Welcome to the world of Cajun and Zydeco music and dances. The culture surrounding this music is vibrant, living and embraces new people. If you're at this page, then you are new to this game. This page is designed to give you some pointers on getting a foothold to start enjoying this great music and dance from Louisiana. Congratulations to you in starting a wonderful and fun-filled adventure.
My quick definition is Cajun music is the music of the descendants of French-speaking Catholics from Acadiana in Canada. The music is also referred to as French music because of this heritage, although not all modern Cajun music is sung in French. In fact, Cajun music has taken on many influences such as rock, country, and western swing, so a strict definition as French music does not tell the whole story. Cajun music was originally based on fiddle, and many feel that the fiddle is really at the heart and soul of the music. However, the accordion (of German heritage) plays a more prominent role in most modern Cajun music (hence, the popular notion that Cajun is equivalent to accordion music). For more detailed descriptions, I will defer to better experts than I. Here are some good sources:
While Cajun and Zydeco are often associated with New Orleans, the music is pretty distinct from the other New Orleans genres such as jazz, brass band, blues and funk. In fact, until not too long ago, Cajun and Zydeco were not that big in New Orleans. The rural musician used to be considered unkempt and unreliable, and hence were not hired by the New Orleans music venues. Things have changed, and now a good amount of Cajun and Zydeco is heard in New Orleans. In fact, my friends from Southwest Louisiana are a little peeved that New Orleans now seems to claim Cajun and Zydeco to be their own.
The too-short answer is that Zydeco is an electric version of Cajun music. Zydeco evolved from the music of Creoles ( French speaking people of color in Louisiana.) In the 30's and 40's, Creole music was very similar to Cajun music. After WWII, Creole music began to take on different influences including blues and rock and roll. While the fiddle is generally absent, Zydeco is usually played with accordion, electric guitar and bass, drums, and a sometimes even a saxophone. Perhaps the most distinctive instrument of zydeco (besides the accordion) is a corrugated metal rubboard (called a 'frottior'). The first recognized zydeco songs were in the 1950's by Clifton Chenier and Boozoo Chavis. Modern zydeco has evolved to take on many influences including hard rock, rap, reggae, and hip-hop.
The common explanation for the term Zydeco is that it comes from the Creole saying "Les haricots sont pas salés" meaning "The beans aren't salty". This phrase means something like times are really hard if you don't even have salt for your beans, much less meat in the pot. This phrase has appeared in many Creole songs and is assumed to have been changed slightly to "Zydeco est pas salé" as sung in many of the original zydeco songs. Here's an alternative theory on the origins of the term zydeco just to point out that there's still a lot of debate to issues of origins of terms and phrases - Did the Attakapas Indians give us the word zydeco?
There are a tremendous number of online music sources and local radio shows (maybe in your town) that are tracked at CajunRadio.org. There are also many traveling and regional bands, so you may be able to find live music. In my opinion, live Cajun and zydeco bring out the power and emotion of the music. Given that you are reading this then you are not likely in Southwest Louisiana, the heart of this music. However, Louisiana bands travel all over the United States and elsewhere too. The best way to find out about these events it to look for a schedule or newsletter near your home. Another excellent way to find music is to locate a band, venue , or newsletter near you home. Often, all it take is find a nearby Cajun or zydeco fan to help get you "into the loop" to find out about local events.
There are a number of great compilations of various Cajun and zydeco artists from Rounder Records . These are released under the name "Easy Disks" and are uniformly high quality recordings and fairly cheap at under $10. I would suggest getting a some these to find out what music and artists you like best. If you want regular one artist or groups recording, here are some of my favorites:
See the Beginner's Guide from CajunRadio.org.
Where did we get the word Zydeco?
Please check out Sheridan's Cajun Guitar introduction.