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February 11, 2010
What is Zydeco?

Friday night is a mardi gras dance, hosted by Full Circle Brewery (8 pm, $10) with zydeco/blues band Bad Boys Zydeco. Some people still aren't sure what that means so here is some background you might find useful.

Zydeco is a peculiar hybrid of French Canadian songs, European instruments, Caribbean and African rhythms, and Creole sensibility. The name is a contraction of the name of a song called "Les Haricots Sont Pas Sales," which every zydeco band performs in one form or another. "The snap beans aren't salty" implies poverty too deep for families to afford salt pork for seasoning and it also suggests the rural origins of the music.

The old-style zydeco bands would often have a fiddle in the lineup in addition to the accordion and rub board (or frottoir). In the forties and fifties some players introduced rhythm and blues to the mix. Out went the fiddle, too quiet to stand up to the electric guitars, horns and drums. The late Clifton Chenier gets most of the credit for creating this sound and for this reason, he is the acknowledged king of zydeco.

Zydeco incorporates all sorts of influences, yet it retains its own, particular identity. Surely this has something to do with the Creoles themselves, a group as diverse in heritage as the Cajuns are singular. Cajuns are, simply, descendants of the French settlers of Acadie, in Nova Scotia, who were expelled by the British in 1755. The term Creole originally denoted descendants of the French and Spanish settlers in Louisiana as well as slaves born in the New World. Today it is a loose rubric describing a racially mixed population sharing common cultural ground; language (French), religion (Catholicism), cuisine, and music. A simple modern interpretation might be "a person of mixed European and black ancestry who speaks the Creole language." Given the ethnic jumble out of which it grows, it is no wonder that it can sound like a Scottish reel in one instant, a Chicago blues the next.

Early Creole music was often made without instruments since money was scarce. People would make "marches," rhythmic stomping of the feet for entertainment. Mule jaws, washboards, and sticks rubbed on wood were some other popular early instruments. When instruments became available the black Creoles were among the earliest to master the accordion. The European roots of their music are clearly heard in the mazurkas and contradances that appear in their repertoires. Constant musical interchange took place between blacks and whites. After World War II, rhythm and blues were becoming available and were heard on the radio and new instrumental influences came to play in the black Creole music. The washboard was being replaced by corrugated steel vests whose raspy sounds gave a distinctly different sound than that of the white Cajun bands. The music was known as "la-la," (perhaps related to the fact that this activity was taking place in and around Lafayette, Louisiana). Zydeco is the expression that replaced "la-la" after Clifton Chenier had a big hit with his version of "Les Haricots Est Pas Sale." Amplified button and/or keyboard accordions are currently used along with guitars, bass and a set of drums.

Bad Boys Zydeco Mardi Gras, Fri. Feb. 12, 2010, 8 pm, $10
Full Circle Brewery, 620 F St, Fresno, CA 559-264-6323
Cajun Food Taste-Off, bring your favorite dish!

Sources: Alfred Gingold, Connoisseur magazine,
Ann Ellen Savoy, Cajun Music

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