When I call the Waldorf Astoria in Toronto and ask the receptionist to ring Stanley Dural's room, there is some confusion. After checking his registration list a few times, the receptionist finally exclaims in the most proper of British accents, "Oh, you must mean Mr. Buckwheat."
Actually, it's easy to envision Stanley (Buckwheat) Dural striding through the Waldorf's luxurious lobby decked out on tour, as he is on his album covers, in a regal purple robe and jeweled crown. But Buckwheat is no ordinary royalty, for the kingdom he rules is that of zydeco music. Holding court wherever there is a dance floor, his instrument of power is the accordion from which he pumps and squeezes cascading streams of bluesy notes that predictably drive his subjects wild. On Saturday he'll bring his party to Friendship Station.
Although Buckwheat has been a professional musician for 25 of his 37 years, it is only since 1980 that he has become the premier figure in zydeco music. Not only has he taken this contagious mix of cajun dance music and rhythm and blues to environs far removed from its home in south Louisiana, but he has expanded the style itself. By pulling zydeco away from its French and Caribbean folk roots toward more contemporary styles such as soul and funk, he has given zydeco a more useful and international appeal.
Born in Lafayette, La., in 1947, Buckwheat grew up in a region where the unique folk music of the French-speaking white and black populations was mostly insulated from the popular music of the rest of America. As a youngster, however, he was drawn away from his musical heritage by a new sound.
"My influence in music very early was Fats Domino and Little Richard," he explains. "I played piano since I was 4, and just loved those boogie-woogies. My dad was a traditional French zydeco musician, and he played accordion. I broke away from that, though. Like most kids, I didn't want to play accordion back then."
By his early teens he was playing rock 'n' roll and soul at social functions in Lafayette. As his prowess on the keyboards grew, he apprenticed with some of the more popular local bands and was often hired to back up a Fats Domino or Gatemouth Brown when they came through town. In 1971 he organized a 15-piece group, Buckwheat and the Hitchhikers, that became one of the region's most successful dance bands.
The turning point in Buckwheat's career came in 1976, when Clifton Chenier asked him to join his Red Hot Louisiana Band as organist. Chenier was not only the king of zydeco and a master blues accordionist, he was the only international figure in the music. Interestingly, it was an offhand challenge from Chenier that pushed Buckwheat toward the accordion.
"We were on a tour of California," he recalls. "The promoter also played accordion, and he had a couple of them laying around his house. I had never played except at my dad's once or twice, but I picked one up and started learning a song on the bass notes. Chenier said to the drummer, 'He'll never learn that instrument.' I thought it was a good challenge, and put my mind to it."
If Chenier inspired Buckwheat to finally take up his father's instrument, he also showed him that zydeco's party spirit and crazy rhythms could reach audiences that knew nothing of French Louisiana. In 1978, Buckwheat left Chenier's group to think things over.
"I respect Chenier a lot," he says. "He's a great gentleman, and through him I met a lot of people, like Muddy Waters. I also learned that the zydeco that I grew up with meant more than I thought, that it makes people happy anywhere. I was stuck in a different kind of music and didn't want to change, but Chenier influenced me. My dad kept telling me that I should try the accordion, so I finally decided to do it. I got one and stuck up in my house for eight months learning it. Then I formed my band."
Buckwheat organized his Ils Sont Partis (Off and Running) Band in 1978, and in two years it quickly became the heavy favorite in south Louisiana and east Texas. In 1980, he released the first of six albums and was soon challenging Chenier for the title of King of Zydeco. With Chenier's age and bad health slowing him down and with Buckwheat's zydeco featuring an unprecedented rhythmic punch, Buckwheat soon became the driving force in contemporary zydeco. There's little doubt that the music's growing popularity is partly due to his scintillating update of this high-spirited folk style.
"My dad played the older stuff, but I'm from a different generation and I have to play my roots, not his," Buckwheat says. "So I've modified the old zydeco, modernized it a bit. The younger generation would never get into zydeco if you didn't give a little bit to them. So I put soul, rock and jazz into my zydeco and mixed it all up. You see, I just want to play my music, not someone else's."