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Definition of Style

Zydeco is a modern derivation of various traditional folk musics of the Creoles of southwestern Louisiana, an area also called Acadia after the name given to it in the late 1600s by French-speaking immigrants forced from Nova Scotia by British colonization. Creole language and culture result from the mixture of the culture of a centuries-old French presence in southwestern Louisiana, Spanish culture from the Caribbean, and the language and the lingering traditions handed down from generations of African slaves who were shipped into New Orleans from Africa and from staging ports in the Caribbean.

Zydeco is part of the rich musical environment in southwestern Louisiana, especially the area surrounding Lafayette and the swampy farmland surrounding New Orleans. According to a much-debated etymological theory, the term "zydeco" derives from the French word for beans, les haricots.

It is built upon a substructure of indigenous folk musics melded with modern rhythm and blues. The most direct stylistic predecessors of zydeco were the story songs of styles such as juré, which were similar in content to early blues; but unlike its current status as a happy music for dance parties, early zydeco often lamented poverty and lost love. The musical forms of the polka two-steps and simple dance tunes brought to Louisiana by the French provided a structural basis for the new music.

Zydeco instrumentation was established by the instruments common in the French traditions - violin and guitar - with the addition of the accordion, which was introduced to the region in the late 1800s. Zydeco percussion is generally provided by a metal washboard, which is hung on the front of the musician's body and played with finger-mounted plectra. The prominence of percussion and heavy syncopation in zydeco differentiates it from other musics of the region.

Commercially available recordings of Cajun and Creole music from Southern Louisiana began to appear in the late 1920s, but "Bon Ton Roula," recorded by Clarence Garlow in 1949, is considered the first zydeco release. These early recordings were directed at a regional audience and marketplace, with lyrics and titles in the Creole dialect. Zydeco gradually absorbed the English language as the music became more popular, its market more international, and its audiences increasingly cross-regional.

Introductory Bibliography

Gould, Philip. Cajun Music and Zydeco. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992.

Nyhan, Patricia. Let the Good Times Roll!: A Guide to Cajun and Zydeco Music. Portland, Me.: Upbeat Books, 1997.

Olivier, Rick. Zydeco! Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999.

Sacré, Robert. Musiques cajun, creole et zydeco. 1st ed. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1995.

Spitzer, Nicholas R. Zydeco and Mardi Gras: Creole Identity and Performance Genres in Rrural French Louisiana. Ph.D. thesis, University of Texas at Austin, 1990.

Tisserand, Michael. The Kingdom of zydeco. 1st ed. New York: Arcade, 1998.

Selected Discography

Buckwheat Zydeco. The Buckwheat Zydeco Story: A 20 Year Party (Tomorrow 70002)

Chenier, Clifton. Zydeco Dynamite: The Clifton Chenier Anthology (Rhino 71194)

Music from the Zydeco Kingdom (Rounder 11579)