Zydeco music: How I learned to love it

Louisiana is maybe one of the few places where the accordion is taken seriously, not merely as some kitsch novelty in a hipster band.

There was a comic from a while ago:

“Welcome to heaven,” an angel says to newly arrived souls. “Here’s your harp.” The panel below, “Welcome to hell, here’s your accordion.”

I really like the accordion, actually. It’s such a bizarre instrument. But like it or not, it’s hard to take seriously, unless you’re a big fan of traditional European polkas. It looks and sounds so goofy.

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Accordion player in the Zydeco Twisters, of Lafayette.

Louisiana is maybe one of the few places where the accordion is taken seriously, not merely as some kitsch novelty in a hipster band. The accordion is a staple in Louisiana’s many zydeco bands.  I have never been a fan of zydeco music. I barely new what zydeco even was before I moved to Louisiana. I tried to expose myself to it when I first moved down South. I really, truly wanted to understand it and enjoy it. But it was one of the few traditional music genres I couldn’t enjoy unless I was (at least a little bit) drunk. I’ve always loved the music of the Mississippi Delta… except for zydeco music.

But I kind of get it now. I’ve lived in Louisiana for more than three years, which is ample time to see my fair share of zydeco performances.

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Richard Lebouef

Right now I live in Baton Rouge, an old city that’s quickly changing. The city sits on the east bank of the Mississippi River. If you drive across the Mississippi River bridge you begin to see pretty stark cultural shifts. First, it’s just the small towns and the rural farmland of West Baton Rouge. Continue westbound along Interstate 10 and you’ll find yourself cruising over Louisiana’s iconic wetlands and cypress swamps. It isn’t until the first uninterrupted view of the Atchafalaya Basin that you realize you’re in another world. This is cajun country. The farther west you travel, the more more country things get. Perhaps this is true of America at large.

Like the swampy lands it comes from, zydeco is unpolished, even a little grungy. I used to find this sound somewhat exhausting. (Lo, there is no reprieve from the ceaseless inhalations of the accordion.) But zydeco music also has a bluesy, earthy rhythm that is hard not to swing to. It always sounds a little bit tropical to me, but also with a little country twang. It makes for something totally unique.

There was a sort of drunken unity between everybody on the dance floor and on the stage, and it was amazing.

The first year into my job as a news reporter/photographer at a local newspaper in West Baton Rouge I went to a small blues festival in a rodeo arena. Lafayette zydeco artist Lil Nate got on stage. He might be best described as a crossover between Usher and Chubby Carrier.  Maybe that’s being too generous. I remember being in front of the stage taking photos surrounded by a small and passionate audience kicking up dust as they danced. There was a sort of drunken unity between everybody on the dance floor and on the stage, and it was amazing.

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Lil Nate

I’ve shot several other music festivals and attended others featuring zydeco bands during the last few years. They all have a very *fun* element to them. It’s a genre that doesn’t take itself too seriously, which I, for one, greatly appreciate. The shows are engaging and the performers are some of the most entertaining too.

So, I confess. I did not like zydeco. I thought it was an obnoxious, sort of ridiculous relic of the past. But I’ve seen the light.

dancers

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