Zydeco History in South Louisiana
by Eric Depradine
According to the Daily Post, a Welsh newspaper, Zydeco is the black dance music of Southwest Louisiana which fuses old Creole tunes and rhythms with blues and soul and more recently funk and hip hop to create an infectious dance groove designed to fill the floors worldwide.
Zydeco is commonly associated with French phrase "les haricots sont pas salés", meaning "the snapbeans aren’t salty". This was a metaphoric reference to poverty and the lack of cash to purchase salted meat as a flavoring agent for meals.
Barry Ancelet, a professor of Modern Languages at UL-Lafayette, theorizes that the origins of Zydeco music may have some roots to the Niger River in the Upper Guinea region of West Africa. Many ethnic groups like the Djula and the Gurma have words like a záre or me dsére” that mean "I dance" or "I play". Those words sound similar to Zydeco. Additionally, many of the same Upper Guineans deported to colonial Louisiana had family members deported to France’s Indian Ocean colonies as well. On those islands, particularly the island of Rodrigues, the people developed a musical style called séga zarico.
The earliest form of Creole music on the southwestern prairies was called juré. Juré means to testify in French. Juré singers would “testify” to their audiences about their hardships on the farm, their parents or God, or love heartbreak. The lyrics were in French and/or English accompanied by rhythmic hand clapping and foot stomping. Alan Lomax called juré music the most African sound he found in America.
English and French speaking African Americans (black Creoles) on Louisiana’s southwestern prairie began having house parties featuring French music called la la. The parties usually incorporated the accordion, the fiddle, and the triangle. These same instruments were used white Cajun musicians. In fact, it was during this time that many Cajun and Creole musicians borrowed music from each other. Amédé Ardoin and Dennis McGee are a good example of black and white musicians who held mutual respect for each other and influence each other’s music.
Zydeco music became urban as black Creoles migrated to east Texas during the Great Migration for work in the petrochemical industry of Texas. The Great Migration was a fifty year period of mass migration of African Americans out of rural areas to urban areas. It was in urban Texas that Zydeco music developed as black Creoles blended juré, la la, rhythm and blues, and rock ‘n’ roll into a new style of music.
Today, Zydeco is enjoyed by modern audiences in urban areas like Lafayette or Houston and rural areas like the prairies of southwestern Louisiana and southeastern Texas. The music is known in Europe particularly in Germany and France because of the infectious rhythmic style of accordion playing. Zydeco will be here, it isn’t going anywhere at all.
For Further Information on the Djula language, see Maurice Delafosse - La Langue Mandingue et Ses Dialectes: Malinke, Bambara, Dioula
For more information on Juré Music, see Herman Fuselier's interview of the Brossard Sisters
For more information on Juré Music, see "From Field to Stage: The Songs of the Lomax Collection"
For more information on the life of Amédé Ardoin, see Amédé Ardoin and His Legacy: A Discussion with Darrell Bourque
For more on Dennis McGee, listen to this interview by Chris Strachwitz
For a brief history of black Creole migration to southeastern Texas, see Frenchtown Houston