Corey Ledet can chew gum and channel Clifton Chenier at the same time. Broadcasting live on Facebook from a field in Parks, he cascades notes from his accordion in syncopation. One foot thumps a kick drum with a pedal, and the other slaps a snare drum. Ledet rips into the vocal. Multi-tasking is old hat for Ledet. But singing in Kouri-Vini is a new adventure.
Ledet has taken to performing on livestreams to promote his 14th record, Corey Ledet Zydeco, a recording of family discovery. A seasoned player, Ledet digs deep on the release, which came out in January, learning a “new” language to connect with his lineage and with his hero, Clifton Chenier. The record finds him authoring five songs in Kouri-Vini, the Creole language his family spoke for generations.
Ledet was raised in Houston, but when he turned 18 he moved back to Parks, where he had spent his summers with relatives as a child. He wasn’t much more than aware of Kouri-Vini.
“My dad was teaching it to me when I was younger, but then he sort of pulled back,” Ledet says. “I was part of that generation when the older people didn’t want us to speak it.”
For many people, the term Kouri-Vini may be less familiar than the alternative Creole. Kouri-Vini is an old name for the Louisiana Creole language in some areas of the state, and its use has more recently been revived by local language activists, who prefer the specificity Kouri-Vini conveys. Because Creole can refer to everything from a person’s ethnicity to culinary traditions to musical styles, it is often the source of confusion. People who are ethnically Creole might speak Louisiana Creole, or they might speak Louisiana French; they might speak both, or they might speak neither if their family shifted to speaking only English.
“Creole is an open-ended word that can have thousands of meanings, and all kinds of people associate with it, whether they speak a certain language or not,” says producer and bandmate Louis Michot, whose label Nouveau Electric put out Zydeco.
Other Creole languages of the world — Haitian or St. Lucian Creole, for example — are not the same language as Louisiana Creole. Given the potential sources of confusion, many prefer to use Kouri-Vini to be clear that they are talking about the Louisiana Creole language.
“Kouri-Vini is its own dialect specific to its people and its place; it’s spoken by both whites and Blacks, especially around St. Martin Parish, but it’s able to sort of connect with deeper Creole,” Michot adds.
Ledet’s enthusiasm for learning more about Kouri-Vini was rooted in his ongoing desire to connect with his family. While making the record, he insisted that his father, his family and people in the community speak Kouri-Vini with him, and help him learn the vocabulary and idioms of the language.
”I’ve heard it all my life and I could pretty much pick it up but couldn’t respond back,” Ledet says, “so I’ve been working on being able to respond back like everybody else, and maybe inspire someone else to learn this language to keep it going.”
Ledet’s father would eventually serve as a kind of consultant for the songs his son recorded, aiding Ledet’s quest for authenticity. Michot urged Ledet to write his own songs in Kouri-Vini and to document or record every kernel of a musical idea. It was a process that took years, and Michot and Ledet were in touch regularly. (They’re also both in the popular band Soul Creole.)
Ledet had long heard tales that his family had a large part in the jazz scene around the Parks area of St. Martin Parish. But in a book Michot loaned him about jazz trumpeter Bunk Johnson’s time in New Iberia, which ultimately inspired the making of Zydeco, Ledet learned just how deep that connection was.
Johnson was a trumpeter born in New Orleans in 1879 who moved to New Iberia in 1915 and was a peer of Louis Armstrong and greats like King Oliver and Sidney Bechet during the primordial years of jazz.
When Johnson migrated to New Iberia, he brought jazz with him. He eventually retired from music after losing his teeth in a barroom brawl, leaving him unable to play trumpet, and worked manual labor, occasionally teaching music. He resumed his music career in the early ’40s when he was rediscovered, given money for false teeth by admirers, and later heralded as one of the founders of jazz.
“The book documents my family, who they were and what they did at the beginning of the 1900s,” Ledet says of the history, Bunk Johnson: The New Iberia Years. “It’s a key to unlocking my past and my history, seeing who I am.”
In Zydeco, all roads lead back to Clifton Chenier. And Ledet’s family journey was no different. Chenier lived in New Iberia in the mid-40s where he cut cane and likely encountered Johnson’s band.
“Everybody in my family knew [Chenier], and when he was in [Parks] he played at my cousin’s club, and my grandfather played drums with him in his early career, so I feel the connection there,” Ledet says.
Chenier also made several recordings in Kouri-Vini through the years. Finally speaking the same language brought Ledet even closer to his idol. Ledet felt a kindred spirit.
“I feel connected through his language,” says Ledet. “And that’s really special to me, because it’s the language of my people.”