side.
What sparked your interest in this type of music? Were there women you looked up to?
As a little girl, I would watch my mom and her sisters dance, wearing long, wide skirts or wide, long dresses with scarves tied on their heads. I would peek in and see them doing dances. My parents would tell us to leave, but I would sneak back. I could tell they loved it.
Why is it so important to you to keep performing traditional music?
I started doing it because my Mama did it, and I wanted to keep the culture going. I go to all the festivals. Youngsters can forget about what happened and where our traditions come from. Today they’re doing zydeco totally different. I would prefer to have the old tradition alive. I want to show people how pure it was done long ago. It’s more alive.
The lyrics of your songs are about hard times, but as you mentioned, your performance is so full of life. How do you feel your music impacts your audience?
It lifts people’s spirits. Last night we were practicing, and everyone just stopped and had this look on their faces. It’s so awesome every time we perform. This is what they need to bring back. That’s what people want in life. Things that make them laugh, that make them wonder and think.
What do you hope to pass down to younger generations of women?
When I go do zydeco, I’m a very good dancer. Young girls look at me and be like this [opens her eyes wide]. So, I pull them aside, I start off slow, and I teach them. I like this because I used to be a teacher — I have my associate’s degree. I would teach the children in my class zydeco. I made them instruments out of cardboard: a guitar, scrub board and even little drums.
Did you ever feel restricted in the type of music you could play or perform as a woman?
No. Anything I wanted to do, I would. I used to play the bass in my dad’s band. I can play the guitar. My brothers played, my siblings also played. We all play music.
Do you plan to continue performing in the future?
Yes indeed! I’m so happy when I perform — it keeps me young. Because of music, I feel the way I want to feel. I want to do like my brother and continue to play and perform.
What does it mean to you to play in a show featuring only women that celebrates women performers?
I love it. I feel like we are all sisters. I feel like they are my family. I always like to be around women who perform. We tell each other what we do. I love learning how they learned how to play and how they got where they are. We all share our stories.