There’s zydeco in the air again outside of Opelousas, Louisiana. Kaleb Leday, a 19-year-old accordion master, led the fifth Zydeco Capital Jam of the year on a hot summer Saturday at the St. Landry Parish Visitor Center.
Curious audience members, Capital Jam regulars, and dedicated zydeco enthusiasts alike trickled into the eco-friendly visitor center to see this dynamic young musician. The zydeco jam takes place on the second Saturday of the month. LeDay joined the ranks of Grammy nominee Corey Ledet, JoJo Reed and Jeffery Broussard as a jam leader.
LeDay is a fourth-generation musician and leads a band of college students, the Zyde-Pokes. They are the first and the official zydeco band of McNeese State University in Lake Charles, LA. Kaleb’s great-grandfather, Clarence LeDay, played with zydeco legends Boozoo Chavis, Beau Jocque, and the Ardoin Brothers.
“So far, I’m the only one in the fourth generation who plays music,” LeDay admitted. Even so, he is dedicated to keeping the tradition of zydeco music alive, and he has not been idle.
When the young musician was only 15 years old, he had the opportunity to play onstage with Chris Ardoin & NuStep Zydeko. Chris is a descendent of Amédé Ardoin, whose commemorative statue stands outside of the St. Landry Parish Visitor Center.
“That was totally unexpected and one of the greatest nights of my life,” LeDay recalls about the performance. “Growing up, I listened to all of Chris’s music, and I still do, so that was a dream come true.”
Later in the same year, LeDay recorded “Tu Kekchause a’ Korrek, Vol. 2.” with Creole United, an all-star band that includes Sean Ardoin, Chris’s brother, and Andre Thierry.
Zydeco music plays an important role in the spread of Creole culture. Zydeco festivals pop up in many areas across the country, with interest in the genre extending internationally. Two festivals are scheduled for the summer in St. Landry Parish alone. One festival takes place in Lebeau, the hometown of accordionist Step Rideau and zydeco-great, Rockin’ Sidney. The other summer experience happens in Opelousas, the cradle of zydeco music. The dates and music schedules for these events can be found at CajunTravel.com.
“I think they go hand and hand,” LeDay said about zydeco music and Creole culture. “Zydeco is (sort of) a newer version of Creole music. You still have the accordion and scrubboard, some songs are still sung in French, but zydeco is targeting more of the younger generation than Creole music is. If you listen closely to the new zydeco songs that are being recorded, a lot of the accordion lines are old Creole songs, and people just don’t realize it.”
At the jam session, Kaleb played classic zydeco tunes with other musicians who have joined the semi-circle of talent. Songs like “Johnnie Billy Goat” and “Eunice Two Step” get the onlookers tapping to the beat. Don Fontenot, leader of the popular Les Amis de la Louisiane Cajun band, joined the jam on guitar.
One of the beautiful things about jam sessions is a handful of people-who may be friends or strangers-sit together with their own or borrowed instruments, and they make music. And it works. In this way, music, and music culture, is a kind of shared consciousness. Everyone will know that one zydeco song. Or if they don’t, the jam session is an opportunity to learn new and amazing songs. This collaborative effort brings a sense of community to a live performance that can’t be found at a concert.
“I love playing locally,” LeDay muses recalling jam sessions played with Jeffery Broussard, Koray Broussard, and Dexter Ardoin. “To be perfectly honest though, any venue that the crowd is having fun, dancing and singing along, is my favorite place to play.”
LeDay recently played with the Zyde-Pokes at Festival International de Louisiane in Lafayette, LA., the largest international music and arts festival in the United States. He remarked that it was their best show, yet. At the time, the band had only been together for two semesters. Their rousing performance at the festival was even complimented by Dustin Cravins, host of the annual Zydeco Extravaganza show and prominent voice in the Creole community.
“That comment was confirmation for me,” LeDay said, “that I’m doing something right by teaching my guys how to play these songs. For the band, that was confirmation that we’re on the right track.”
Preserving Creole culture for LeDay extends beyond playing zydeco music with the Zyde-Pokes. He plays rhythm guitar with Rusty Metoyer & the Zydeco Krush. LeDay will also be teaching accordion lessons until the first week of August and hosts Louisiana days at elementary schools. “At these schools,” he explained, “we talk about the different types of accordions, where they originated from, the scrubboard, and the differences in Cajun, Creole, and zydeco music.”
As a compliment to the Jammin’ on the Bayou Cajun jam sessions, also held at the St. Landry Parish Visitor Center, the Zydeco Capital Jam seeks to bring a tradition back to the area that hasn’t been seen in nearly a decade.
“There’s no better place to revive the jams than the official Zydeco Music Capital of the World – Opelousas,” says Visitor Center director Herman Fuselier. As the Zydeco Capital Jam continues to grow, it is the Tourist Commission’s hope that someone will take the reins, and the jam sessions can be moved to a larger destination within the parish.
With the resurgence of zydeco jams, LeDay encourages new zydeco devotees to listen to a wide variety of bands. “Every band has their own style,” Kaleb insists. He also cautions fledgling listeners to understand the distinction between zydeco and Cajun music. “Both genres have accordions, guitars, bass guitars, drums, but the key instrument that you should listen for, that will determine which one is which, is the scrubboard.”
LeDay hopes to play with all the big names of zydeco and their bands. An accounting major in college, LeDay graduates in 2022. He hopes to test for his CPA license after two years of experience all the while playing zydeco. “One of these days I’ll start my own band. But I’m not in any rush to do that.”