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Zydeco: from snap beans to syncopated melodies


Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas

Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas.

The relationship of snap beans to Cajun/Creole music seems most unlikely and, at the very least, illogical, but these dissimilar elements have brought about the evolution of Zydeco as a legitimate musical genre. Linguistics is the key to unlocking this mystery, and the metaphors of Cajun French are at the center of this investigation.

Cajun French, as spoken in the Bayou Country and across the prairie into East Texas, is not the same Parisian French once spoken in New Orleans. I once had occasion to discuss the Cajun language with a native Acadian, questioning the influence of English-speakers. He told me that the Louisiana Cajun French was almost identical to the language of his grandmother in Nova Scotia — remaining intact even though the two cultures have been separated for over 250 years.

When the Acadians were expelled from Canada by Great Britain; they eventually founded French-speaking colonies in Louisiana. The first settlements, around 1765, were along the Bayou Teche generally ranging from modern New Iberia to Arnaudville, later to be joined by similarly situated Acadians settling to the west, from Lafayette to Lake Charles and up to Mamou. Later, another group was given land in the Donaldsonville-Labadieville region. Soon, Creoles would join the Cajuns drawn by the common language. The francophones were, for many years, isolated by their language and, subsequently, avoided complete assimilation into American society.

Cajun life has, at its core, a strong family unit, a hard work ethic, and a strong social component. Where there’s food, there is usually music and dancing, and no social gathering would lack these essentials. In these settings, there would be exchanges of news and gossip. The Cajun metaphor, “les haricots sont pas sale”, literally means “the beans aren’t salty,” but it is meant to express a disappointing lack of gossip or spicy news.

The phase is pronounced phonetically as “lays ared-ree-co soh pah sah-lay” — the initial H being silent in Cajun French, as well as the final S. Unlike Parisian French, the R’s are rolled, reflecting the Spanish influence on the Southern French origins of the Acadians. When recited quickly, the metaphorical phrase, “lays arrd (rolled R sound with a soft D ending)-ee-co,” becomes contracted, sounding similar to “lays-eye-dee-co.” Drop the introductory “le” and the remainder is, you guessed it, Zydeco.

In 1929, the first musical recording of the song, “Les haricots sont pas sale,” was performed by a Creole band known as the Zydeco Skillet Lickers. It soon became a classic. The Zydeco name had evolved to identify that style of Creole French music that may be compared to its early contemporary, ragtime. As time wore on, the rhythms of Africa and the Caribbean crept deeper into the musical style, spiced with a little rock, producing the perfect accompaniment for beer, boudin, and dance. It’s hard to sit still when the Zydeco is playing.

So, if not for a metaphorical vernacular and a slow day for gossip, we might not have such a unique name for this unique musical form. Allons danser!


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