various artists,
Music from the Zydeco Kingdom
(Laker Music, 1999)

Zydeco. The word is intriguing and exotic to me, hinting at something new to discover, something very different from what music I've known. The word itself rolls of my tongue with a lyrical twang, certainly distinct from anything commonly spoken in Boston, land of dropped R's and flattened vowels that I love. I immediately associate the word with the South of Charleston, South Carolina, where my father grew up and my family frequently visited, even though I knew zydeco was born from a completely different breed of the South in Creole, Lousiana. The muggy heat and the languid pace of life still crept into my imagination along with the energy of the partying of my father's and grandfather's stories.

Later I met a friend at college whose entire thesis circled around zydeco music and she clued me in on a bit more of a real picture of what zydeco was. She herself played a hardanger fiddle, an instrument laced with a second set of strings underneath the sound board which buzz with harmonics as the top strings are played. I never got to hear her play, much to my regret and sadness, but I could feel her enthusiasm for the music in her conversation and my interest in hearing zydeco grew.

So, now I have heard what she loved. With no more an introduction than the admittedly lengthy liner notes can give me, I've finally gotten a taste of zydeco. And I like it.

This album was created as a companion for the book, The Kingdom of Zydeco, and the liner notes are very carefully written by Michael Tisserand to help new listeners follow along in the varied history and styles of zydeco music. I was intrigued by the history but, as a reviewer, was more interested in how my ears and body took to the music than its more academic history. So I snapped the CD into my player and I listened.

Amede Ardoin's "Two Step de Eunice" shows its age (1929) in the scratches evident in the recording, but it give you an immediate guide to the core of what zydeco is. A wailing voice, an infectious beat with a fiddle and a trademark accordion, all mark the tradition whether it is from the early recordings or the latest cut. The pulse of the accordion feels oddly familiar, almost like a techno beat, which indeed clues any listener in to why zydeco was swept up into modern dance music and rock 'n' roll. Throughout all its incarnations, however, remains the presence of both the accordion, the Creole language itself, and the rhythm. I enjoyed this tune almost more than the later tracks, feeling privileged to a bit a history that I may never have heard had this book never been written.

"Broken Hearted" by Zydeco Force is a fine example of the dance trend within zydeco. It was more familiar to me than the first track in rhythm and style, feeling more like the familiar country and blues, though it still had the accordion as the backbone of the music. The trilling of the accordion also feels similar to fiddle stylings, and indeed fiddles are often companions to the accordion, and the unmistakable energy of both instruments easily sweeps a listener up and into dancing.

"Tu m'as fait brailler (You made me cry)" displays a jaunty beat and constant melody which contradict the sadness of the lyrics, but certainly speak of the need to dance and sing to lift disappointment away. Here another mark of zydeco music shows in the repetition at the heart of the song, embellished though it is with wanderings into other melodies. It could annoy some listeners, but as I listened to John Delafose and the Eunice Playboys perform, just as I was beginning to wonder if it was going to shift, the song faded out. The constant beat again remined me of the constant complaint about techno and dance music: that all it is is a beat. Zydeco was first and foremost dance music, and it shows in this selection.

With "Oh, Yes I'm Going Away," Ambrose Sam shows the slower side of the style, still full of rhythm and a foot-tapping tempo, but with a more yearning tone and slower slide from phrase to phrase. The singer again recalls the wail of great blues, but the brightness of the music leads away from that association to its own sound. This one became a favorite of the album for is simple beauty and enthusiasm.

Clifton Chenier and the Red Hot Louisiana Band combines the familiar old style rock 'n' roll in "Grand Prix," though the accordion takes the place of the more customary guitar for the main instrument of the song. What is often true, however, when rock and zydeco combine, the accordions are also relegated more to background as a sax takes up the first solo. The voice is clearer and more to the front rather than blended with the instruments, though the general mood of the song remains true to its roots.

"Bernadette c'est ma 'tit Creole" is another less traditional track, although the accordion returns to the fore, driven by a stronger beat than the previous tune. This song, performed by Keith Frank, is also again evidently dance music more than anything else, though that's not in any sense a disappointment.

"Grand Mary's Two Step," by Boozoo Chavis with the Magic Sounds, feels more modern. You can, for once, hear the percussion basis of all zydeco very clearly, from the washboards to the drums, and it's nice to pick them out. The music becomes more important than the vocals, and the rock guitar is again added, but more as a flavor to the accordion rather than the other way around. This cut feels more like a duet, or even a duel, verse by verse, between the accordion player and the singer.

"La Femme de Doight" gives us Queen Ida, the first female voice to be heard on the album. Continuing in the same vein as the previous tracks, she, Al Rapone and the Bon Temps Zydeco Band provide a rockin' beat and is certainly something to groove to. This particular cut seems to show both where zydeco comes from while also leading us to where the music has arrived at, and is still reminiscent of early rock, but smoother and true to its own identity.

C.J. Chenier and the Red Hot Louisiana Band slow the album down for "C-Key Blues," and the mournful sound of the accordion is most fitting to the song's mood. The singer's voice is low and keening, hitting just the right tone of pain and heartbreak without losing hope.

"Louisiana Down Home Blues" returns the dance beat to the music. The accordion is again not as prominent as in early recordings, but certainly still a key figure layered with the electric guitar and bass and other percussion, and remains the featured soloist.

Les Freres Carrieres' "Zydeco a Carriere" has a much more traditional sound. This is the kind of music that takes attention to keep up with the tricky beat and the winding of the melody, but also completely worth losing oneself in in order to feel the beat down to your toes.

"Dopsie's Cajun Stomp" by Rockin' Dopsie and the Cajun Twisters combines equal parts traditional beat and pulsing accordion and a modern feel with a jazz saxophone thrown in for good measure.

"Everything on the Hog" shows the real promise of the mix of rock 'n' roll and zydeco. The tune by Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas is moved by a slower but still compelling beat, and swells in and out with the accordion. The mixture of Creole and English lyrics, and the sweeter, smoother voice than the older voices makes for an undeniable song which harkens to the past while still embellishing on the theme.

Buckwheat Zydeco's "Hot Tamale Baby" is truly kinetic music which picks you up and doesn't let you rest till the finish of the song. The singer leads you on, passionate and strong, through a rockabilly guitar solo, teasing and exciting. There's almost too much to dance to, though it's inescapable, and leaves you happily breathless at the finish.

"Cher Catin" returns again to the bones of the tradition, the accordion almost taking over the song. The washboard is more apparent than previously, and indeed every instrument and voice is clearer, allowed to shine while also mixing together. This track shows the separate pieces of the music and how they dance together.

Rosie Ledet is the second woman to appear on this album, and is also a woman taking over the traditional tale of the "bad woman" and making it her own. The tone of "I'm Gonna Take Care of Your Dog" is slower, almost angrier, and in a minor tone with a strong alto voice. Again the style is more old-fashioned, an unornamented accordion plus voice, and for this reason the song has a force of clear emotion that many of the others lose to energy.

Beau Jocque and the Zydeco Hi-Rollers' "Give Him Cornbread" is the only live track on the album (though with all of the energy zinging around you'd never know it). The rich, gritty voice is perfect, and again the repetitive melody and beat are prominent and the guitar is again the companion to the accordion. The length of the performance not only allows for interaction with audience, but also the opportunity to break the song down into its component parts as the musicians explore the possibilities of the song's melody and rhythm.

"Hack a 'tit Moreau (Bonsoir Moreau)" cycles back to the traditional stuff, almost as a reminder before the close of the album. The fiddle and the now familiar wailing voice, this time by Canray Fontenot and Bois Sec Ardoin, go directly back to the first track and underscore what was kept, left out, or embellished in the tracks in between.

"Ardoin Two Step" is a high-energy finish to the album. Chris Ardoin -- a descendant of the first track's performer -- and Double Clutchin' wrap up all the traditions in one last jumpin' track and showcases the trademark accordion in the break down.

The entire album certainly makes for a stunning and educational ride, and as its creator intended, also makes one kickin' party album. I know I'll be slipping tracks from it into my mixes for my friends to try and spread the interest, and after a listen, I'm sure you will too.

[ by Robin Brenner ]

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