Sorry Travel Channel, uninformed tourists and zealous French Quarter merchants. Opelousas, Louisiana—not New Orleans—is the Zydeco Music Capital of the World.
Opelousas, a city of 18,000 in St. Landry Parish, is located two hours west of New Orleans, The town officially received its zydeco capital crown May 20 in a ceremony held on the parish courthouse steps. A crowd of about 2,000 danced to music from Zydeco Force and Li’l Pookie as proclamation papers were presented by Mayor John Vallien and Philip Jones, Louisiana Secretary of Culture, Recreation and Tourism. Yours truly served as emcee of this long overdue celebration, which made official what people here in southwest Louisiana have known for generations—Opelousas is the Zydeco Music Capital of the World.
Why Opelousas, you ask? It starts with family. Thousands of the black Creole families in Opelousas and the surrounding parishes of Evangeline, Acadia and Lafayette have zydeco musicians somewhere in their family trees.
The French-speaking, black sharecroppers of the Opelousas area started this music 100 years ago as la musique Creole or “La La” music. After a hard day’s work in the field, people moved the furniture out of the living room, grabbed an accordion and a washboard and if only for a moment, the blues of the day was a distant memory. At the La La, our ancestors could forget about the hot sun and bo weevils in the cotton, wages that were cheated from them, the colored-only signs on the water fountains and back doors, sickness that could kill overnight. Musicians with family names of Ardoin, Broussard, Carrier, Sam, Delafose, Frank, Rubin, Fontenot, Reynolds, Andrus, Lazard and others played music from the heart. Some never recorded or made very few records. Many of these old musicians were better than those who went on to become recording stars. But at the top of the mountain is an Opelousas native who proudly brought the “La La” house party music to a world stage. That’s the late, great king of zydeco, Clifton Chenier. Every zydeco artist, living or dead, has been influenced by this superb musician. In the 1950s, Clifton took the old Creole music, combined it with R&B, soul, country and blues and gave us what the world knows today as zydeco.
Besides creating some of the best dance music, Chenier and his Red Hot Louisiana Band did songs that made you lonesome, remember your parents and friends you can’t see anymore. You’d think about sweethearts you used to have and some you wish you could have. People used to laugh at Chenier and his accordion and his rich, French accent. Now everyone is trying to claim a piece of this Grammy award winner.
In nearby Lafayette, where Chenier lived as an adult, a gorgeous, multi-million dollar facility called the Clifton Chenier Community Center is under construction. Corporate sponsors are donating big money for a statue of Chenier at the center. Every year near Beaumont, Texas, people dress to the nines to attend the Clifton Chenier Zydeco Music Awards, the Texas zydeco version of the Grammys. But people in Opelousas will quickly remind you, Clifton Chenier never picked a row of cotton in Lafayette and never dug sweet potatoes in Texas. He did all that in Opelousas and St. Landry Parish. A taxi driver named Wilfred “Ezeb” Lazard gave Chenier his first accordion. People around here will tell you he taught Clifton how to play. Where was Ezeb Lazard from? Opelousas. Clifton’s brother Cleveland was the first to take a washboard, wear it over the shoulders like a vest and use spoons, forks, keys and bottle openers to scratch out some foot-stomping rhythms. Now, zydeco bands, Cajun bands, even some country and rock and roll groups, are strutting on stage with a rub board.
Tourists come to Louisiana festivals and gladly pay $100 for a washboard like Cleveland Chenier first made popular. Where was Cleveland Chenier from? Opelousas. Bands that performed at the zydeco proclamation ceremony are descendants of the late Delton Broussard. Broussard played at the local house dances and also gave lessons every year at the Augusta Heritage Center at Davis & Elkins College in West Virginia. But more importantly, Delton Broussard taught his 12 children, particularly his son Jeffery, the accordion player for Zydeco Force, how to play. Back in the 1980s, all of today’s hot young musicians were glued to the TV, watching and learning the moves of Jeffrey Broussard and Zydeco Force. Li’l Pookie, a.k.a. Jimmy Seraille, is Jeffrey Broussard’s nephew and Delton Broussard’s grandson. Pookie learned the accordion while sitting at his grandfather’s feet. Guess where this talented and influential Broussard clan continues to live? Opelousas.
The oldest zydeco clubs are not in New Orleans, Houston, Boston, New York City or Los Angeles—all places where you can find zydeco clubs today. The original zydeco dance halls are Slim’s Y-Ki-Ki and Richard’s. They’ve been here—only eight miles apart from each other—for the last 50 years. If you want to see authentic zydeco dancing, go to these clubs. The dancers there didn’t learn from a book or a video or a class. They learned at the crawfish boils in the backyard or by dancing with mama or daddy in the living room, right here in Opelousas.
Every Saturday before Labor Day, thousands of zydeco dancers stir up the dust at the Original Southwest Louisiana Zydeco Music Festival, five miles down the road in Plaisance. Eighteen years ago, Wilbert Guillory and the Treasures of Opelousas were raising money for an education fund and decided to start something no one had ever heard of before—a zydeco festival. Now there’s zydeco festivals everywhere from Los Angeles to London. But the first was here. Within a 30-mile radius of Opelousas, there are at least a dozen recording studios.
Hundreds of zydeco musicians live in this area. The late Rockin’ Sidney Semien, creator of zydeco’s only million seller, “Don’t Mess With My Toot Toot,” is buried in his hometown of Lebeau, just north of Opelousas. Luke Collins, the first DJ to have a radio show with just zydeco, lives here and continues to broadcast every weekend on the Opelousas radio station, KSLO. So is there any wonder why Opelousas should not be the Zydeco Capital of the World? The proclamation from the city and state simply puts the crown where it rightfully belongs.
While I’m happy for my hometown, I’m anxious too. Opelousas natives are not fully reaping the financial rewards of their hometown culture. That economic loss is only getting worse. Every fall, hundreds of people pay $500 to $1,000 each to go on a zydeco cruise in the Caribbean. People in Birmingham, Atlanta, Washington, D.C. and Seattle are paying hundreds of dollars to learn zydeco dancing taught by people who aren’t from here and aren’t even Louisiana natives. A recent feature on The Travel Channel referred to New Orleans as “The Home of Zydeco” and highlighted the imitation clubs there, not the original roadhouses here. Call me crazy, but I can see Opelousas becoming the Branson, Missouri, of zydeco, a boom town filled with restaurants, hotels, theaters and high-paying jobs for the people that started this culture. But for that to become a reality, business people, entrepreneurs and investors in Opelousas must become involved.
Hopefully, the Zydeco Capital proclamation has been a wake-up call. If hometown people don’t protect and promote zydeco, someone else will. They’ll change zydeco into something we won’t even recognize and they’ll laugh all the way to the bank. I’m not ready for McDonald’s Presents Jimmy Buffet and the Zydeco Margaritas at Donald Trump’s Zydeco Emporium in Atlantic City. Our ancestors fought and sacrificed too much to reduce this wonderful culture into a commercial sham. Let the world enjoy the soul-stirring sounds of zydeco. But remember, zydeco is about family, tradition and a way of life in Opelousas, Louisiana, the Zydeco Music Capital of the World.