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By Ben Sandmel
Zydeco (pronounced ZY-duh-coe) is the exuberant dance music of Creoles in southwest Louisiana. It is a rich hybrid, based on core Afro-Caribbean rhythms and song forms such as juré singing, African-American blues and rhythm & blues, and Cajun music. (The term zydeco typically denotes black bands, while Cajun usually denotes white musicians. Both genres have much in common, in terms of instrumentation and repertoire, including some songs that can be traced back to medieval France.)
A variety of other musical genres have interacted with zydeco, including country music, rock, reggae, the Cajun-zydeco variant of R&B known as “swamp pop,” and, for the past quarter-century, rap music and hip-hop. Traditionally, zydeco is sung in French. It is not intended for passive, analytical listening. Clifton Chenier, the universally acknowledged “king” of zydeco stated, “If you can’t dance to zydeco, you can’t dance, period.” Chenier backed up this statement by routinely playing for four hours straight without a break, maintaining a full dance floor.
Zydeco’s signature instrument is the accordion and two distinct types are employed. These are chromatic piano-model accordions, which encompass half-step “blue note” intervals – the flatted third, fifth, and seventh in a scale – and diatonic models, which only play whole-note intervals. Diatonic accordions may be built to be played in one, two, or three different keys and are classified accordingly as single-row, double-row, or triple-row models. Accordionists who can only play in one key all one night must have other charms to keep an audience entertained, and their secret is providing a great groove for dancers. Additional instrumentation in zydeco bands includes electric bass, electric guitar, saxophone (and sometimes a horn section), drums, and a distinctive percussive instrument called the frottoir, or rub board. Frottoirs are made of corrugated metal and are worn hanging from the shoulders like a backless vest. They are played by scraping the corrugated ridges with spoons or bottle-openers. The fiddle, once prominent in early zydeco, has largely disappeared.
Zydeco is often explained as a phonetic elision of the French phrase, “les haricots” (pronounced lay-ZAH-ree-coe). This comes from the phrase “les haricots sont pas sales,” which appears frequently in Creole folk music. It was first documented on a song entitled, “J’ai Fait Tout le Tour du Pays,” recorded for the Library of Congress by folklorist Alan Lomax in 1934. Literally translated, “the snap beans are not salty,” “les haricots sont pas salés” is also a metaphor for times so difficult that people cannot afford to season their food. Heard in many traditional songs, this phrase was shortened as it also acquired several separate, yet closely related meanings: the title of a song, “Zydeco sont pas sales;” the title of the musical genre represented by that song; the social gatherings where such music was played; and the dance steps and the act of dancing that such music inspired. These overlapping definitions can be perplexing, and journalist Susan Orlean astutely pointed out that “[i]n theory, this meant you could zydeco to zydeco at the zydeco.”
Zydeco was first used in 1950 as a stand-alone word on a record on Clarence Garlow’s “Bon Ton Toula.” – “You want to have fun, now you got go/Way out in the country to the zydeco.” Heretofore, the music that constituted zydeco had been known as “ba-zar, “ or “la-la,” and it was retroactively dubbed “la musique Creole.” In the years after “Bon Ton Roula” became a hit, however, zydeco became the generally accepted name for Creole dance music. Its phoneticized spelling was somewhat hard to divine, since the word came from oral…