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Sara Shappell

If one were to look back into the world’s history, one would find that an important and consistent element is the world of music. Music has presented itself in various forms throughout its spread and through our identification of its magical realm, people have been fortunate enough to come across a means of relation. Whether it is blues and reggae or rap and pop rock, there is music out there for everyone. Music can serve as a stabilizer for some, a relaxant to others, and to many a form of inspiration.

Music’s influence is felt everywhere and it brings about a stir of emotions in many people. Whether it is something as simple as relationship trouble or something deeper and more profound, such as one’s cultural history, music serves as a stimulant to the mind and in other ways, a stimulant to the body. Such music as country, rock, reggae and Zydeco all succeed in stimulating the body and convincing it that dancing will only increase the satisfactory feeling that the music tends to give off.

Although there is a variety of music that could be examined to trace its evolution through time, there is one genre in particular that is quite interesting to examine. Though it differs from other types of music, it will be looked at in conjunction with Reggae music as they have similar ties. Reggae music is quite prominent today in the United States, parts of Africa, and of course Jamaica. Reggae is notoriously known for its most influential artist Bob Marley, and it is not unusual for one to have heard a few, if not many of his songs. Reggae’s popularity is steadily increasing and is doing so through both expansions of the music as well as increasing knowledge on the genre.

The genre that has been chosen to focus on and examine is much less known than Reggae. It can be assured that a number of people asked on the subject will have no knowledge of the genre and perhaps not even recognition to the name. This particular genre is that of Zydeco music. Zydeco music is Louisiana based and most notably linked to Cajun music. Its roots are deep in the South and although it tends to not venture far from home, those around it have found music to fall in love with.

Reggae and Zydeco, as well as many other musical genres have ties that go as far as Africa. Though neither is extremely prominent there presently, their origins in Africa are quite important. Reggae music is partially based on their West African ancestors that served as slaves and Zydeco music is partially influenced by African slaves that were eventually brought to the South, Louisiana in particular. Both genres share a pride for their ancestry and as Marcus Garve once said, "Look to Africa, where a black king shall be crowned." (Clarke,c.1198,1071/2)

A direct response to slavery was the blues and it is the blues that has influenced the creation of many other types of music such as Zydeco, Reggae, Rap and R&B. The blues served as a means of expression by African-Americans who often sung about poverty and hard times. It was a way to express themselves and its fair to assume that it served as a emotional outlet for many of those that were oppressed. Blues parallels with both Reggae and Zydeco in that all are sewn in the history of the African-Americans. These three kinds of music allow for the expression of discrimination, poverty, war, and politics.

Although Reggae and Zydeco have similar roots, the two types of music have taken quite different paths. As Reggae has come from Africa and secured its place in Jamaica, Zydeco has a more complex path of establishment. The establishment of Zydeco first began in the early 1600’s, as many French settlers immigrated to present-day Nova Scotia, which was previously known as Acadia. During the year of 1755, the British forced their expulsion and they were forced to regroup. Many of these French settlers found a liking to Southern Louisiana and made the decision to stay there after they were offered land by the Spanish governors of Louisiana. (Spidel,1/5)

Earlier in Louisiana’s history, the term "Creole" most commonly referred to French or Spanish Louisiana born people. However, the definition of the term changed in a way that would prove to be quite significant in Louisiana heritage. The late 1700’s brought a growth in the slave trade and soon the term Creole began to identify those born in the colonies opposed to those that were brought directly from Africa. Though there were a number of Creoles that were fortunate enough to escape slavery, it was those that were forced in to an isolated lifestyle that would later prove to be the more influential in terms of Zydeco origination.(Tisserand,1998)

Before examining the emergence of the Zydeco culture further, it is necessary to identify and differentiate between both the term "Creole" and the term "Cajun." The two words are often used in relation to one another in both the history of each as well as the identification of the inhabitants in South Louisiana. Although to those who live and partake outside the culture, there appears to be little difference between the two terms, to the people who live there, there is a world of difference. The term Cajun tends to refer to white, French speaking people that have their origins in both Acadia and France. The term Creole, on the other hand tends to instead refer to the French speaking blacks of Louisiana(Dempsey,1996,1/5)

There is also a very important distinction between both Cajun and Creole types of music. Though eventually they meshed, creating the music prominent in Louisiana today, the two have somewhat different beginnings. The Cajun people of Louisiana developed their music in response to their desire to have a good time. When it came time for the weekend, the Cajun folk would hold a enjoyable celebration which they referred to as "Fais-Do-Dos", translating into "make sleep." The significance of the term was that the parents were able to celebrate and have a good time after their children had gone to bed. It was not unlikely to spend the duration of the night dancing and being jolly and the music of the Cajun culture exemplifies this.(Spidel,1/5)

Cajun music first arrived on the scene before Creole music did despite the fact that the black Creoles were present in Louisiana before the Cajuns. Though it is not seen all the time, It must be realized that in the past as well as today, there are some racial issues that preside in the music realm of Louisiana.(Spidel,1/5) While the white Cajuns had their music, the black Creoles were making their own kind of music. The Creole music came to exist based on the fact that many of the black field workers in southern Louisiana put forth their prayers and thanks by singing, along with stomping their feet and clapping their hands. Such an act molded itself into a style with syncopation called jure, this being an important ingredient in Zydeco music. It was around the 1900’s that this particular type of song combined with other Creole and Cajun influences and formed a tradition in the music world known as La La. It must be noted, however, that although there was a combination between the Creole music and the Cajun music, in the eyes of many native Creoles, this music does not form Zydeco. The La La music is sometimes referred to as the "French Music" whereas Zydeco is viewed with more percussion and blues incorporated in to its style, attention given to it following the Second World War. (Dempsey, 1996,1/5)

Regardless of the discrepancy, the La La music found itself slowly being invaded by both urban and country blues. Around the 1940’s, the Creole musicians of Louisiana became inspired by such music that could be heard on the radio and soon brought in the now common instrument, the rubboard, in replace of the fiddle. This music was soon being referred to as Zydeco. It is this music that bears relation to the previously mentioned form of music, the jure. Zydeco shares many influences, specifically blues and R&B. The instrument most prevalent in the music is the accordion and quite often, the lyrics are sung in French opposed to English. Though they are quite similar, Zydeco is usually more upbeat and forceful than its close relation, Cajun music. Rockin Dopsie perhaps explains it best when he describes it to be "A little jazz, a little blues, a little French and a little rhythm and blues, all mixed together."(Laissez.,1)

Many people partook in the making of Zydeco but Amadie Ardoin is often noted as the first Zydeco musician. It was in the years of the 1920’s and 1930’s that Ardoin popularized the Creole style of music by wandering around and playing for anyone that was interested in hearing him. Ardoin is known as a Creole musician but his music is quite similar to that of the Cajuns. Though it was unheard of at the time, he was often asked to play and entertain in clubs that were primarily white. It was in one of these clubs that his life unfortunately ended due to a conflict with a whit man.(Spidel,1/5) As Ardoin is usually tied to the original Creole Music, Boozoo Chavis was identified with the more modern Zydeco, that with the blues’ influence. He was able to make a recording of such music in 1954 but apparently, because of money disputes, he was forced to exit the music industry.(Dempsey,1996,1/6) It was after this that one of the most significant men in Zydeco history emerged.

Clifton Chenier came into the Zydeco music realm and took over with speed. Many credit Chenier with making Zydeco it’s own original style of music. Chenier successfully held his music career for thirty years and many often called and still refer to him today as the "King of Zydeco." He is most well known for his song entitled, "Les haricots est pas sales." In other words, "the snap beans aren’t salty." This song currently serves as the definition of the Zydeco as we know it today. Chenier is also credited with coming up with the name "Zydeco." The term comes from the phrase in his song "les haricots" because it was believed that when it was sung fast the two sounded similar. Though it took time and patience to get his music heard, Clifton Chenier eventually won the hearts of many. He played numerous types of music, though he had to be in the mood to perform Zydeco. He sometimes could be found playing at religious ceremonies and while travelling around playing in the 1980’s he earned his title as "King" by winning a European accordion contest. He unfortunately died in the year of 1987 but not only does his spirit live on through the music of the Creoles but also through his son who is proving himself to be a worthy Zydeco Musician as well.(RC Brews,1/2)

He is not referred to as the "King of Zydeco" like Chenier, but Buckwheat Zydeco also serves as a landmark figure in the history of the Zydeco music. Buckwheat Zydeco had a passion for music since the day he was born. His father was a distinguished accordion player but Buckwheat had no desire to partake in his father’s music. He was interested in the modern music of the times and many times formed music groups. His father was not satisfied with his choice for music and encouraged Buckwheat to look upon Chenier’s style. After much persisting, Buckwheat gave in and agreed to attend one of his shows. Far from his expectations, Buckwheat left with a feeling of awe and inspiration and soon after, found himself playing with Chenier for a short period of time.(Fox,1999,1/12)

Buckwheat Zydeco has proven a talent for the music and has helped spread its sound all over the world. His recognition was not acquired easily but determination and love for the music paid off and he became the first Zydeco group to be signed by a major record label. Though the fist releases struggled for popularity, time brought sales. In his musical history, Buckwheat Zydeco has received four Grammy nominations and though some question his work, Buckwheat has proved that he is a Creole son of Louisiana and has made a success out of the ever-growing music of Zydeco.

Though there are not many striking similarities between the music of Zydeco and Reggae, they are both two incredible types of music that have evolved from Africa. They both exemplify the evolution of music, simply in different ways. Reggae is a combination of cultural rhythms, American rhythm and blues as well as some Jamaican folk. Its style is strictly Jamaican and includes many characteristics associated with religious aspects of Rastafarianism. Zydeco is a combination of similar music and Chenier has previously labeled Zydeco as not only dance music, but also a story telling genre. It tends to stay away from religious connotations and is Louisiana based.

A main difference in the two styles of music is that one is Jamaican born while the other United States born. It is worth knowing however, that although reggae is unique to Jamaica, it has its roots in New Orleans R&B.(Jamaica’s,2) Both have had the challenge of increasing their popularity worldwide. The film The Harder They Come is responsible for bringing the style of Reggae from Jamaica to the United States whereas the soundtrack to The Big Easy is responsible for making the world of Zydeco music known. Both genres of music have also benefited from different artists featuring the styles in their own music. Performers such as Eric Clapton and Paul Simon have been influenced by the power of reggae music and Paul Simon has performed a song with a guest appearance by Clifton Chenier.(Jamaica,1)

Though neither are leading genres in America, both styles of music continue to gain popularity. Reggae has made a significant spread across the country and the world by numerous artists. Bob Marley is credited for the majority of this as his music has won over numerous American fans. He also helped to establish Reggae in South Africa following his acclaimed concert celebration recognizing the independence of Zimbabwe in the year of 1980. Zydeco is far less recognized and known but it is slowly making its way across the land. Previously mentioned artists as well as the acclaimed emerging artist Keith Frank are helping to spread the awe inspiring music and with dedicated fans and willing listeners it is sure to be present in the music world for time to come.

One can only hope that the music of the past and present will continue to be preserved into the future. Reggae is sure to be prominent in the future due to its ever-increasing popularity. Festivals dedicated to the music as well as educational offerings dedicated to the culture help keep the love alive and give promise to the future. Zydeco on the other hand faces a more difficult struggle as it is gaining popularity at a much slower pace. If people do not hear of the music, or more specifically, do not listen to the music, there can be no hope. As with everything, knowledge is key and it will lead to success.

Various efforts have and are being made to keep the music of Zydeco alive. New Orleans Mardi Gras features a variety of the cultural music in hopes that it will touch the hearts of those who visit. The National Zydeco Society has declared its mission to promote and preserve both the Zydeco music as well as the Creole culture around the world. They plan to achieve this by recognizing the high achievements of both the artists and others involved with the music industry.(Mission, 1) The society chooses to recognize those worthy through the Zydeco Hall of Fame, The Clifton Chenier Awards, and The Clifton Chenier Zydeco Festival. The National Zydeco Society has already inducted nine artists into the Hall of Fame, including Clifton Chenier, Amede Ardoin, and Boozoo Chavis.(Hall of Fame,1)

Festivals such as Grassroots held annually in Ithaca, New York also does much to keep the music alive.

Perhaps most significant, however, in the preservation of Zydeco, brings us back to its roots. In the year of 1981, at a point when it was feared that Creole and Zydeco music was ending, the Southern Development Foundation guided a number of concerned citizens into organizing the Southwest Louisiana Zydeco Music Festival. The first Zydeco festival took place on a farming field and has served as the offspring of the situations of the past. The annual music festival serves as a reminder to all that attend that we must appreciate our past and recognize where we came from. Most importantly, it serves as a reminder to continue the legacy of keeping the Creole culture alive.(Music Fest.,1999)

Both Reggae and Zydeco are well deserving of preservation and by partaking in such activities as music festivals dedicated to these genres, one is able to join both the past and the present in a day of celebration to keep the spirit of rich culture alive.

"And if you listen closely, in between the heartbeats of the Zydeco tunes and the warm breezes, you can hear those days gone by of yesteryear. Yes, if you listen closely, you can hear the slaves and the sharecroppers, and their sons and their daughters, coming forth.

After a long day in the field, they are picking up a scrubboard and tapping out a tune. After a long day in the field, they are kicking up their feet in the hot dirt, and they are clapping their hands.

And if you listen closely, you can hear the laughter; you can hear their songs, their joys and their sorrows, as they join us with spirit.

In the field of dreams, the field of Zydeco dreams, the past forges with the present to welcome in the future.

In the field of dreams, the field of Zydeco dreams, they all come…Yes, as long as Zydeco has a heartbeat and dreams are planted, they will come." (Field of,1)

Works Cited

1. Clarke, Donald, Encyclopedia of Popular Music, c.1998, London, 1071-2

2. Dempsey, Tom, Origins of Zydeco and Cajun Music, May 1996,, 2/1/00

3. "Field of Zydeco Dreams", The History of the Southwest Louisiana Zydeco Music Festival,, 4/11/00

4. Fox, Ted, The Buckwheat Zydeco Story, c.1999,, 3/24/00

5. Jamaica’s Reggae Music, Reggae Fusion Jamaica: The Encyclopedia of Jamaica’s Music Industry,, 4/18/00

6. The National Zydeco Society, Mission Statement,, 4/11/00

7. The National Zydeco Society, Zydeco Hall of Fame,, 4/11/00

8. RC Brews Jook Joint/Home of Zydeco, , history of Zydeco,, 4/6/00

9. Spidel, Tiffany, World Music: Cajun and Zydeco,, 4/11/00

10. Tisserand, Michael, The Kingdom of Zydeco, c.1998

11. Zydeco–Laissez Le Bon Ton Rouler, There Productions, c.1195-2000,, 3/24/00

12. Zydeco Music Festival, Southwest Louisiana History, 1999,, 4/6/00