Cajun & Zydeco

Cajun Music has evolved throughout the years responding to influences from the African American influenced Creole, Blues, Country Music, and Zydeco and to a lesser extent Rock and Roll into a contemporary style.

When the Acadians arrived in Southern Louisiana they brought with them a music that had French origins but had already been changed in response to their homeland of Acadia and their trials and tribulations after their British exile. These songs were ballads describing their life. The primary musical instruments were the triangle and the fiddle. The fiddle was the predominant instrument. It was common to have two fiddles with one playing the lead or melody while the other assumed a back- up role.

In the mid 1800s the accordion, a German invention, was introduced into Cajun Music. It was melodious and could be easily heard across a crowded dance floor. It, however, in early years had limitations because it was unable to play as many chords as the fiddle. It saw limited use until the introduction in 1925 of newer versions that could be tuned in C and D making it more useful, and today it is a prominent feature in Cajun Music.

In the 1930’s and the 1940’s many Cajun Music bands began incorporating electric and steel guitars in response to the influence of Texas Country Music, the accordion was sometimes used but it was not the lead instrument. This style opened the doors for Cajuns. In the 1960’s there was a renewal of national interest in traditional Cajun Music. Dewey Balfa, Gladius Thibodeaux and Vinesse LeJeune accepted an invitation to represent Cajun Music at the Newport Folk Festival. This was the first time Cajun Music was heard in such a setting. After their performance they received a standing ovation and since that time several other Cajun performers have been invited to perform at the festival. Today the many forms of Cajun Music as well as Zydeco remain very popular not only in Cajun Country but worldwide. During this resurgence in the 1970’s another genre of music began to develop and gain national attention. Zydeco emerged as a Creole based music borrowing from Cajun Music. The washboard is an instrument unique to Zydeco Music. It is a piece of corrugated metal (either wooden framed or worn as a vest) played usually with bottle openers or by a string of caps down the length of the vest. The accordion is the primary instrument to play the melodies.

Zydeco is a type of music that evolved from an acoustic folk idiom known as la-la, dating back to the 1920s and unique to black Creoles originally from rural southwest Louisiana.

In zydeco the primary lead instrument is the accordion, and the fundamental cadences come from the polyrhythmic manipulation of hand-held metal utensils such as spoons scraped for percussive effect against the surface of a washboard (known in French as le frottoir). But since the 1950s zydeco instrumentation has included standard drums, electric bass, electric guitar, and even piano, organ, saxophone, and trumpet. Zydeco singing—plaintive vocalizing in a blues style—typically combines English and French.

Singer and accordionist Amédé Ardoin (1898–ca. 1950) is generally recognized as the most influential figure in the early development of Creole music. This native Louisianan made seminal la-la recordings, heavily influenced by traditional white Cajun music played at a regular measured tempo.

“la-la” increasingly came to highlight Afro-Caribbean rhythms, in which accents shifted to various beats. The role of the washboard became more pronounced, laying the trademark “chanka-chank” foundation over which a featured accordionist would perform. And the repertoire began to expand beyond old-style French songs to encompass urban sounds and more technologically advanced instruments.

The origins of the word zydeco have been traced to a French lyric that surfaced first in various Creole folk songs in Louisiana: “les haricots sont pas salé” (roughly, “the snapbeans are not salted”). Zydeco derives from the first two words, “les haricots.” Among various attempts at making an English spelling correspond to the black Creole pronunciation,
z-y-d-e-c-o eventually prevailed, under the influence of folklorists.

Movement of black Creole music into the public venues established the zydeco sound as a form of popular entertainment. Soon after that, the owners of clubs and lounges decided to cease booking big bands and to feature Creole accordion music performed by stalwarts.

One black Creole, Clifton Chenier (1925–1987), generally 949, impromptu concerts that drew large crowds, acknowledged today as the “King of Zydeco”—the musician most responsible for popularizing the music. Among Chenier’s innovations were the employment of the large piano-key chromatic accordion, which has a wider musical range than the traditional diatonic instrument, and the invention of the modern washboard vest, which expanded the musical possibilities for percussion beyond the limitations of the previously hand-held household utensil. In 1964 at the Gold Star studio in Houston, Chenier recorded the classic song “Zydeco Sont Pas Salé,” in which the producer abandoned the French phrase les haricots for the potent new word…..“Zydeco”


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