A Very Brief History of Cajun and Zydeco Music

Posted: May 7, 2014 in Livin' in the USA, Music
Tags: , , , , , ,

 

Cover of "The Bassist's Bible: How to Play Every Bass Style from Afro-Cuban to Zydeco

 

(Excerpted from The Bassist’s Bible: How to Play Every Bass Style from Afro-Cuban to Zydeco, by Tim Boomer. Every chapter begins with an introductory  section on the history and characteristics of the style; this is the introductory section from the Cajun/Zydeco chapter.)

The terms “Cajun” and “Zydeco” refer to two distinct styles, both stemming from French cultures in southern Louisiana. Traditionalists say “lache pas la patate” (“don’t drop the potato”), meaning “don’t let go of the old culture,” more specifically, don’t allow Cajun music to become a hybrid musical form. However, as current Cajun and Zydeco musicians often perform both genres, it’s appropriate to include both in this chapter. An appreciation and understanding of the differences between the two will aid in accurate and authentic performance of both.

Cajuns (“Acadians,” French-Canadians exiled from Nova Scotia) came to central and southwest Louisiana in the 18th century. Originally, Cajun music revolved around the fiddle and stomping the floor on beats 1 and 3 (in 4/4 time) while playing a homemade triangle called the “tit fer” (little iron). Following World War II, Cajun musicians increasingly used the accordion, after American servicemen brought back the German-style (diatonic, single-row button) accordion from Europe. Similar to a harmonica with bellows, the German-style accordion has a fixed, limited tonal range, so, it lends itself harmonically and structurally to simple music. Its volume soon made it one of the primary instruments within the genre.

In addition to 4/4 tunes, Cajun music features many songs in waltz time (3/4), often subdivided into a 9/8 feel (3/4 with a triplet pulse).

Zydeco has its roots in African and Caribbean music and the Creole culture (Creoles being the racially mixed offspring of Europeans, American Indians, and Africans), and is still sometimes referred to by its early names, Swamp Pop and Swamp Rock. The term Zydeco is attributed to accordion legend Clifton Chenier, who popularized the song “Les Haricots Sont Pas Sales” (“The Beans Are Unsalted”). “Les Haricots” (pronounced “layzarico”) evolved into the term Zydeco.

The two leading instruments in Zydeco are the accordion (multi-row button or keyboard varieties, both of which can play sharp and flat accidentals) and a percussion instrument called a “frottoir,” a rub board often worn on the chest. Invented in the 1940s by Willie Landry and Clifton Chenier (with his brother Cleveland Chenier), the rub board has become Zydeco’s signature rhythmic voice. With it up front and dictating the rhythm, the style is up tempo, with the drummer and bass player powerfully driving the band. Zydeco music is predominantly played in 4/4 (shuffled or straight), with fewer 3/4 (and far fewer 9/8) tunes than in Cajun music.

Although the two musical styles maintained marked differences well into the 20th century, Cajun and Zydeco cultures began to blend as far back as the early 1900s, when rural African-American laborers invented “Juré,” a style which mixed singing, praying, hand clapping, and dancing. Shortly after its invention, Juré began to fuse with Cajun music to form “La La” (a Creole French slang term for “House Dance”). These early styles featured percussion instruments such as spoons, washboard played with a notched stick, the fiddle, and the accordion.

Country music began to influence Cajun music in the late 1930s and early 1940s. This Country influence, along with that of Rhythm & Blues in the early 1950s, brought the electric guitar, electric bass, and drum set into both Cajun and Zydeco ensembles. Although Cajun and Zydeco music developed separately, by the mid-1980s both styles were often played by the same bands, some of which brought Cajun/Zydeco to worldwide attention. Both styles’ popularity continues, as evidenced by Cajun/Zydeco festivals and the success of bands and musicians such as Beausoleil, Queen Ida, Buckwheat Zydeco, Zachary Richard, and C.J. Chenier (son of Clifton Chenier).
Other notable bands within the Cajun genre include Steve Riley and The Mamou Playboys, Jackie Caillier and the Cajun Cousins, Jay Cormier and the Cajun Country Band, and Rodney Thibodeaux and Tout Les Soir. Other prominent Zydeco bands include Beau Joque, Boozoo Chavis, Rockin’ Doopsie, Geno Delafosse, and Grammy award winner Terrance Simien.

The examples and variations below provide a thorough representation of Cajun/Zydeco bass grooves, most notably the Two-Step groove found in both styles. The most important characteristic in distinguishing between Cajun and Zydeco is that the Zydeco rhythm section is more active than the Cajun rhythm section. Cajun/Zydeco bands often mix both genres freely when performing, but almost never within the same song.

Enhanced by Zemanta
Advertisements
Comments
  1. […] A Very Brief History of Cajun and Zydeco Music […]

    Like

  2. […] A Very Brief History of Cajun and Zydeco Music […]

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s