Zydeco Music: What You Need to Know

Accordion is king in Zydeco Music (Source: iStock/slobo)

Music is great. Zydeco is better. So goes the feeling – not only in southwestern Louisiana – but worldwide. There’s something about the Zydeco genre of music – the heavy backbeat, sweet tease of the piano accordion, and subtle urgency of the washboard rhythm that makes it nearly irresistible. The music echoes with the rich history of Louisiana’s turbulent past, yet shimmies with expectation. You don’t just listen to Zydeco music; you live it.

Of course, like many things, the more you know about it, the more you get out of it. Here are a few tidbits to add that extra zip to your Zydeco know-how:

Zydeco music has multi-cultural roots

Zydeco music is a rich amalgam of multicultural influences, history, and opportunity, originating in the swamps and bayous of southwest Louisiana. Its development is generally attributed to descendants of the colonial French-speaking Creole, Caribbean, and Louisiana native peoples, as well as African slaves. The music itself includes various musical elements from many of these traditions. To learn more about Zydeco’s history, go here.

 Zydeco, the word

The first known use of the word Zydeco was in 1929 by the Zydeco Skillet Lickers in the song, “It Aint Gonna Rain No Mo.” The term has several possible origins, including from the French phrase, “Les haricots ne sont pas salés.” This is pronounced something like, “lays ar-i-co ne son pa sal-ay,” and loosely translates to “we’re too poor to afford salt for the beans.” Many believe “zy-de-co”  came from “ar-i-co” – referencing the hard times typical of Southern Louisiana in the early 20th century. Other origin theories reference the native Atakapa people’s word for “dance,” or a West-African term for “music and dance.”

The Frottier, or washboard instrument (Source: Shutterstock/Matthew Jacques)
The Frottier, or washboard instrument (Source: Shutterstock/Matthew Jacques)

Zydeco music

Zydeco music has always included a fast, danceable tempo, with a focus on the piano, accordion, and the corrugated metal washboard (also called a rub-board, scrub-board, or frottier). It was typically played in the house at social gatherings of friends and family and included elements of the waltz, shuffles, two-step, and blues. Accompanying lyrics are sung in both English and French, and cover lots of topics, but food and love tend to be favorites.

It’s not the same as Cajun music

While there’s a lot of overlap, Zydeco and Cajun musical styles differ in instrumental emphasis and sound. Zydeco leans towards percussion instruments (washboard, for example) and accordion, and is a blend of genres that includes R&B and blues, among others. Cajun music showcases the fiddle and sounds closer to early country music. Both styles incorporate many of the same instruments, however, and regularly influence each other.

C.J. Chenier, the Crown Prince of Zydeco (Source: Shutterstock/Adamziaja.com)
C.J. Chenier, the Crown Prince of Zydeco (Source: Shutterstock/Adamziaja.com)

Zydeco stars

By all accounts, Clifton Chenier is considered the King of Zydeco. A French-speaking native of Opelousas, Louisiana, Chenier popularized Zydeco with his master accordion-playing and unique incorporation of blues, R&B, jazz, and rock & roll.  His first recordings, “Louisiana Stomp” and “Clifton’s Blues,” were written in the mid-1950s, and are some of the earliest examples of Zydeco music in its current form.

He gained national acclaim several years later with the release of his first full album, “Louisiana Blues and Zydeco.” He toured throughout the country and beyond, often sporting a maroon cape and mock gold crown, as a nod to his billing as “King.” In 1983, at the peak of his career, Chenier received a Grammy Award for his album, “I’m Here,” and was later the recipient of several other awards, including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2014.

Other notable musicians are also celebrated for their Zydeco-adjacent tunes, including Amédé Ardoin, who made the first recordings of Creole music, a precursor to the Zydeco genre; Sidney Simien; Rosie Ledet; and Chenier’s son, C.J. Chenier, the Crown Prince of Zydeco; among many others.

Dancing Zydeco style (Source: Shutterstock/Malachi Jacobs)
Dancing Zydeco style (Source: Shutterstock/Malachi Jacobs)

Where you can get your Zydeco music

Though Zydeco is not native to New Orleans, there are several great Zydeco bands in the city that regularly make the rounds; visit OffBeat Magazine or the New Orleans Live Music Calendar for up-to-date concert listings. Clubs that regularly feature Zydeco include the Krazy Korner in the French Quarter and Mid-City Lanes Rock ‘n’ Bowl near Gert Town. Ignore the bowling part (if you want) and just go for the music. Some of today’s best Zydeco and Cajun bands play the Lanes once a week (typically Thursdays) and often on weekends.

Zydeco is also a mainstay of many major New Orleans music festivals, including Jazz Fest, the French Quarter Festival, and the aptly named, Cajun-Zydeco Festival (dates and info TBD).