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Zydeco

Zydeco


Zydeco is a style of popular dance music played by African Americans of Francophone descent in the Gulf Coast region, particularly in the bayou country of southwestern Louisiana. Despite its frenetic tempos, often led by a buoyant singer doubling on accordion, the term zydeco derives from the old Louisiana song "Les Haricots Sont Pas Salés," literally translated as "the green beans aren't salted," but commonly having the meaning "times aren't good."

The origins of zydeco go back to the popular dance tunes of French settlers, or Acadians, who were expelled from Nova Scotia by the British and arrived in Louisiana in the eighteenth century. They intermarried with African Americans and Native Americans of French and Spanish descent, and their European-derived string music absorbed Afro-Caribbean rhythmic elements. The first zydeco recordings, difficult to distinguish from other forms of Cajun music, are 1934 field recordings, including "Cajun Negro Fais Dos-Dos Tune," by Ellis Evans and Jimmy Lewis, and "Les Haricots Sont Pas Salés," by Austin Coleman and Joe Washington. Accordionist Amadé Ardoin was an important early zydeco musician whose "Les Blues de la Prison" (1934) shows a strong blues influence.

After World War II, rhythm and blues began to influence zydeco, a development clearly heard on Clarence Garlow's "Bon Ton Roula" (1950), which translates as "Let the Good Times Roll." During this time, the accordionist Clifton Chenier (19251988), perhaps the greatest of all zydeco musicians, came to prominence. Born in Opelousas, Louisiana, in 1925, he made his first recordings in the 1950s. Chenier pioneered the use of the piano accordion (an accordion with a keyboard) in zydeco music. Among the many popular and important records, noted for their heavy dance rhythms, that Chenier made before his death from diabetes in 1987 are "Black Gal" (1965), "Jambalaya" (1975), and Country Boy Now (1984).

In Louisiana, zydeco is invariably performed for dancers, often at nightclubs, dance halls, churches, picnics, and house parties known as "fais-do-do." Zydeco bands are typically led by a singer; with lead accompaniment by fiddle, button or piano accordion, or guitar; and with backing by a rhythm section of bass, piano, and drums. The harmonica, washboard, "frottoir" (a metal rubbing board played with household implements), and the "bas trang" (triangle), were often used earlier in the century, but today are often replaced by electric instruments. Zydeco is sung in the patois of Creole Louisiana, with lyrics ranging from narrative tales, love songs, and laments to simple invocations of dancing and good times.

Although zydeco has been, along with jazz and blues, a mainstay of the secular music scene among the Creole-descended population along the Gulf Coast from Louisiana to Texas, it has also achieved international popularity, and its greatest exponents have become celebrities with prolific touring and recording schedules. In addition to Chenier, other important zydeco musicians include accordionist Boozoo Chavis ("Paper In My Shoe," 1984), singer Queen Ida (Cookin' With Queen Ida, 1989), Rockin' Sidney ("My Toot Toot," 1984), and Lawrence "Black" Ardoin ("Bayou Two Step," 1984). Important ensembles include the Lawrence Ardoin Band, Terrence Semiens and the Mallet Playboys, and Buckwheat Zydeco's Ils Sont Partis Band.

Although zydeco and Cajun music share many musical elements and have common sociocultural origins in the late nineteenth-century contact between Creoles and Acadians, they are distinct forms, representing two aspects of the complex, multiracial culture that also produced jazz. Zydeco tends toward faster tempos, a syncopated rhythmic structure, and a de-emphasis of the melodic line. Cajun's rhythms are often more rigid two-step dances or waltzes emphasizing melody. Zydeco has been documented in such films as Zydeco: Creole Music and Culture in Rural Louisiana (1984), and J'ai Eté au Bal (1991). Zydeco continues to be popular. In some cases, as with musicians such as Buckwheat Zydeco, who studied with Clifton Chenier, zydeco traditions have been mixed with influences of other forms of music.

See also Music; Rhythm and Blues

Bibliography

Ancelet, Barry Jean, and E. Morgan. The Makers of Cajun Music. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1984.

Broven, John. South to Louisiana: The Music of the Cajun Bayous. Gretna, La.: Pelican Publishing Co., 1983.

Spitzer, Nicholas. "Zydeco and Mardi Gras: Creole Identity and Performance Genres in Rural French Louisiana." Ph.D. diss., University of Texas at Austin, 1986.

jonathan gill (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005

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