Published 09 Mar 2017
The country side of the south western Louisiana is dotted by small towns and boasts to its name the origination of Zydeco, a one of a kind, merger between musical customs of the French speaking African & American population residing in the United States. The birth of this musical practice can be traced back to the times when modern modes of entertainment were not available and the populace had to stay content with house dances. It was at these primarily French social gatherings that the white French speakers, or Cajun, and the black French speakers, or the Creole, mingled and a cultural exchange took place. These house dances are the roots of this musical practice and it is from here that the modern likening for Zydeco commenced. Called “la-la”, the music of these social gatherings found the platform on which modern day zydeco has evolved. Starting from Louisiana, the music slowly traveled with the black populace to the eastern part of Texas and to the state of California.
The phrase Zydeco hails from the French equivalent of “Beans”, that is les haricots. The story goes that the black population had a high usage for the phrase Les haricots sont pas salés, translated as “The snap beans aren’t salty”. Historical accounts indicate that this line has been the focus of a major part of black art and entertainment signifying the hard times that the black population had to live in, in those days. The black populace used salted meat to season their food. Beans formed a major part of their diet. However, when the going got tough, salted meat became a luxury and the expression “the beans aren’t salty” gained prominence.
The Origins of Zydeco
One of the first settlers to set up camp in Louisiana were the Acadians, forefathers to the Cajuns. French in nationality, they had previously inhabited Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Isle de Prince Edward. However, British hostility forced them to gradually take the road that led to the modern day state of Louisiana. This migration started in 1764 and was complete by 1775, when British hostility reached its limit. The settlers have managed to withstand several generations of change and development and even at the time of writing, a good number still resides in Louisiana, ardently adhering to some of the customs of their forefathers.
Zydeco falls under the ambit of American “roots” music. Inspired by soul, R&B and Cajun music, the roots of Zydeco lie in the country side of Southwest Louisiana, particularly in the black rural settlements surrounding the Opelousas, Ville Platte and Lafayette area.
The music itself is fast paced and requires the button accordion and a rub-board or frottoir as its main instruments. The music was an innovative natural move to bring together the population of south Louisiana together, regardless of color or race. Commencing at the dance halls, it slowly crept its way into local dance halls and nightclubs. Today it graces the social gatherings in the whole of the United States and has also been exported overseas.
The music is not just about blues and rock and roll. Instead, it is a dynamic merger of the aforementioned two with shuffles and waltzes. The Zydeco music industry has had its share of heroes too, with Clifton Chenier being the foremost Zydeco musician to gain popularity. Boozoo Chavis, Dennis McGee and John Delafose have been also well regarded peers of Chenier.
On to modern day developments, the term zydeco first appeared on the scene at the height of the cold war in the mid-1950s. These were the days that Clifton Chenier began catching public eye. Historians and the press have attributed to him the remark that the word zydeco was a derivative of the pronunciation of the words at the beginning of the song ‘Les Haricots Sont Pas Salé’. Although seemingly an attempt at being humorous, musical historians have in fact sided with this view. However, some in the “history business” claim that the name is a derivation and/or mutilation of the name of the African dance Zodico.
Due to the little prominence and hence lower demand of the music outside its sphere of influence in Louisiana and east Texas, Zydeco recording was impossible. However, the dance halls became the battle ground for Chenier and his arch competitor Boozoo Chavis, both gaining attention as excellent musicians.
It was Rockin Sidney’s super hit song ‘My Toot Toot’ in the early part of the 1980s that made Zydeco a household name. Making its way to the national charts in 1985, the future for Zydeco music was thrown wide open. Old legends and pioneers also found attention as Paul Simon hosted Clifton Chenier and Terrance Simien as guest artists on his Graceland. Hollywood found a likening for the genre too and
Zydeco music formed a major part of the soundtrack to the movie titled “The Big Easy”. This allowed further access to the American households.
The Acadian migration from Canada to modern day United States brought with it a lead instrument called the fiddle. The fiddle was replaced by the accordion somewhere in the 1850’s. Urban influences and commercialization of the genre forced the replacement of the button accordion with the more modern piano accordion. However, the highlight is the frottoir, a breastplate like instrument that is made lively by the use of bottle openers of old design and specification.
Zydeco has undergone a dynamic chain of development and today is a mix of pop music derivatives such as soul, rap, and reggae. The genre has slowly consolidated its roots in the English language and has become to be known as a favorite party music. Hollywood and the media have also adopted Zydeco and the genre now boasts international recognition and popularity. The music has maintained its status as a cultural helm of the Acadian settlers of Louisiana all this time, withstanding the winds of change.
Kuhlken, Robert. Zydeco. Farmington Hills: Saint James Press, 1999.