Keys To The Kingdom: Robert Mugge discusses the making of “The Kingdom of Zydeco”

By on July 1, 2016

Robert Mugge’s The Kingdom of Zydeco is a classic film about the Golden Era of Southwest Louisiana’s Creole music scene and looks back at the black Creole music scene of Southwest Louisiana and at attempts, in the mid 1990s, to name a new “king of zydeco.” Watch it now on Night Flight Plus!

Robert Mugge and Scott Billington in Lafayette 1

Robert Mugge, left, and Scott Billington in Lafayette

Robert Mugge gave Night Flight this exclusive behind-the-scenes look at the making of his film:

After I completed Pride and Joy: The Story of Alligator Records with funding from BMG Video’s David Steffen, I tried to convince David he should fund me to produce a companion film about Rounder Records, another highly successful indie label.

More than anything, I wanted to focus a film on a wide range of regional American music scenes, and a portrait of Rounder, known for its eclectic musical interests, seemed the perfect vehicle for such diverse exploration.

As it happened, while I had been wrapping up work on the Alligator portrait, David had been in regular contact with the head of the International Bluegrass Music Association, which was then based in Owensboro, Kentucky. The IBMA was preparing its annual International Bluegrass Music Awards ceremony and marketplace, and David proposed I film the event for him.

I did not share David’s enthusiasm, because someone else had recently produced a very good, feature-length doc about bluegrass, but even more because I prefer to shoot traditional musicians in (or on) the clubs, festivals, front porches, and living rooms where they normally play, rather than as part of a slick, corporate awards show.

The Kingdom of Zydeco #26

David and I went round and round about this for months, each arguing the merits of his own favored project. Finally, though, I said, “Look, I can shoot both films on a single trip through the American South. That is, I can capture bluegrass in Owensboro for both the IBMA film and the Rounder film; then, for the Rounder film alone, I can record blues in Memphis, blues and Tex-Mex in Austin, R&B and jazz in New Orleans, and Cajun and zydeco music in Southwest Louisiana.

“By the end of the one trip,” I declared, “I will have shot everything we need for the bluegrass film, and only a quick additional trip to Cambridge, Massachusetts will be needed to finish up the Rounder film, basically just shooting a day’s worth of interviews at Rounder’s offices and a quick folk music performance somewhere in the area.”

Chavis Family

Chavis Family

I must admit that, thanks to the unpredictability of certain Rounder artists, our shooting schedule ended up more involved than I had predicted. But the key point here is that, after I also was able to secure co-production money for each of the two projects, David finally accepted my notion of shooting both feature-length films for only slightly more than we would have spent to shoot just one.

Clearly, at that point, I should then have been quite satisfied. However, as I began working with Rounder’s Scott Billington on plans for shooting Rounder artists in Louisiana, I saw that we might have the makings of a third film as well.

Years of producing top artists of both New Orleans and Southwest Louisiana had made Scott extremely well-connected throughout the state and, arguably, his most exciting act of that moment was zydeco artist Beau Jocque. Scott easily convinced me to shoot a Beau Jocque concert in Southwest Louisiana in order to represent Rounder’s commitment to Creole music of the region.

Road Signs

Of course, I assumed that would mean filming in a typically smoky club in or around the zydeco epicenter of Lafayette. But the ever-ambitious Beau Jocque chose instead to set up a “battle of the bands” between himself and zydeco pioneer Boozoo Chavis at the cavernous Habibi Temple in Lake Charles.

Knowing that the highly respected “king of zydeco” Clifton Chenier had recently passed, as had Chenier’s chosen successor Rockin’ Dopsie, Beau Jocque saw this as a chance to establish that he – currently the most popular artist in Southwest Louisiana zydeco clubs – should be acknowledged as the zydeco heir apparent.

Robert Mugge and Boozoo Chavis

Robert Mugge and Boozoo Chavis

For his part, Boozoo Chavis, who had helped to invent zydeco back in the 1950s, then quit performing for years before finally returning, considered this idea the height of presumption from a trendy newcomer. Still, Boozoo agreed to participate, and Scott made me understand just how special this event could be.

Once the concert was set, Scott and I started calling others within the Southwest Louisiana music scene to get additional views of this nascent “king controversy.” One of my calls was to Lou Gabus, the highly determined head of the Louisiana Hall of Fame who, it turned out, had committed to crowning one of these artists as king at her organization’s annual awards ceremonies.

Lou Gabus and Dopsie

Lou Gabus and Dopsie

I then spoke to the head of the Zydeco Association who told me how appalled he was that a white woman from the Hall of Fame would presume to choose a king for an African American musical genre. With Scott’s help, I also reached out to local deejays, record store owners, club owners, and especially musicians who had their own opinions about this impending drama taking place in their community.

At last, I felt I had enough evidence to make the case to David that, while in Southwest Louisiana, we should make still another film about the struggle to designate a new “king of zydeco.” David, of course, had limits to his corporate budget and therefore was reluctant. But in short order, he did come up with a few more dollars and declared that, if I could make the additional film for that paltry amount, I should feel free.

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To my enormous surprise, aside from a realistic budget, I had been given everything requested. As a result, for the first time in my life, I would be expected to produce three films simultaneously – one on bluegrass, one on zydeco, and one on a record label which, itself, recorded and distributed music of multiple genres.

In preparation, I filled multiple notebooks with ideas regarding the stories I would tell, the performances I would record, the interviews I would conduct, the themes I would explore, the locations I would visit, and so forth. I also hired crews, booked hotel rooms, arranged transportation, and so much more for three films rather than for just one, and I figured out all of the ways in which efforts made for each would overlap with efforts made for the others.

I had shot two previous films in multiple cities, so I had a good idea of what would be involved. For Deep Blues (1991), my crew and I had formed a caravan of vehicles driving from Memphis, TN and West Memphis, AK down through much of the state of Mississippi. But on this trip, we would be shooting in multiple states – Kentucky, Tennessee, Texas, and Louisiana – so the experience would be more like that for Kumu Hula: Keepers of a Culture (1989), where we had to transport people and equipment to each of the six major Hawaiian islands.

In other words, we would have to fly key crew members and their equipment to each state in succession, meet up with a music recording truck, and then drive several vehicles to chosen locations. (Six years later, I would repeat the Deep Blues model for Rhythm ‘N’ Bayous: A Road Map to Louisiana Music, and again, six years after that, for New Orleans Music In Exile.)

Jocque Family

Jocque Family

In Southwest Louisiana, we not only had to shoot the big Beau Jocque/Boozoo Chavis concert in Lake Charles, but also multiple other Cajun-or-zydeco-related interviews and performances throughout the region. This was on top of filming Little Jimmy King in Memphis; Marcia Ball and Tish Hinojosa in Austin; Irma Thomas and Henry Butler in New Orleans; and Peter Rowan, Doc Watson, Ralph Stanley, and countless others in Owensboro.

All of it was hugely exciting. But for me, it was the zydeco shoots that proved the most compelling. In addition to capturing hours of live music and dance, I felt as if I were assembling a Shakespearean drama, complete with characteristic conflict, intrigue, and soliloquies, as well as colorful characters even Shakespeare himself would have loved.

Sid and Nathan

Sid and Nathan Williams

From Beau Jocque’s teasing confidence, to Boozoo’s hair-trigger resentment, to Sid Williams’s defiant entrepreneurship, to Lou Gabus’ paternalistic view of minority culture, the region was an absolute wellspring of personality and short-focus productivity.

Once primary shooting was completed for the three films, David made clear he wanted the bluegrass one edited first, and I had no complaint with that. Bluegrass founder Bill Monroe had proven unavailable due to illness, and bluegrass superstar Alison Krauss had refused to let us use her performances, since she felt the bad weather had adversely affected her voice.

So, I had settled on a simple structure built around Peter Rowan guiding us through the Owensboro events and reciting the history of the genre, while I also tried to limit expectations by naming the film simply Gather at the River: A Bluegrass Celebration. I managed to finish it quickly enough that David was able to release it on VHS in January of 1994, the same month that co-funder The Nashville Network (TNN) hosted their first national broadcast of a one-hour version. It also came out on laserdisc a short time later.

The Kingdom of Zydeco #22

In April, I took a small crew back to Lafayette to film Ms. Gabus’s controversial crowning of a new king of zydeco, and a month later, I completed that film as well. I titled it The Kingdom of Zydeco, because I felt the name suggested a sense of place for the Creole music community of Southwest Louisiana, as well as the widespread desire for validation among the musicians themselves.

Unfortunately, by the time this second of the three films was finished, BMG had named new heads for its North American operations, and David did not wish to be part of the German corporation’s new order. With David hastily gone, a new boss was named for BMG Video, and it quickly became clear that this new boss cared nothing for his predecessor’s projects.

Kermon Richard

Kermon Richard

Consequently, by the time the completed zydeco film was submitted to BMG, no one there had any interest in releasing it. The same happened a few months later when I submitted True Believers: The Musical Family of Rounder Records.

That is, the new boss simply ignored it. Even though I had added a New Hope, PA performance by folk singer Bill Morrissey and a Philly radio appearance by lovely but recalcitrant star Alison Krauss (Rounder’s best-selling artist ever), the company which had funded the project essentially disowned it.

Fortunately, I had retained theatrical rights for all three films. So, at least I was able to screen all of them at festivals and in occasional theatrical engagements. But with BMG not releasing two of them on video or offering any of them for TV broadcasts, the three basically just sat on the shelf from that point forward. In addition, BMG’s continuing failure to pay off music rights further complicated my own efforts to show them in other ways.

The Kingdom of Zydeco #10

After a few years, BMG Video ceased to exist, and surprise negotiations took place which I am not at liberty to discuss. However, the result of these negotiations was that another division of BMG called BMG Special Products decided to release both Gather at the River and True Believers on DVD, and I assisted them with their preparations.

It also came to pass that rights for The Kingdom of Zydeco reverted to me, but I was unable to find another distributor willing to pay off the unpaid music rights for the film, or who would pay to remaster the original film and audio materials in HD. Anyway, such was the case until recently, when MVD Visual agreed to do all of that as part of a larger deal to release many of my older and newer films.

The Kingdom of Zydeco #28

The “happy ending” for this long and convoluted story is that, late this past April (2016), MVD released my newly remastered version of The Kingdom of Zydeco on Blu-ray, complete with some significant bonus materials. The latter include Iguanas In My House (1996), my half-hour film about New Orleans band The Iguanas; Introduction to the Kingdom, my video on the making of the film; and A Royal Title, a video in which my friend Michael Tisserand explains how he came to borrow the name of the film for his own definitive Creole music book, The Kingdom of Zydeco.

I should also note that, at the same time MVD Visual released The Kingdom of Zydeco on Blu-ray, they also released my 2000 film Rhythm ‘N’ Bayous: A Road Map to Louisiana Music on DVD and my 2015 film Zydeco Crossroads: A Tale of Two Cities on Blu-ray.

These later films flesh out and carry forward the musical stories we first told with The Kingdom of Zydeco, including updates on some of the same marvelous characters. Later this year, MVD and I also plan to release a Blu-ray of my 2006 film New Orleans Music in Exile, including a great many bonus performances.

Life is good.

Sid Williams

Sid Williams

As to the musicians themselves, in September of 1994, respected zydeco traditionalist John Delafose suffered a fatal heart attack at age 55. He died less than a year after we filmed him performing with his grandson Gerard, never comprehending all that “fuss” about Beau Jocque and Boozoo Chavis. Dynamic game-changer Beau Jocque (born Andrus J. Espre in 1953) would die of a heart attack himself in 1999, only 45 at the time, and still hugely popular.

Elder statesman Boozoo Chavis, feisty yet increasingly regal, would succumb both to a heart attack and a stroke in May of 2001. At age 70, he could rest in peace, knowing his major contributions had been acknowledged at last.

The Kingdom of Zydeco #20

Of the four headliners in The Kingdom of Zydeco, only Nathan Williams, born in 1964, is still performing today. In fact, of that group, he alone also appears in Rhythm ‘N’ Bayous and Zydeco Crossroads, joined in the latter by his sons Nate and Naylon, the future of zydeco seeming assured.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Scott Billington helped to empower a growing musical scene by capturing the heart of it on stellar CDs. In 1993, as the various sides of that scene – musical, political, and emotional – were reaching critical mass, he also assisted me in capturing them on film. This was a moment like no other, and we were proud to play a part.

© 2016 Robert E. Mugge/All photos courtesy of Robert Mugge

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About Robert Mugge

Robert Mugge has been making feature-length documentaries and music films for the past four decades. According to France’s Libération, “Mugge is nothing less than the best music filmmaker on the planet." Among the better-known of his 34 films to date are DEEP BLUES, GOSPEL ACCORDING TO AL GREEN, SUN RA: A JOYFUL NOISE, BLACK WAX with Gil Scott-Heron, SAXOPHONE COLOSSUS with Sonny Rollins, ENTERTAINING THE TROOPS with Bob Hope, HELLHOUNDS ON MY TRAIL: THE AFTERLIFE OF ROBERT JOHNSON, THE KINGDOM OF ZYDECO, BLUES DIVAS with Morgan Freeman, and NEW ORLEANS MUSIC IN EXILE. His latest productions are ZYDECO CROSSROADS: A TALE OF TWO CITIES and STEVE BELL STORYTELLER: A NEWSMAN LIVING HISTORY. Since 2005, his production partner has been Diana Zelman, to whom he is now married. For five years, he was an Endowed Chair Professor at Ball State University, and for two years he was Filmmaker in Residence for Mississippi Public Broadcasting. Many of his films, both old and new, are currently being released on Blu-ray or DVD by MVD Visual. Much more about Mugge's career is available at www.robertmugge.com.