Monday, August 15, 2011

Zydeco Culture and Gator by the Bay

The music and dance style that sprang out of West Louisiana, known as zydeco, has its roots in Cajun music and the Cajun two-step jig, also called the Louisiana Limp. In 1755, the English, who now owned Canada, expelled the French Canadians for refusing to pledge allegiance to the English crown. Many of these people migrated to Louisiana and became the Cajun people.

Some say zydeco's roots run deeper than that, all the way to Africa from slaves, who held tightly to their music and culture, and to the Caribbean, with rhythms imported from Haiti after a slave rebellion there. Blend in the influences of Les Gens Libres du Couleur (Free Men of Color) and a unique black culture developed in West Louisiana called Creole.

With the addition of the accordion to establish a vigorous, syncopated rhythm and a metal corrugated rub board (once a common wash board), Creole music took off in another direction and a new sound was born. Then, in the 1950s, a blues player named Clifton Chenier added amplified instruments and recorded his music - zydeco music he called it - the local people loved it and it spread.

Modern zydeco music thrives in big cities and small towns across much of America. There is even a group of zydeco dancers in London, England. The basic sound has evolved and been influenced by pop music, hard rock, rap, reggae, and hip hop. The music has a joyful and happy sound, but it can also be bluesy, soulful, and sad. The rhythm is always vibrant and infectious.

This is music that makes people want to get up and dance. The basic foot movement is slow-quick-quick-slow, with or without a rock step. In California, where there is a strong swing dance influence, many dancers use the rock step like in East Coast Swing. Zydeco is more fundamental than swing dancing and easier to do. That is one reason why it is so popular. A person can get out on the dance floor with very little instruction or practice and have a great time.

For decades, Zydeco music was looked down upon by the New Orleans music establishment as bayou or swamp music. Not until Buckwheat Zydeco and Beau Jocque, and others, started making money, getting radio airplay, drawing big crowds, and getting media attention did they invite their country cousins into the New Orleans musical family. But make no mistake about it, the epicenter of zydeco music is still Lafayette and the surrounding area.

In San Diego, we have an active zydeco dance club named Bon Temps (Good Times) that hosts a weekly dance of zydeco and Cajun music, and on the second Saturday of each month, the club gives free lessons and holds dances with a live band. Some of the bands come from Louisiana, while others are home grown like Theo and the Zydeco Patrol, The Swamp Critters, The Bayou Brothers, and the San Diego Cajun Playboys.

Bon Temps organizes a yearly event every May over Mother's Day weekend called Gator by the Bay, which draws over 6,000 people. It is held on San Diego Bay at Spanish Landing for two full days of music and dancing on two large dance floors. One of the 2,160 square foot dance floors is primarily for Zydeco/Cajun performers and the other is for blues, jazz and contemporary music acts.

There is something for everyone. For a taste of Louisiana, the food court serves up jambalaya, crayfish, gumbo, roast turkey legs, and lots more. Throughout both festival days, dance lessons from top instructors in several styles of dancing are given for free.

Not a bad way to spend Mother's Day.  Put the Gator by the Bay festival on your calendar for May 2012. You'll be glad you did. This is a family friendly event.

Laissez les bon temp rouler!