Peter Simoneaux explains New Orleans Music

[feather_share] February 16, 2015

Peter SimoneauxRecently I asked Peter Simoneaux, fiddler and founder of the bands Bayou X, Li’l Orphans, and Celebration Brass Band, about the difference between the different genres of music we typically associate with New Orleans music – Cajun, Creole, and Zydeco. Here is his description of the three genres in his words.

Cajun Music

Cajun music does not come from New Orleans, though you will now hear Cajun and Zydeco music everywhere throughout the French Quarter in New Orleans. The word "Cajun" signifies Acadian, the French population of eastern Canada, who were expelled by the British during the so-called "French & Indian" war, and who eventually ended up in South Louisiana. It's rural, white French music, played mostly on fiddle and accordion, specifically the single row diatonic button accordion. This style of accordion is very compact, with only 10 buttons on the melody side, and two on the bass/chord side. But it's a very powerful loud and powerful instrument with a really distinctive sound that's instantly recognizable. It's also a highly rhythmical instrument, due to the fact that each button on the instrument produces two different notes, one on the push and one on the pull. So, when you're playing a melody, you're constantly working your bellows, in and out, to a much greater degree than you would with a normal piano style accordion.

Linda and Peter Simoneaux

Cajun music has evolved over time. Originally, in the 19th century, it was just one or two violins. Once the accordion was introduced, it became the dominant instrument in the late 19th, early 20th century. The earliest Cajun recordings typically featured accordion and fiddle, as well as acoustic guitar. Early on, there was a pronounced blues influence in a lot of Cajun music, which is natural considering that Cajuns lived side by side with African Americans and black Creoles. In the course of the 20th century, Cajun music absorbed additional influences from popular music, including western swing, southern old time, and commercial country music, rock n roll, rhythm & blues, punk, etc.

Creole Music

In common parlance today, "Creole" signifies the mixed French and African communities, of both New Orleans and the more rural western half of south Louisiana. Originally, though, "Creole" just signified any mixture of old world European, and New World hybrid of English, French, Spanish, Scotch Irish, German, and Afro-Caribbean, and Native American. And you will find that there are white people in Louisiana who consider themselves Creole. It's worth noting, in this respect, that I'm more Creole than Cajun myself. Even the French side of my family came straight to Louisiana from France, not from Acadia.

Zydeco Music

What we now call Zydeco is the music of the black French Creoles of south Louisiana. Like Cajun music, Zydeco is not indigenous to New Orleans. Like Cajun music, it originated in the parishes west of Baton Rouge LA, and did not really start becoming popular in New Orleans until the 1970s and 1980s, largely as a result of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, which heavily featured these genres in its programming. In the early 20th century, there was not a profound difference between the sounds of Cajun and Creole music in southwest Louisiana.  But as the music evolved, and Cajun music was increasingly influenced by country music and rock n roll, Creole music became increasingly influenced by the blues, R&B, and as of late, even hip hop. The great Creole blues accordion player Clifton Chenier is the man most responsible for popularizing the name "Zydeco." Zydeco is a phonetic spelling of Z'Haricot, which means "snap beans," the term being taken from a popular song "Les Haricot S'ont Pas Sale," (The Snap Beans are Not Salty), a song that really celebrates the ingenuity required to survive hard times.

Clifton Chenier

Both Cajun and Zydeco music are all about dancing and having fun, young and old together. It's just a very deep aspect of Cajun/Creole culture to transcend hardship, poverty and loss, by taking every day as an opportunity to celebrate life. It's a really zesty culture, both in the folkways and the foodways, and it's really integral to the way [my wife and bandmate] Linda and I lead our lives, and in our approach to the music. The great Cajun fiddler Dewey Balfa used to like to describe Cajun music as somewhat like filling up a glass of wine, only when you get to the top, you don't stop pouring. You just keep filling the glass until it's overflowing, running all over the floor..... You never stop pouring until the day you die; you never give up on life; you always keep celebrating joy, no matter what hardship or loss you might have to endure. So, that's our philosophy in a nutshell.

Dewey Balfa

 

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