Zydeco Music 101

Photo of Clifton CHENIER
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To understand any genre of music, you must first understand the makers of that genre. Zydeco is the music of Southwest Louisiana's Black Creoles, a group of people of mixed African, Afro-Caribbean, Native American and European descent. This Black Creole society that begets zydeco is traditionally rural, French-speaking and is somewhat intertwined with the Cajun culture.

Where Does Zydeco Come From?

Zydeco music is a relatively new genre of world music, having come about as a style of its own in only the mid-1900s. It is a derivative of "La-La" music (the shared music of the Cajuns and the Creoles), as well as blues, jure (syncopated a cappella religious songs), and in more recent years, zydeco has taken many cues from R&B and even hip-hop, proving that it's a constantly evolving genre.

 "Zydeco" Meaning

The word "zydeco" has two different stories to explain it. One is that it comes from the phrase "Les haricots sont pas sales" meaning "the snap beans aren't salty." This phrase is a colloquial expression meaning that times are hard, and when spoken in the regional French, it's pronounced "zy-dee-co sohn." 

Alternative "Zydeco" Meaning

The second often-accepted meaning of the word "zydeco" is that it comes from the word "zari", which means dance. The word "zari" is found in several West African languages (in various similar forms).

Zydeco Instrumentation

Zydeco bands generally include an accordion, a modified washboard called a frottoir, electric guitar, bass, and drums. Secondary zydeco instruments include fiddles, keyboards, and horns.

What Does Zydeco Sound Like?

Zydeco music is often portrayed incorrectly as being polka-esque, but it actually sounds much more like the blues than like any European music. The band plays heavily on the backbeat, with modern bands relying on a double-kick to the bass drum to emphasize the syncopation. The accordion plays blues licks, and the guitars further emphasize this sound.

Zydeco Lyrics

Zydeco music is sung in both English and French, with English being the preferred language for most modern bands. Many zydeco songs are simply reworkings of R&B or blues songs, many are modern versions of very old Cajun songs, and many are originals. Song lyrics deal with everything from the mundane to intense socio-political issues, with food and love being two very common themes.

Clifton Chenier: The King of Zydeco

What Bill Monroe was to bluegrass, Clifton Chenier was to zydeco. He was the one who took zydeco from older "La-La" music to what we now recognize, and Clifton Chenier is hailed by nearly everyone as the progenitor of the modern genre. You'll definitely want to start your collection with some Clifton Chenier.

Zydeco Dancing

Zydeco, like all accordion music, is for dancing. The steps performed to zydeco music look like swing dancing to those unfamiliar with it. Zydeco dancing is intensely passionate and sexy, and many are heralding it as "the new salsa."