Our Own Music: Cajun and Zydeco

Outside of the Crescent City, Cajun and zydeco music reign supreme.

Zydeco musicians play washboards in Louisiana

Zydeco musicians play washboards in Louisiana.

Heading west out of jazz-soaked New Orleans, you’ll no doubt notice the pianos and horns soon giving way to fiddles and accordions. Outside of the Crescent City, Cajun and zydeco music reign supreme.

While they are distinct, Cajun and zydeco music are often linked together, and for good reason. The birth of both these genres can be traced back to the legendary duo of Amédé Ardoin, a black Creole accordionist, and Dennis McGee, a Cajun fiddler of European descent. Not only were they revolutionary in their crossing of racial boundaries, but their recordings in the late 1920s and ‘30s made the blueprint for what would become modern Cajun music and laid the foundation for zydeco.

Far from being a “pure” music form, Cajun music incorporated a host of folk traditions to create its unique sound, mixing in French melodies with African and Caribbean rhythms from the black Creole tradition, as well as some Spanish and Native American influences. In the late 1930s, popular Cajun bands like the Hackberry Ramblers introduced Western swing to the style.

Despite all these different influences, the one constant in the music remained its motivation. Cajun music is and always has been made for dancing. Whether it’s a blazing hot two-step or mournful waltz, the pumping accordions and keening fiddles of Cajun music make chairs seem irrelevant.

Cajun music has always had its peaks and valleys, its popularity constantly shifting in time with popular tastes. Yet every time the music seemed about to wither and die, some new talent would arrive to rekindle the flame. Legends like Iry Lejeune in the late 1940s, Dewey Balfa in the ‘60s, or Michael Doucet and Beausoleil in the ‘80s have all led Cajun music revivals.

Currently, a slew of young traditional artists have kick-started yet another Cajun renaissance. Bands like The Revelers, The Pine Leaf Boys, The Lost Bayou Ramblers and Feufollet are leading the charge to introduce Cajun music to another generation.

Modern zydeco music is the direct descendent of black Creole music—or “la-la music” as it is often known—and much like its Cajun cousin, was created for the sole purpose of dancing. Musically, it drew heavily on Caribbean and African influences as well as early blues and traditional French melodies. Along with a fiddle and accordion, Creole music often used washboards to provide the rhythm.

After Amédé Ardoin’s wildly influential output, other artists like fiddler Canray Fontenot and accordionist Alphonse “Bois Sec” Ardoin (Amédé’s cousin) proudly and ably held aloft the “musique Creole” torch. Clifton Chenier (1925-1987), the undisputed King of Zydeco, grew up listening to Creole music. His own particular interpretation of the style dropped the fiddle and added guitar, replaced the traditional button accordion with the larger piano accordion, and used R&B and blues as its driving force.

It was Chenier who, in the 1950s, first introduced the frottoir, the now-iconic ridged metal instrument with shoulder straps most often associated with zydeco music. He also popularized the word zydeco, derived from the Creole French phrase “les haricots sont pas salés” or “the snapbeans aren’t salty.” And it was Chenier who took zydeco to the rest of the world.

In the 1990s came a resurgence of the older Creole style of zydeco, but with a modern sensibility. Artists like Beau Jocque, Keith Frank and Chris Ardoin brought the button accordion back and added funk elements to the music, as well as a new infectious rhythm known as double-clutching. Today one of the most popular acts is Cedric Watson, a young fiddler and accordionist set on unearthing the vintage Creole la-la sounds of pioneers like Canray Fontenot and Amédé Ardoin.

Where to hear Cajun music: 

Savoy Music Center, Eunice

Blue Moon, Lafayette

Where to hear zydeco music: 

El Sido's, Lafayette

Buck & Johnny's, Breaux Bridge

Southwest Louisiana Zydeco Festival, Plaisance

Learn more about Louisiana's music.