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Zydeco Music – What is it?

If I had £1 from everyone who has asked me the above question, I would be able to pay all our bands for the next six months!  I will explain here what Zydeco means to me, but to really appreciate it, you’ve got to hear it – preferably in a hot dance hall, with a great live band, lots of dancers, and in Louisiana!

I first heard Zydeco music on my first visit to New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, back in 1988.  As well as hearing some fantastic soul, blues, rock ‘n roll and Cajun ( bands including James Brown, BB King, Snooks Eaglin, the Sun Session band, Bo Diddley, Dr. John, Frankie Ford, Clarence ‘Frogman’ Henry, Ernie K. Doe, The Neville Bros. etc) I came across Buckwheat Zydeco, Queen Ida and Rockin’ Dopsie (Snr.)  Wow!  I was completely knocked out.  What was this amazing music and dancing all about?  I was already a seasoned Rock ‘n Roll dancer and also did a bit of Cajun, as well as lots of folk dance, but this was something different, more wild, more exciting, this was for me!  When I returned to London, I decided to seek out some Zydeco.  My luck was in!  I managed to see Buckwheat at the Festival Hall, part of the Capital Radio Jazz Festival, and also supporting Eric Clapton at the Albert Hall.  Unfortunately, that was about the tail end of the big Zydeco stars appearing in London.  However, there were several pubs in those days, the Dog & Dumplings in Islington and The Weavers Arms in Newington Green, where you could hear a wide mixture of world music.  They had some great Cajun Bands, including the legendary Crayfish Five and Steve Riley & The Mamou Playboys when they were over from the States, and also some excellent UK based bands who played a eclectic mixture of Zydeco, Cajun, Blues & Rock ‘n Roll, like The Balham Alligators, featuring the awesome Geraint Watkins, The Electric Bluebirds, and Pierre Le Rue.  You were always guaranteed a hot party night when they were on! 

Unfortunately, both these pubs closed down, and there was nowhere else in London to hear this type of music.  Ever since then, it has been my dream to bring Zydeco back to London, reaching people who otherwise may never have experienced the excitement of Zydeco music & dancing. We have some great festivals in the UK, particularly the annual Gloucester Cajun & Zydeco festival, held every January, where they get the best local bands and also fly in bands from the USA.  Otherwise, UK Zydeco fans are forced to travel to Louisiana to get their  fix!  Well, not any more!  Our dream is coming true on 16 June, when we are bringing a little bit of Louisiana to Finchley, North London.  

Definition of Zydeco

The official definition of Zydeco is a syncopated dance music played by the Creole French speaking people of African descent who historically lived on the prairies of South West Louisiana.  At its core is the sound of the accordion paired with the scraping of a rubboard.  The rubboard, or ‘Frottoir’ creates the distinctive percussive sound, the drums create a solid backbeat. The rubboard is worn on the chest, hooked over the shoulders and is made of corrugated steel.  Some accordionists prefer the piano accordion, others play the button box. Zydeco bands also comprise drums, electric guitars, bass and some also have keyboards, saxophone and harmonica.  A big difference between Cajun & Zydeco is that Cajun bands have fiddles, Zydeco bands do not.  My personal view is that Zydeco is more bluesey, Cajun more folkey. Cajun is derived from white music, as the Cajuns are descended from the French, whereas Zydeco is Black Creole music.  However, there is some cross – over, lots of Cajun bands play some Zydeco numbers, and both are influenced by each other. Zydeco is generally regarded as good time party music, although early Zydeco drew heavily on low down blues and Rhythm & Blues, as pioneered by Clifton Chenier in the ’50’s.  There are many different styles of Zydeco,  which has evolved considerably over the decades, and now draws on many different music sources like soul, disco, rock, rap and reggae.  A lot of purists would probably not consider my favourite band, Rockin’ Dopsie Jnr., & the Zydeco Twisters as a Zydeco band at all, as they play Rock, Blues & Rock ‘n Roll with a Zydeco flavour. 

The term ‘Zydeco’ is thought to have derived from a Creole French expression ‘Les Haricots sont pas sale’, which means ‘the beans aren’t salty’.  This is a lyrical metaphor for hard times – in the past, the Creoles seasoned their staple food, such as beans, with salted meat.  When times were bad, salted meat was too expensive, which explains why the ‘beans aren’t salty’. If you want to read the definitive book about Zydeco music and its origins, I highly recommend ‘Kingdom of Zydeco’, by Michael Tisserand. 

The Zydeco dance is a couple dance, led by the man in a close hold.  It is danced in a 4 – step beat, best way to describe it as a cross between Salsa, Jive and Blues.  Its very danceable music, and lots of people just jive to it!  

All fans have their favourite Zydeco bands, so I will just suggest my personal favourites if you want a taste of this wonderful music.

Clifton Chenier (The King of Zydeco!)

Rockin’ Dopsie Jnr. & The Zydeco Twisters

Rockin’ Dopsie (Snr.) & The Cajun Twisters

Buckwheat Zydeco & Ils Sont Partis Band

Queen Ida & Her Zydeco Band

Rockin’ Sidney (of ‘My Toot Toot’ fame)

Beau Jocque & The Zydeco Hi - Rollers

Keith Frank & The Soileau Zydeco Band

Sean Ardoin – n - Zydecool

Chris Ardoin & Nu Step (formerly Double Clutchin’)

Geno  Delafose & The French Rockin’ Boogie Band

Boozoo Chavis

Step Rideau & The Zydeco Outlaws

Rosie Ledet – The Zydeco Sweetheart

Nathan & The Cha Chas

Brian Jack & The Zydeco Gamblers

C.J. Chenier & His Red Hot Louisiana Band
And of course, Z – Funk, featuring the legendary Harold Guillory, who also plays in Chris Ardoin’s band (see above)

Carole Lateman