On the dark, winding, old Breaux Bridge highway, a neon sign outside the former King Creole club flashes: “Saturday at 9 p.m. Fernest and the Thunders.” Inside it’s 9:30 p.m., but Fernest is behind the bar using the pay phone.
He hangs up the phone and heads for the stage. Only a handful here tonight and most of those are employees. Fernest doesn’t look much in the mood.
A friend moseys into the bar as the Thunders are tuning up. She orders a beer and complains a bit about her cramps. And no, she hasn’t heard Fernest, but she’s not much in the mood tonight, you can tell.
Then Fernest picks up his accordion. Instantaneous change of atmosphere. It doesn’t take one song, it takes about one beat and the friend jumps to her feet swaying to the rhythm of the Thunders. Two songs later, not an employee is working. The only indication that someone’s in control of the bar is a little green stop light flashing: “The bar is open.” Everyone in the house—from the patrons to the bartender—is paired off on the dance floor. The music is just too good to waste.
The zydeco flowing across the bar room is so rapturous and rhythmic that if Fernest isn’t in the playing mood now, his accordion’s doing one hell of a job feigning it. This Creole-talking man with shades over his eyes and long Indian hair twisted in a bun can carry you away with his music.
Because of all the table space, it’s obvious King Creole was originally a restaurant before it was a disco, which was before it became a zydeco bar. But food can still be ordered from the cook—the one on the dance floor.
Most every zydeco club has a kitchen—there’s something about offering home-styled fried chicken that could turn the sleaziest bar into a respectable joint.
What zydeco will evolve into is anybody’s guess, but what’s certain is that the term “zydeco” has become popular with younger white and black musicians and is now no more than a catch-all term used to describe any style of music that possesses the slightest soupcon of the old “La la” rhythm. Zachary Richard is said to be a cross breed, for example, somewhere between Cajun, zydeco, rock n’ roll and second line. Queen Ida has been described as having a Tex-Mex style of zydeco, and Terrance Simien has been labeled as leaning heavily on the blues. Buckwheat Zydeco goes for a big band sound with only a spattering of the earthy zydeco sounds in his performances. Wayne Toups and his ZydeCajun band are now on Polygram Records. It continues.
Zydeco has evolved and it’s going to be the next big music, predicted J.J. Caillier, the late former director of KJCB/AM’s zydeco show for four years. The only thing keeping it down is “Billboard,” Caillier said several years ago, because that bible of popular music doesn’t recognize zydeco as a style of music. Give zydeco a listing of its own—not just ethnic or folk category—and how many musicians from here could make it? But “Billboard” can’t keep a music like zydeco down. Like jazz, the blues, rock n’ roll and reggae, mainstream popularity is the key of zydeco, regardless of records released or radio charts.
Mary is a stout woman who runs her world from behind the bar. The club, named after her, has been in operation in St. Martinville for over 20 years and Mary seems to have mastered how to keep a good business going—be firm but friendly with your customers. Her business policy and life’s philosophy is succinctly posted in block letters on the bar wall:
NO CREDIT; please. So don’t ask!
Money makes enemies, so let’s be friends. Thanks.
It’s obvious Mary does the majority of the bartending in her club. No need to ask her, just look around. As personalized as a bedroom. A M-A-R-Y mobile hangs from the ceiling, personal photos adorn the bar’s mirror and a keepsake flower in a glass-enclosed vase sits next to the vodka.
Tonight Wilfred Chevis and the Texas Zydeco Band are playing to a small crowd. Maybe a bad weekend. Places haven’t been too packed. But in a couple of weeks Buckwheat’s coming. That’ll bring ’em in, Mary says.
If the definition of what’s zydeco is elastic, how far can you go before it’s no longer zydeco? What are the basic ingredients for a zydeco sound?
J.J. Caillier once said there must be an accordion, and the accordion must be a leading instrument. “You can take any blues song and tag an accordion to it and it’d be zydeco.” But there’s something even more important, said Caillier. To have a true zydeco rhythm, the beat has got to be off. If the accordion player plays on time, he’s off. As musician Dickie Landry defines it, the basics for a zydeco sound are a washboard, an accordion and “that familiar zydeco thing.”
Sometimes it’s hard to find zydeco, not just because the clubs are in remote regions, but because the band doesn’t always hang around. Maybe not enough people show up. Maybe they get bored. Someone says zydeco is that way. There’s mystique to zydeco, but there’s also unpredictability. That zydeco thing.
Zydeco—or zorico, zodico, zordico, zologo, and even zukey jump—is believed to be a Creolized form of the French word “les haricots,” snap beans. And specifically from the the song, “Les Haricots Sont Pas Sales” (“The Snap Beans Aren’t Salted”).
“You know what I say about Slim’s? Live bands, hot food, cold drinks, just like K-mart, he’s got everything!”
Rockin’ Dopsie laughs with the crowd, then straps his accordion around his paunch and joins his band. Rockin’ Dopsie knows when he can get away with razzing a friend—Slim’s Y-Ki-Ki in Opelousas is one of the oldest, most reputable zydeco nightclubs around.
The dress code at Slim’s is somewhat less formal than at other clubs, but you can still spot a little black cocktail dress or gold lame blouse here and there. The men are conspicuously bareheaded and there’s good reason for it; the sign on the club door instructs: No Hats While Dancing.
It’s another Saturday night and there’s a good turnout in Opelousas to hear Rockin’ Dopsie and his Cajun Twisters. Dopsie’s a favorite among zydeco fans and he seems to know it and relish in his popularity. An older man with a warm presence about him, but there’s always that aura of mischievousness in his eyes.
The ceiling in Slim’s is low, like the other clubs. Makes it cozier. And a string of Christmas lights decorates the stage, apparently de rigeur at these clubs. Makes it more festive. The waiters are dancing here too. Just like all the other clubs. Makes you feel at home.
Irene, the owner’s wife, clears a table. “Have a seat. You just enjoy yourself,” offers the petite Creole lady. “You should have come last weekend. We had two wedding parties. And next week. You should come then. We’re going to have a wedding dance and the bride has 15 children and the groom has 12.”
Irene, she likes Dopsie even though he’s converted to rock n’ roll. She has to think and think. No, not many who sound like true zydeco now. Her husband says Buckwheat, but Irene says that’s a matter of opinion. It’s nice to hear the horns, but it’s not the sound of Clifton.
But Clifton’s sound used horns, and in fact, the sax player with Dopsie tonight played with the King of Zydeco for years. John Hart blows one of the cleanest, smoothest sounds a saxophone can produce. And you know the guy’s got to be on top of his instrument. When the saxophone isn’t needed, the distinguished Hart leisurely puffs on his sax-shaped pipe while the rest of the band jams. A few measures later he hears his cue, lays his pipe to rest, and puts the sax back to his lips. Painfully cool and never misses a note.
A quarter to one in the morning. Slim’s Y-Ki-Ki is winding down. It’s been a nice weekend. How about a fried chicken leg and barbeque sauce sandwich for the ride?
Dickie Landry, a saxophonist who has played with some of the biggest names in the new music field, has faith in the success of zydeco. But the problem with the bands here is their naivete about how to become successful. “Saturday Night Live was interested in hosting Rockin’ Dopsie,” Landry said. “But Dopsie told me he had a gig to play in Houston.” Landry believes it’ll take a major record company to come in “to sort it out and make sense of it all.” Already that is beginning to happen with artists like Wayne Toups signing with Polygram and Zachary Richard signing with A&M Records.
Buckwheat puts stock in the next generation of zydeco musicians. “My generation ran from the accordion when Dad pulled it out. But add a lead guitar to an accordion and it changes—so long as you keep the basics it’s a good thing that zydeco expands. The next generation will expand even more on the zydeco sound.”
Buckwheat’s rarely home these days. He spends nine months of the year on the road “so people will become familiar with zydeco.” But he can’t do it alone, he says. Groups like Dopsie, Fernest and Sampy should travel more. One group should go east, west, north and south to get people exposed.
“Zydeco’s going to be,” said the late Caillier, “because the mixture is changing to rock and now the white boys are getting into it.”
Ain’t that just about right? It happened with jazz. It happened with rock n’ roll. It happened with reggae. If it’s white it’s all right. Maybe.
Let the white boys in. Let it get commercial. But don’t let it get too slick. Don’t let the stuff that zydeco’s really made of disappear. Don’t abandon the funky, syncopated rhythm. And don’t forget the zydeco people. Lillinant putting down her fan for Ambroise, the waiter two-steppin’ on the dance floor, Mary and her little bar on the back roads of St. Martin Parish, and Clifton, the one who made it happen “Tout quelque chose est correct.”