Rubboards, Zydeco Beats and Louisiana Flair
The Heart and Soul of the Cajun Culture
In my travels, I have been amazed by the fact that so many people know about Louisiana music. Before leaving home, I never knew the impact that the music had on different people from around the world. Typically, people know mostly of Louisiana Jazz music and New Orleans, but not necessarily of Louisiana. In fact, the fame of Jazz music has made it easy for me to teach people about where I come from because usually all I need to say is New Orleans, the city of Jazz, and they know what I am talking about.
Outside of knowing that Jazz comes from New Orleans, few people know about the other music that is commonly found in the state of Louisiana. Louisiana is famous for other types of music such as Zydeco and Cajun music, which in my mind could both be classified as Louisiana folk music. Cajun music typically draws popularity from people interested in folk music, francophone people, and other course those who like to dance!
I am not actually from New Orleans though. I was born in a city called Lafayette, which is about 2 hours from the Crescent City. As you may have noticed Lafayette is indeed a French name. The name was given by the Cajun people who settled in the region in memory of Marquis de Lafayette. The city name of Lafayette was originally used in another location near New Orleans, but the city ceased to exist once Orleans Parish was created so Vermilionville (Lafayette’s former name) adopted the name for itself. The city that I come from lies at the heart of a region that locals refer to as the Cajun Country. Traditionally, it has been the area with the most dense population of immigrant Cajuns and the region where you can find the most cultural “Cajun” things ranging from food to Cajun music.
Cajun music is the lesser known Louisiana music that is in many ways the modern nucleus of the Cajun culture in Louisiana. Culture junkies would likely be interested to find the connection that the Cajuns have to their music. Cajun music tells the tales of longstanding tradition, hardships, simple life, and many songs embody the spirit of what Louisiana is known for: The Cajun-French phrase, “Laissez les bom temps roulez.” Literally, the phrase translates into, “Let the good times roll”; however, locally it basically signifies enjoying life to the fullest.
A visitor might not hear this phrase much, but that is because it is the unsaid motto of the Cajun lifestyle. You’ll experience it in the emphasis that the Cajuns put on their food, music, and even in the lifestyle that many of them lead.
In my opinion modern Cajun music can be broadly separated into two main groups: Zydeco and traditional Cajun. Although both are commonly associated, there are some slight differences in the melody, singers, and even occasionally in the instruments used. The genre of Zydeco was originally sung by the rural blacks of southwest Louisiana. These blacks had integrated with the Cajun people, and occasionally native Americans, both culturally and through marriage to become what is referred to now as Louisiana Creole. Due to their cultural integration, they became just as Cajun as anyone else even speaking the language as well. The Zydeco music uses a base of traditional Cajun music with influences from rhythm and blues. Presently, Zydeco is commonly played by a variety of bands in southwest Louisiana.
Cajun music was first recorded in the 1920s and it has gradually become more well-known since then. Over the years, it has evolved some into different variations by incorporating influences from other types of music. Even some of the younger generation, such as Travis Matte, have modified Cajun music and/or Zydeco to appeal to newer styles of music. Today, you can find bands in other areas of the United States as well as in Europe. Many of the Cajun and Zydeco singers have world-wide audiences and often play at international music festivals.
The genre of Cajun music has been influenced by a number of things over the years so you will likely hear a variety of sounds such as the Waltz, which was borrowed from Austria and Cajunized. Other influences from Jazz, country, rock, and blues can occasionally be heard.
Unique Cajun Instruments
The sound of Cajun music is uniquely Cajun. Much of this uniqueness can be attributed to the selection of instruments that the Cajun musicians use. Cajun musicians use several peculiar instruments such as:
(1) The Washboard – The vest frottoir, commonly referred to as a rubboard or washboard, is very similar to the old-style washboards for clothes, but it has been created as an instrument for Zydeco and Cajun musicians. The musician commonly uses a spoon or other metal object to play it.
(2) Accordion – The accordion is definitely not a Louisiana instrument, but it has been adopted and is open one of the most identifying sounds of Cajun music. The accordion helps to make Cajun music more folk-like.
The violin, guitar, triangle, and occasionally drums are also used among other instruments.
Where to experience Cajun Music like a local?
To experience true Cajun music, I recommend you visit the Lafayette area. Lafayette is a great central location with lots of things to do. Using Lafayette as a base, you will find several Cajun and Zydeco music halls with traditional music. I recommend these for live Cajun music:
1.) Zydeco Breakfast – Cafe des Amis – A delicious Saturday morning breakfast with live music Zydeco band. In Breaux Bridge, Louisiana about 20-30 minutes from downtown Lafayette.
2.) Vermillionville – Vermilionville is a great place to learn about Cajun culture and the Cajun people of Louisiana. They have traditional Cajun homes as well as educational resources for visitors.
3.) Blue Moon Saloon – A low key Lafayette bar located downtown just off of Johnston Street. Check their calendar of events, they typically have open Cajun jams on Wednesdays. By the way, they are also a guesthouse if you are seeking accommodation.
4.) Angelle’s Whiskey River Landing – Rated one of the top 50 bars in America, Angelle’s is located on the Atchafalaya Basin Swamp. Sunday nights it is the place to be for live Cajun and Zydeco music in Cajun Country.
5.) Savoy Music Center – Ann and Marc Savoy are some of the best advocates for Cajun music anywhere around. They make Accordians by hand and still do lots to preserve the music and culture. Saturday morning jam sessions are free and last from 9ish to midday.
Cajun Music Festivals
If you are seeking more Cajun music, then you would likely enjoy making it to one of the many Louisiana festivals. At most Louisiana festivals, particularly in southwest Louisiana, you will hear Cajun music. However, there are a few upcoming festivals where you will hear more:
1.) Zydeco Festival – A festival dedicated exclusively to Zydeco jams. August 31st, 2013.
2.) Festival Acadiens et Créoles – A festival celebrating all things Acadian and creole. October 11-13, 2013.
3.) Mamou Cajun Music Festival – A festival for Cajun music in Mamou. September 6th and 7th.
This is just the beginning. There are tons of festivals in Louisiana for just about everything. Crawfish festivals, alligator festivals, shrimp, Festival International, Mardi Gras, and many more.
Famous Cajun Musicians
One of the unique aspects of Cajun musicians has been their ability to maintain their local mentality. Many of the Cajun musicians are still living and working in Louisiana, while playing for the sake of enjoyment and tradition. Even the famous musicians who have gained international recognition, still have changed little of their Cajun style.
Cajun music has traditionally been a male dominated genre, but in recent years several groups now incorporate female members. It is not uncommon to find a jam session with women playing instruments.
Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys
and many more…
Some examples of famous Cajun music
The Story of the Cajun People
Cajun national anthem
Cajun music radio – Here is a link to Cajun music online where you can listen and enjoy from anywhere in the world. There is another link to my YouTube playlist with a variety of popular songs from Louisiana.
(1) KBON – Louisiana Proud from Mamou Louisiana – Listen Live from their website. The only Cajun Radio Station in the Lafayette area.
(2) Louisiana Music Playlist – A playlist with a variety of Cajun Music and Zydeco bands. As well as some traditional New Orleans tunes.
Cajun dancing is widely popular both in Cajun country and other cities around Louisiana. On a typical weekend night, one could find a variety of venues serving as dance halls for the Louisianan people. There are a few different dances for Cajun music. The main types of Cajun dances are jitterbug, two-step, one-step, waltz, and zydeco. Here are a few examples of Cajun dancing:
Good Zydeco dancers:
Here is a good video explaining Cajun Dancing: