His father invented the type of Zydeco rubboard that is synonymous with the music of South Louisiana. Tee Don has carried on the tradition, making and rubbing boards – as well as shoulders – with some of the world’s top musicians in the process.
It’s a one-off instrument producing a sound that is deeply rooted in zydeco and Cajun music, but the distinctive rhythm of the rubboard is also being heard in a whole range of music genres around the world these days. The driving force behind the rise and rise of the rubboard is a laid-back Texan who was raised in Lafayette, Louisiana, Don Landry – otherwise known as Tee Don, and the man at the Cajun heart ‘Key of Z’ rubboards. Each individual rubboard, or “frottoir” to give the instrument its Cajun French name, is handcrafted by Tee Don and is numbered and registered. Over the years, Tee Don reckons he’s made nearly 3,000 of his own special type of rubboard and his customers include a list of top musicians and international stars who have bought their own “Key of Z” instrument.
Rubboards for Rihanna
One of his most recent – and unusual – requests was to design 12 rubboards in an hourglass shape that were used by dancers on tour with R&B superstar, Rihanna. Tee Don’s other customers have included the legendary Billy F Gibbon of acclaimed rockers and zydeco band ZZ Top, Kid Rock, Cyril Neville of the Neville Brothers, Lyle Lovett’s drummer Dan Tomlinson, Boo Zoo Chavis, the list goes on…
A percussion instrument that has a ribbed metal surface and is played by strumming with a bottle opener, spoon handle or other metal implement to produce the characteristic sound of Cajun music, the rubboard remains one of the few instruments to be invented in the United States. Most people will recognise the similarities to the old fashioned washboard that has been used in jazz and skiffle bands, but Tee Don’s “Key of Z” rubboards are wholly unique, and not just in the sound they produce.
It was Tee Don’s father, Willie Landry, together with renowned Cajun accordionist Clifton Chenier, who produced the first such rubboard in 1946 – which is essentially a modified version of the wooden washboard. Tee Don takes up the story,
“My dad was the first fabricator of the rubboard with the shoulder straps. Before they were using old wooden ones and put a rope around their neck to hang it. In 1946, my dad was working in a refinery in Port Arthur and he was asked if he could make one with straps on it and with a rounded top, which he said he could – the rest, as they say, is history!”
Authentic zydeco sound
According to Tee Don, without the unique sound of a rubboard, no band can legitimately call itself zydeco! “That’s how it all started, with an accordion first, then a rubboard, then drums, and guitar. Now it’s keyboards and everything else – but the real zydeco is still just accordion and rubboard.” That doesn’t mean to say that only zydeco bands add the rubboard rhythm to their music. “Blues bands, church bands, hillbilly bands, and rockabilly bands all buy them. It’ll fit into any kind of music if you play it tastefully,” says Tee Don, adding, “It’s a fun instrument and people want to have fun with it, but it’s also a loud instrument and if you don’t learn how to play it right, the rubboard can take over everything else.”
TeeDon – Musician and maker
Learning to play the rubboard isn’t hard, but it takes a lot of practice to develop a good technique. He observes,
“There are young players out there who are amazing and play the hell out of the rubboard – sparks fly – but there are very few that have really good techniques, who take the instrument seriously. The rubboard is like a novelty for some people, they don’t think it’s a real instrument, until they put it on. Then it’s a whole different ball game!”
Tee Don has played the rubboard for many years and travelled the world with different zydeco bands. These days he also plays drums and sings in a blues band, the Wayne Blue Burns band, in and around Lafayette. A trained welder, he had his own trucking business while making rubboards on the side, but now manufactures them full time. Each handmade rubboard takes around two hours to make and the process is all manual. Tee Don explains, “It’s all handmade, all bent by hand, with no electricity involved. Each one is stainless steel and is guaranteed not to rust, bust, collect dust, rip, ride, or come apart at the seams!”
Now 67, and with 15 grandchildren, Tee Don says he plans to go on making rubboards for, “As long as my heart’s beating and I’m healthy enough to do it. I don’t really have anyone else who wants to learn how to do it. It’s not something you’re going to make a lot of money to start with so rubboard is not something for a young person to make a living from.” Today, as well as selling his “Key of Z” rubboards to his regular musician customers, he also sells online and at events such as the Lafayette Festival International where he’s had a stall for the past six years. But what about some advice for any young musicians trying to build a career and who want to include the rubboard in their repertoire?
“Be yourself, have fun with it, and do your own thing.”