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The Boston Phoenix Call it Zydeco!

Explaining one of Louisiana's grand musical mysteries

By Ted Drozdowski

AUGUST 23, 1999: 

Zydeco! by Ben Sandmel with photographs by Rick Olivier (The University Press of Mississippi), 189 pages, $25.

Deep Southern places like Louisiana are packed with little mysteries. At least for us Yankees. We shiver in winter and enjoy a summer that's merely two months long. Folks in Louisiana simmer most of the year in equatorial splendor. We've got pine trees; they've got tropical plants. We have squirrels; they have alligators, for God's sake! And snakes that climb trees. And a peasant cuisine packed with goodies like jambalaya and gumbo and spicy boudin sausage that beats boiled dinners and salt cod any day -- even if our crawfish are bigger than theirs and come from the sea.

Now, carnivores and vegetarians may disagree about the merits of Louisiana cuisine, the heat-sensitive may argue with the sun worshippers, and reptile-phobics may think of those who explore the swamps as crazy, but just about everyone who likes a good rhythm or soulful singing enjoys Louisiana's music.

Especially Bostonians. Thanks to Cambridge-based Rounder Records, which started recording and distributing the sounds of Louisiana more than 20 years ago, Boston has become one of the principal pipelines of zydeco, Cajun music, and New Orleans rhythm & blues to the world. In turn, a tide of us Yanks flood the Crescent City's annual Jazz & Heritage Festival each year. Once on the Fairgrounds, where the sprawling event -- which can pack in 90,000 people on an unlucky day -- takes place, you can hit a Bostonian with a stick just about anywhere you turn. Sometimes, that's encouraged.

Zydeco -- or as photographer Rick Olivier and journalist Ben Sandmel put it more aptly on the cover of their new book, zydeco! -- is the most exotic of Louisiana's musics to us Northerners. The long-term and widespread availability of recordings of rhythm & blues and its permutations as soul, funk, and blues have demystified their roots, history, and practitioners, save perhaps for the most archaic artists still cloaked in rurality. Cajun music, with its weeping fiddles and baying French vocalise, is first cousin to the folk music of Nova Scotia. The early French settlers there were driven south by the British and -- for some reason beyond ken -- moved to the swamps of Louisiana. But zydeco -- or zydeco!, because of its whooping, explosive nature -- is an alien hybrid.

Sung in a mongrel French-English, based around the accordion and the rubboard (a metal variation on the old-fashioned scrub board your great grandmother may have used to wash clothes, refashioned into something worn like a vest), zydeco pounds with the pulse of R&B and, today, even full-tilt rock & boogie. It evolved from Cajun and popular music to become the sound of Saturday night, from the oilfields of Lake Charles to the rice and sugar-cane country of Opelousas and New Iberia. Like its predecessors juré (from the French "testified or sworn") and la-la (from the sound that a happy soul might sing), the music is distinctly African-American. And though the hard-working folks of Louisiana's back country have been kicking up little twisters on roadhouse dance floors to zydeco ever since the accordionist/singer Clifton Chenier grafted an R&B bottom to la-la at the turn of the '50s, it took musical spelunkers like Alan Lomax and events like the early Newport Folk Festival to begin the slow process of bringing zydeco to the rest of us.

After a brief but richly informative journey through the music's tangled roots in African-American, French, and popular culture, New Orleans-based author Sandmel (who is himself drummer for the venerable Cajun outfit the Hackberry Ramblers) guides us through the music's history in the best way possible: introducing us to its old and new practitioners, many of whom are intensively colorful. Zydeco lovers will already know the cantankerous Boozoo Chavis, who cut the music's first regional hit, and modern kingpins like Beau Jocque and Terrance Simien, but musicians like the blind Lynn August and trumpeter Warren Ceasar have equally colorful stories of lives fully lived and tightly connected to the spirit and culture of the music -- and the people who've exulted in both.

Sandmel is at a disadvantage, since this book has arrived a year after Michael Tisserand's definitive history The Kingdom of Zydeco (Arcade Publishing). But Olivier's photography is something of a trump card. His beautiful character portraits saturate Zydeco!, capturing the music's energy and the playfulness at its heart -- and in the hearts of its practitioners. As the book's core, these photographs compel Sandmel to channel the story of the music through the stories of its players. Most effectively he does that through their first-person accounts. So Zydeco! becomes a bountiful visual and oral history -- an inviting and easily digestible introduction for newcomers, and an eye-pleasing supplement to Tisserand's volume for diehards.

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