Zydeco, that unique sound that sprang from the bayou country of Louisiana, is gaining an enthusiastic national and international following — especially during Mardi Gras season — but its roots here are showing signs of withering.
A black Creole variant of Cajun music, zydeco was born at the turn of the 20th century. In those days of rigid segregation, French-speaking blacks would congregate in smoky dance halls on Saturday nights to move to rhythms that were uniquely theirs.
Like jazz, blues and R&B, zydeco was later “discovered” by whites, who have constituted an increasingly larger share of its audience. Meanwhile, the once-popular zydeco clubs, where the genre was born, have seen their patronage shrink as younger blacks embrace rap and hip-hop, and as both blacks and whites flock to hear zydeco at free festivals.
“I don’t know what happened here,” lamented Nathan Williams, 43, whose band, the Zydeco Cha-Chas, now earns far more on national tours than it does where it originated. Black Creoles “have certain places they want to go and certain bands they want to support. I don’t think it’s right. Thank God for the national following. I couldn’t make a living [playing] down here. The culture won’t survive if we don’t support it.”
The Zydeco Cha-Chas performed at “Louisiana Alive,” the annual Mardi Gras season gala hosted by the Louisiana congressional delegation, at the Washington Hilton on Feb. 8. They are on a Mardi Gras tour of Rhode Island, New Jersey and Baltimore.
Mr. Williams’ brother, Dennis Paul Williams, 48, a prominent artist in St. Martinville who plays guitar in the band, also expressed concern over the demise of zydeco clubs.
“Around this area here, people are going to casinos,” he said. “If we continue on [as a genre], it’s all about the passion of the music. It’s not so much about the finances; it’s about the need to do it. You have to make a living with what you do, but you also have to live for what you do. It’s something that belongs to us — I mean Louisiana, not just blacks. It’s very important that we invest in our culture.”
Their brother and business manager, Sidney Williams, has invested in the culture. In 1983, he opened El Sid-O’s here, a zydeco club that once packed in crowds and became a Louisiana institution for both blacks and whites. Now, Sidney Williams complained, he has to siphon earnings from the convenience store he owns a block away to keep the club afloat.
“You know what they’re doin’ on Friday nights now?” Sidney Williams, 57, asked with disdain. “Motorcycle ridin’.”
Sidney Williams also noted with irony that as zydeco has become increasingly popular with mainstream audiences, bands have begun charging higher covers that the small clubs cannot afford.
“One week I got a new band to play,” he said. “I wanted to help them out, so I agreed to $500 upfront. Twenty people showed up. I worked all day here [at the store] and made $400, and that night I lost $650 at the club.”
Sidney Williams added that zydeco bands are increasingly playing at larger Cajun dance halls and at the many free festivals in the area.
“Nobody wants to play the small clubs no more,” he said.
The high price of liquor licenses and stricter drunken-driving laws are other factors threatening the survival of marginal zydeco clubs, such as the once-popular Hamilton’s Place in Lafayette, which closed in June 2005 after 49 years.
“People can’t drink no more and drive,” said William Hamilton, 78, whose father opened the club in 1956 and later handed it over to him. “They catch somebody for DWI coming out of here, then I’m liable. I gave up my liquor license. I didn’t lose it; I gave it up. All we was sellin’ was water and soft drinks. I couldn’t make no money on that. The bands [received] the cover, not me. I said, ‘Well, I’ve had enough. I don’t want no more.’ ”
Mr. Hamilton agreed that changing tastes and competition from casinos and bingo parlors also contributed to his club’s demise.
“The younger crowd don’t like the zydeco,” he said. “They like those other bands.”
The venerable Hamilton’s Place was the crucible for such zydeco icons as Clifton Chenier and Rockin’ Dopsie, whose sons have followed them into zydeco but who make their livelihood by touring.
Nathan Williams’ son, also named Nathan, 20, now has his own band: Li’l Nathan and the Zydeco Big-Timers.
In later years, both Hamilton’s Place and El Sid-O’s attracted standing-room-only crowds to hear the Zydeco Cha-Chas, Buckwheat Zydeco and other rising stars such as Geno Delafose and Keith Frank, both of whom played at the Hamilton’s Place “wake.”
Barry Ancelet, a French professor and folklorist at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette who is regarded as the nation’s leading scholar of the Cajun and Creole subcultures, concurred that zydeco seems to be a victim of its own success.
“Zydeco has had a great run of popularity beyond its own region in the last 20 years, and that type of popularity puts tremendous strain on a traditional music form such as zydeco,” he said. “Zydeco evolved as an expression of the [black Creole] people who live in this region. It represents their lives, their culture, but it was pushed into serving a larger audience. When it was discovered, zydeco musicians began to hit the road and to make a lot more money than anybody imagined. When something like that happens, it makes it harder to keep a place like Hamilton’s open.”
Mr. Ancelet added that small zydeco or Cajun clubs were once necessary social centers that brought together members of their communities once a week, but with advances in communication and transportation, that sense of community has been eroded and “that weekly social ritual has become difficult to maintain.”
Contrary to popular belief, zydeco is not just “black Cajun” — the two genres have little in common other than lyrics in French. The rhythms are distinct, and while a Cajun band generally incorporates guitars, fiddles, a diatonic accordion with German roots and sometimes a set of drums, zydeco bands have a guitar, a bass, a French concertinalike “piano accordion,” a rub board, a set of drums and occasionally a keyboard.
Like Mr. Hamilton, Mr. Ancelet sees younger people drifting away from both zydeco and Cajun.
“They’re interested in U2 and Britney Spears,” he said. “If you could get Prince to play at Hamilton’s Place, it’d be packed.”
Is zydeco thus doomed?
“Maybe around here, but not all over the world,” Sidney Williams predicted. “Everywhere else, they’re hollerin’ for it. Buckwheat Zydeco went to Russia.”
Mr. Ancelet also voiced cautious optimism, saying that subcultural genres such as Cajun and zydeco “are like living organisms, and they’re constantly renegotiating themselves to adapt to the culture. They’ve always had an uncanny way of landing on their feet. Over the years, I’ve never ceased to be amazed how cultures find a way to survive. I’ve learned to shut up and watch and listen.”