If the United States itself is a melting pot, the city of New Orleans is a big savory vat of gumbo, packed with a symphony of sensual flavors and spiced to high heaven, bubbling away merrily beneath the sun’s rays. Its heritage is multi-hued and multilingual, its roots splayed out into a bevy of cultures—Native American, African, Caribbean, French, Spanish, Irish, and German—that came together to create one big, beautiful mishmash. And the what’s the eternal soundtrack to that mishmash? Zydeco.
The musicians we profile in our NOLA documentary grew up on the swinging sounds of zydeco, and surely took a few cues from its melange approach. Zydeco sprung to life when African-American musical hallmarks R&B, blues, jazz, and gospel blended with traditional Creole and Cajun music; the first zydeco recordings surfaced in 1928 thanks to Creole singer and accordionist Amédé Ardoin. Back then, the music was simply known as “la-la,” or la musique Creole, and shared heavy similarities with early country music (which continued as “swamp pop” while zydeco evolved). Depending on who you ask, the origin of the word “zydeco” itself is either a distillation of an old Creole colloquialism or a West African word, but wherever it came from, the style swept through the area, even appearing in church groups and Catholic community centers. It didn’t quite hit its stride until after WWII, when Southwest Louisiana musicians ditched their Cajun fiddles and got to experimenting with the R&B, jazz, and rock’n’roll music they heard on the radio.
This uniquely NOLA-fied type of roots music exemplifies everything the city has to offer, and everything it absorbed; in the space of one tune, you’ll pick out fragments of sea shanties, blues picking, jaunty Creole folk melodies, old time rock’n’roll, up-tempo Cajun accordions, early country washboards, and jubilant gospel-trained voices. It makes for some altogether joyful noise, and it’s no wonder it’s found such global popularity. From 2007-2011, it was even possible to win a Grammy for Best Zydeco or Cajun Music Album. Now, there are zydeco festivals all over the South, and the music itself has undergone an evolution of its own as more recent artists like Beau Jocque & The Zydeco High Rollers, Kenne’ Wayne, and Lil Nate incoorporate more modern hip hop, reggae, and soul influences. It’s crossed over into mainstream country and pop thanks to George Strait and the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, and, hell—even Weird Al has a zydeco song.
To give you the full zydeco experience, we put together a handful of important and interesting recordings for y'all to check out. Get your dancin' shoes on!
Amédé Ardoin - Les Blues de Voyage
Clarence Garlow Bon Ton Roula (1949)
“Don’t Mess With My Toot-Toot,” Rockin’ Sidney
"Zydeco a Pas Sale," Jeffery Broussard & the Creole Cowboys
Queen Ida and The Bon Temps Zydeco Band - “Rosa Majeur”
John Delafose and the Eunice Playboys - 'Joe Pete Got Two Women'
Kenne’ Wayne - “Party Ain’t Over”
Lil Nate ft. Kevin Gates - “Go Hard Or Go Home”
Weird Al - “My Baby’s in Love With Eddie Vedder"
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