ZYDECO (VA) 1934-50

Zydeco (French: "les haricots", English: "snap beans") is a form of American roots or folk music, that evolved from the jure during the late 1800s call and response vocal music of the black and multiracial French speaking Creoles of south and southwest Louisiana. During the early 20th century this soulful, heavily syncopated, indigenous roots music was discovered by ethnomusicologists and record labels alike. Usually fast-tempo, and dominated by the button or piano accordion and a form of a washboard known as a rub-board or frottoir zydeco music was originally created for house dances so the blacks and free people of color of south Louisiana could gather for socializing. As the Creoles further established their communities and worshiped separately as well, the music moved to the Catholic church community center and then later to the rural dance halls and nightclubs. As a result, the music integrated waltzes, shuffles, two-steps, blues, rock and roll, and most dance music forms of the era. Today, the tradition of change and evolution in the music continues always keeping relevant while integrating even more genres like reggae, urban hip-hop, R&B, soul, brass band, ska, rock, Afro Caribbean and other styles in addition to the traditional forms.

The first zydeco vest frottoir (rubboard) was designed by Clifton Chenier, the "King of Zydeco," in 1946 while he and his brother, Cleveland, were working at an oil refinery in Port Arthur, TX. The first zydeco rubboard made to Chenier's design was made at Chenier's request by their fellow Louisianian, Willie Landry, a master welder - fabricator, who was also working at the refinery. The zydeco rubboard, designed specifically for the genre solely as a percussion instrument, is in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Institution.

Other instruments common in zydeco include the old world accordion which is found in folk and roots music globally, guitar, bass guitar, drums, fiddle, horns and keyboards.

Zydeco's rural beginnings and the prevailing economic conditions at its inception are reflected in the song titles, lyrics, and bluesy vocals. The music arose as a synthesis of traditional Creole music, some Cajun music influences, and African-American traditions including R&B, blues, jazz, and gospel. It was also often just called French music or le musique Creole known as "la-la". In many African languages there are words like "zari", "zariko", "zodico", and "zai'co laga laga", which meant "dance". Amédé Ardoin made the first recordings of Creole music in 1928. This Creole music served as a foundation for what later became known as zydeco.

During World War II, many French speaking African Americans and Creoles from the area around Opelousas, LA. left a poor and prejudice south Louisiana for better economic opportunities in Texas. There were more that traveled even further to California for more social acceptance along with improved economic opportunities. For 150 years the Creoles lived insular, prospering, educating themselves without the government and building their invisible communities under the Code Noir. The Code Noir was a set of laws established in 1724 by the French because there were so many gens de coleur libres, or free people of color living in the state. This set of laws afforded them the right to own land, something few blacks/Creoles in the south had at that time. They became the leaders of their community after the Civil War ended and the African slaves were finally freed when the Union officials no longer recognized the Code Noir and anyone with any African heritage became part of one community, race and class. The 150 years of this separate status the Creoles had in a 3 tiered society left them frustrated and made their resolve even greater to succeed.

The music was brought to the fringes of the American mainstream in the mid-1950s, with the popularity of Clifton Chenier, who was signed to Specialty Records, the same label that first recorded Little Richard and Sam Cooke for wide audiences. Chenier, considered the architect of contemporary zydeco, became the music's first major star, with early hits like "Les Haricots Sont Pas Salés" (The Snap Beans Ain't Salty -a reference to the singer being too poor to afford salt pork to season the beans). The term "zydeco" was a corruption of les haricots (French for the beans), and the name for the music was born. However, this was not the first zydeco song: in 1954, Boozoo Chavis, another popular zydeco artist, had recorded "Paper in My Shoe". This is considered to be the first modern zydeco recording, though the term "zydeco" was not in use yet.

In the mid-1980s, Rockin' Sidney brought international attention to zydeco music with his hit tune "My Toot Toot". Clifton, Rockin Sidney and Queen Ida, all garnered Grammy awards during this pivotal period in the genre opening the door to the emerging artists who would continue the traditions. Ida is the only living Grammy award winner in the genre. Rockin' Dopsie recorded with Paul Simon and also signed a major label deal during this time. John Delafose was wildly popular regionally and then the music took a major turn because during this time there were emerging bands that burst onto the national scene during this critical time to fuse a new exuberance, new sounds and styles with the music. Boozoo Chavis, John Delafose, Roy Carrier, Zydeco Force, Nathan and The Zydeco Cha Chas, The Sam Brother, Terrance Simien, and Chubby Carrier, and many others were breathing new life into the music. Zydeco superstar, Buckwheat Zydeco was already well into his career, and signed his major label Island Records deal also in the mid 1980s. All of these things combined with the popularity of Cajun and Creole food nationally, and the feature film, The Big Easy, led to a resurgence of the Zydeco music traditions, cultivating new artists while the music took a more innovative direction for increased mainstream popularity.

Young zydeco musicians, such as C.J. Chenier, Chubby Carrier, Geno Delafose, Terrance Simien, Nathan Williams and others began touring internationally during the 1980s. Beau Jocque was a monumental innovator who infused zydeco with powerful beats and bass lines in the 90s, adding striking production and elements of funk, hip-hop and rap. Young performers like Chris Ardoin, Keith Frank, and Zydeco Force added further by tying the sound to the bass drum rhythm to accentuate or syncopate the backbeat even more. This style is sometimes called "double clutching".

Now there are hundreds of zydeco bands continuing the music traditions across the U.S. and in Europe. A prodigious 9-year-old zydeco accordionist, Guyland Leday was featured in an HBO documentary about how deeply music is felt by young people.

Today, because of the migration of the French speaking blacks and multiracial Creoles, mixing of Cajun and Creole musicians, and the warm embrace of people from outside these cultures, there are multiple hotbeds of zydeco: Louisiana, Texas and California, and even Europe as far North as Scandinavia. It is a genre that a has become synonymous with the cultural and musical identity of Louisiana and an important part of the music landscape of this country as one black southern music tradition that is loved worldwide. It is performed for presidents and celebrities, seen in film and heard advertising everything from autos to toothpaste to antacids, pharmaceuticals and candy bars. Rolling Stone, The Los Angeles Times, Time Magazine and dozens of other print media have featured it. It is heard on radio all over the world. It's performed at festivals, schools, performing art centers and large corporate events.

The Zydeco Rubboard (Frottoir) is recognized around the world as a cultural icon of Louisiana. The impact of zydeco music inside southwest Louisiana, outside Louisiana and around the world is growing rapidly. There are zydeco festivals throughout America and Europe. Zydeco music is played on radio stations around the world and on Internet radio.

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