Ida Lewis grew up listening to lots of lively zydeco and Cajun music played on accordion in Beaumont, Texas during the 1930s and ‘40s. She was fascinated by the instrument but never considered playing one herself.“They didn’t think it was feminine for a girl to play the accordion,” she told this writer in 1990. “Actually, at the time, it wasn’t feminine for a girl to play any instrument unless it was a piano or a violin.”
Ida was born in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and spoke only French until she was 6. She drove a tractor on her father’s rice farm during World War II. Years later, having relocated to San Francisco, she drove a school bus while her husband was at work and their three children at school.
When not cooking gumbo, jambalaya or crawfish etouffee, she began experimenting with a diatonic accordion that belonged to her brother, guitarist Al Lewis. Painstakingly pushing and pulling the instrument as she pressed its buttons, she eventually began producing coherent melodies.
Armed with only a handful of tunes, some of which she knew only partially, Ida made her public debut backed by her brother’s band in 1975 at a zydeco dance in the social hall of All Hallows Church in San Francisco. It was only intended as a onetime affair, but a writer who attended the dance wrote a story for California Living magazine, which put her picture on the cover and dubbed her “Queen Ida.”
When calls from club owners started coming in, she began fronting her brother’s group, rechristened Queen Ida and Her Bon Temps Zydeco Band. By 1990, she had recorded eight albums and won two Grammys. The band regularly toured the U.S., Canada, Europe and Japan, and in 1989, made its African debut on a U.S. Information Agency-sponsored tour.
Ida sang most of her lyrics in French. Of the six African countries they performed in, five were once French colonies – Algeria, Senegal, Cote d’Ivorie, Togo and the Congo Republic. Audiences in those nations, she said, had no trouble understanding her lyrics.
“For me it was like going back to Louisiana, where the people speak French, or going to France or Switzerland,” she explained. “It gave me a chance to speak my patois with the people there. They understood me better than I understood them.”
Her pioneering work as the first Creole female to play accordion professionally inspired a second generation of women to follow in her footsteps – including recording artists Ann Goodly, Dora Jenkins and Rosie Ledet.
Today, at age 86, the queen of zydeco is retired and living in Daly City.