CAJUN, ZYDECO AND SWAMP POP: A LISTENER’S (AND DANCER’S) GUIDE
The first thing to know about Cajun, zydeco and swamp pop music is that they are all distinct music styles to emerge from South Louisiana. But the second thing to know is that they are all so deeply intertwined with each other that it’s not possible to draw sharp lines between them.
Cajun music is the style that emerged from the traditions of the Acadians who arrived in Louisiana as 18th-century refugees from Acadia in Canada. Zydeco derives from the music of black Creoles from West Africa and the Caribbean. And swamp pop is a modern hybrid of both sounds combined with rock and roll, rhythm and blues, and the blues. All styles show influences from other European immigrant groups as well as Native peoples in Louisiana.
Cajun music features an accordion and fiddle as lead instruments; zydeco has an accordion and frottoir — a corrugated metal washboard — and occasionally horns. Both include guitar, bass and drums as a rhythm section. And you should know: Cajun, zydeco and swamp pop are all designed for dancing first, and listening second.
How hard can it be to draw lines between the music styles? Consider two of the leading bands in Cajun and zydeco music: Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys and Geno Delafose & French Rockin’ Boogie. Riley is a Cajun who fronts a Cajun band; Delafose is a Creole who fronts a zydeco band. Yet the Mamou Playboys will easily move from a Cajun waltz or two-step into a burning zydeco number. Meanwhile, Delafose will skillfully lead his band into playing a lovely Cajun waltz. And both musicians love to play swamp pop.
In fact, the musical kinship between Riley and Delafose mirrors the closeness of the two musicians: Riley and Delafose were high school students together in the prairie town of Eunice, Louisiana.
Historically, this musical kinship goes even deeper. Even during some of the most overtly racist times in history, musicians in Louisiana found a way to integrate their sounds, even if they might not be able to integrate their dances. Some of the earliest and most influential recordings in Cajun and zydeco music are the records made in the 1920s and 1930s by Cajun fiddler Dennis McGee and black Creole accordionist Amédé Ardoin. Their music continues to be a seedbed for all tradition-based music in South Louisiana.
As swamp pop’s sounds took over much of Louisiana’s musical landscape in the 1950s and 1960s, it seemed for a time that some traditional Cajun stylings might die out. But local pride was reignited after fiddler Dewey Balfa and other Cajun musicians received national acclaim at events such as the Newport Folk Festival. Young musicians like fiddler Michael Doucet and Zachary Richard took note, bringing a revivalist sensibility to their inherited sounds. Doucet brought both musical knowledge and artistic adventurousness to bands such as the electrified Coteau and the more acoustic-oriented BeauSoleil (which also benefits from his brother David Doucet’s guitar flatpicking prowess). Richard, meanwhile, has penned everything from Cajun party tunes to soulful singer-songwriter anthems on topics ranging from lost love to ecological tragedies. These musicians have in turn helped to inspire younger bands on the scene, including Feufollet, the Lost Bayou Ramblers, the Pine Leaf Boys and Balfa Toujours, which is fronted by Dewey Balfa’s daughter, Christine Balfa.
Zydeco music owes much of its energy to its “king,” Clifton Chenier, whose mighty personality and keen musicianship drove zydeco for much of the late 20th century. Several musicians who played in his band went on to successful careers of their own, including Buckwheat Zydeco and Clifton’s son, C.J. Chenier. Also heavily influenced by Chenier is Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas.
Clifton Chenier performed on a piano-key accordion that allowed him to play a blues-drenched version of zydeco; the other primary influence on the sound, Boozoo Chavis, played a smaller and punchier diatonic accordion. Zydeco players influenced by Chavis include Beau Jocque, Keith Frank, Rosie Ledet and even Amédé Ardoin’s descendants, Sean Ardoin and Chris Ardoin. Other popular zydeco bandleaders include the genre-defying Terrance Simien and Chubby Carrier, son of Clifton Chenier’s contemporary, Roy Carrier, as well as younger, hip-hop & R&B-infused Texans such as J. Paul Jr. Seek out their recordings — or, better yet, find a weekend dance and make your way to the center floor.