Just over a two-hour drive from New Orleans and located in the heart of Acadiana is Lafayette, a city of 92,000 residents and the unofficial capital of Cajun Country. Good music, like good food, is a staple of Cajun life, and like the ubiquitous Cajun cuisine, it looks as if the world is catching on to the infectious, indigenous sounds of Cajun and zydeco music.
These two distinct forms of music have evolved from one another in Acadiana and are sometimes referred to as the white man’s music and the black man’s music respectively. Both focus on the accordion as the main instrument and songs are often sung in French. But while Cajun music is melodically structured with a simple, repetitive, two-step beat, zydeco is a syncopated, Afro-Caribbean-European influenced music with a funky under-rhythm where to be right, the beat has got to be off.
The word “zydeco” is believed to be a Creolized form of the French words, “Les haricots,” or snap beans. Specifically, the words come from the song, “Les haricots sont pas sales” (“The snap beans aren’t salted”), which is indicative of the hard times zydeco songs often reflect.
But this music is more than just South Louisiana’s black man’s music. It’s his sustenance. Consumed like beans and rice and cherished like religion, zydeco is a mesh of cultures and music patterns that form one distinct sound. One of the most unique features of the zydeco sound is the “froitoir” It’s the corrugated washboard vest that all zydeco musicians play using a metal instrument. A common instrument used is the handle of a spoon.
You can hear zydeco almost any day of the week around Lafayette, but the best times to hear it are on the weekends. As one zydeco fan poignantly put it, “Honey, in a bar or in a church, it doesn’t make no difference—it’s all the same.”
In other words, zydeco is zydeco, no matter where you play it or dance to it.
In the wake of Clifton Chenier, the “King of Zydeco” who died last December, there have come numerous zydeco bands. One of the more popular zydeco bands in Acadiana now is young Terrance Simien and the Mallet Playboys, who performed in the 1987 hit movie, “The Big Easy,” that was filmed in New Orleans. When the band is in town, you’ll generally find them playing at Mulate’s in Breaux Bridge or perhaps Raymond’s at Antlers in downtown Lafayette.
Buckwheat Zydeco has also become a very popular zydeco band. Last summer Stanley “Buckwheat” Dural became the first zydeco musician to sign with a major record label (Island Records) and this fall his band was the opening act for Eric Clapton’s multi-city tour. When he has time to come home, you’re likely to find Dural performing at EI Sido’s Blues and Zydeco Club in Lafayette.
As the back of one local t-shirt succinctly defined the word, the definition of a Cajun is “a person born or living along the bayous and marshes of South Louisiana; devoted to gumbo, boudin, sauce piquante, crawfish and jambalaya; dedicated to the fais-do-do, French music, hard work and letting the good times roll.” Like zydeco music, you’ll find Cajun music any and everywhere in Acadiana. Cajun music traditionally uses the fiddle, accordion and the “petit fer” or triangle as the main instruments.
Cajun music, once played by just the older generation, has caught fire with younger Cajun musicians in the last decade. Younger Cajun musicians in turn are setting a new trend in the music scene. The new Cajun sound now incorporates drums and electric guitars in with traditional instruments. A few nationally and internationally hot contemporary bands are Michael Doucet and his band Beausoleil and Zachary Richard.
The list could go on almost indefinitely with the abundance of musical inspiration and talent found around Lafayette. This culturally fertile Cajun patch of land has been aptly described as perhaps not the music mecca of the world but rather, a cultural outback.
It’s hard to say exactly why—maybe it’s the incredible “joie de vie”—but in any event, in addition to playing this wonderful ethnic music, Cajuns have a constant dance fever. They dance at festivals (which every town has at least one of annually) and at fais-do-dos. In Cajun French, “fais do-do” means to go to sleep, which is what most grown-ups would tell their children years ago at Cajun house dances.
But the word is ironic because a fais-do-do will do anything but put you to sleep. It’s one big, festive street dance that you’ll find thrown for almost any occasion year-round in Lafayette. The city of Lafayette even sponsors a free street dance called “Downtown Alive!” each Friday after working hours during the seasonable months of the year. As the sun goes down, office workers loosen their ties, change their shoes and dance in the street to the sounds of local bands.
In addition to festivals and fais-do-dos there are also numerous spots in and around Lafayette to dance to Cajun or zydeco music. In this issue of OffBeat, we’ve included a complete guide of dance halls and night clubs that are most frequented. If you’re hungry for Cajun food and music, a few favorite spots to dance and dine are Prejean’s Restaurant, Mulate’s Cajun Restaurant and Randol’s Restaurant. If you don’t know how to Cajun dance, don’t be intimidated! Cajuns are fun-loving and will pull you on the dance floor and show you a two-step before you can say “file gumbo.” For favorite zydeco clubs around Lafayette, you might try Hamilton’s Place and El Sido’s or Slim’s Y-Ki-Ki in Opelousas.
Even if you don’t dance, the unique music and culture in general of Lafayette should be experienced, and can be on a day trip from New Orleans. The only thing you need to concentrate on is relaxation, enjoying yourself and letting the good times roll. And to “pass a good time” on the bayou, mais that’s not too hard, cher!