The Genesis of Zydeco and Black Creole Music

Although the black music of New Orleans has received much attention, the deep African retentions of Zydeco remain unexplored and lost on a timeline that glosses over the history of its people.

Boozoo Chavis at the 2000 Original Southwest Zydeco Festival,on the main stage.

Boozoo Chavis at the 2000 Original Southwest Zydeco Festival,on the main stage. Photo:David Simpson

Louisiana’s White and Black French music are often conventionally grouped together within the Euro-western view of history with its theory, harmony and its folk music. In this interpretation, mention of African influences is unspecified and ad hoc, thus obscuring the very essence of Zydeco’s primal source. I, how ever, am fortunate: I play in a Zydeco band. There on the bandstand, I can regain those powerful African memories and core values down at the Zydeco dance.

All Creole cultures and music are by definition fusions. This is true of most 21st century New World traditional music with international pop music taking from wherever and in whatever fashion according to their particular taste. But unlike pop, New World Black traditional music have existed in a power vacuum for centuries; in Louisiana this vacuum has blurred the Louisiana Creole and African slave population’s contributions to Zydeco and to all Louisiana French Music.

In the abundant musicology studies for American Black music from the 1990s and early part of the 21st century, little mention is made of Zydeco. Yet largely due to Zydeco’s juré tradition, this American Black French music has ar guably the closest relationship to musicologist Samuel Floy d Jr.’s definition of a material with regard to the religious ritual of Ring or Ring Shout as first practiced by African slaves. Traditional Zydeco tunes still played today remain linked by Creole French phrases that originated in juré. Historically sung during Lent, this Louisiana Creole French a capella call and response comes from the progeny of the African slaves imported in the 1720s. In rural south Louisiana’s Evangeline Parish, the Broussard family of Frilot Cove continues the juré tradition sometimes performed in a circle. Other similarities between Zydeco and Ring are noted in the dedicated juré dances. Often heard at the circle dances, in Creole French, were the ecstatic shouts of “Juré, my Lord.”

D’Jalma Garnier

D’Jalma Garnier. Photo: Harold Baquet

Zydeco Subgenres

The Zydeco community groups Creole, Zydeco, La La, and older juré as simply “Zy deco.” The following genres are performed concurrently in Zydeco bands. (This does not include the recent hip-hop and R&B mix of “swing out” dances that also are a part of Zydeco’s extended family.)

Creole: This music is played more rhythmically with a touch of the “blues” in the music and in many of its lyric themes. Unlike Zydeco, it uses the same Louisiana French language as Cajun music. Instruments range from the single-row accordion to fiddle to acoustic guitar, all to the beat of the Bastringue (triangle). While Cajun musicians still play many Creole tunes, older Creole musicians traditionally played most Cajun tunes by request. Examples are: Amédé Ardoin (Les Blues de Voyage, ‘Co Fah’); Canray Fontenot (‘Tite Monde, Malinda, Les Barres de la Prison’); and Bébé Carrière ( Blues à Bébé, Blue Runner).

Zydeco: Zydeco musicking began in Louisiana ’s French colonial Attakapas and Opelousas areas beginning in the mid to late 1700s. Descendants of the founding Black families of St.Landry Parish (Opelousas area) are on the Zydeco dance floor today. These are mainly the children of the gensde couleur libre and African and Creole Slaves shipped into Louisiana from West Africa (primarily from the cattle her ding Senegambian region – mostly Wolof) for the emergent cattle industry in colonial Louisiana. Today at every Creole horse trail ride, Zydeco music prevails where the accordion may be single, double or triple row, and even piano accordion. Fiddles are rare in Zydeco and guitars are electric with the percussion provided by a drum set and the ubiquitous scraping of a frottoir or rub board. No Zydeco record collection is complete without musicians such as Clifton Chenier, John Delafosse and Boozoo Chavis. Traditional tunes are Lucille, Oh! Bye Bye, Zydeco Sont Pas Salé, and all are in Creole French and English. And when Creoles say “Allons au Zydeco” or “Let’ s go to the Zydeco,” they are referring to a Zydeco dance/party.

Dexter Ardoin and the Creole Ramblers at the first annual Creole Renaissance Festival

Dexter Ardoin and the Creole Ramblers at the first annual Creole Renaissance Festival, Yambilee Building,Opelousas. Photo: David Simpson

La La: Sometimes simply called “French music,” La La is the 20th century music name for Zydeco that covers Cajun music, the fundamental difference being its Black Creole dance floor with Zydeco waltz and two-step grooves. The single-row accordion dominates in La La with fiddle, electric guitar, frottoir and drum set. Musicians today who can differentiate and play examples of Creole, Zydeco, and La La are brothers Jeffery, “Black ”and “Lappy” Broussard, Joe Hall, Dexter Ardoin, Nolton Simien, and Goldman Thibodeaux. Traditional La La tunes are Madeleine, Allons à Lafayette, and Pointe aux Pins. This music is distinguished by more rhythm with bluesy elements. “ La La” was also once a name for a Zydeco dance/party.

Researchers and others interested in Louisiana ’s Zydeco culture would do well to take with a grain of salt what they might hear in New Orleans. Perhaps it would be best to begin one’s quest in the cradle of Zydeco: St. Landry P arish (Opelousas and Lawtell), St. Martin Parish, Lafayette’s Twelfth Street, or any area in Louisiana where Frenchspeaking Blacks continue to live this unique culture.

My Zydeco heaven is a place of convergence where Ring tropes and Signifyin’ merge into songs that never need a narrative but, more importantly, deep pockets and grooves in their own language of Creole French with English Zydeco (and “Ideco ” in the wings); and it all comes together on the band stand to produce a music that drives the Southwest Louisiana Black Creole dance phenomenon. Since its 18th century genesis in colonial south Louisiana, Zydeco stands alone as a unique American music tradition steeped in Louisiana’s African cultur al memory. Allonsau Zydeco!

Jeffery Broussard and the Creole Cowboys at Lakeview Park