Side Trips from New Orleans Feature

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Cajun and Zydeco Music

It's 9 am on a typical Saturday morning in the Cajun prairie town of Mamou, and Fred's Lounge is already so full that people are spilling out the door. Inside, Cajun singer Donald Thibodeaux gets a nod from the radio announcer, squeezes his accordion, and launches into a bluesy rendition of "Pine Grove Blues." Oblivious to the posted warning that says "This is not a dancehall," the packed bar begins to roll. Fred's Lounge may not be a "formal" dance hall, but plenty of dancing is done here; it gets especially lively during Mamou's Mardi Gras and July 4 celebrations. And every Saturday morning for more than 40 years, live Cajun radio shows have been broadcast from the late Fred Tate's lounge. Things get revved up at 8 am and keep going till 1 pm, and the show is aired on Ville Platte's KVPI radio (1050 AM).

Music has been an integral expression of Cajun culture since early Acadian immigrants unpacked stringed instruments and gathered in homes for singing and socializing. "Fais-do-do" (pronounced fay-doh-doh) is what mothers would murmur to put their babies to sleep as the fiddlers tuned up before one of these house parties (or as those mothers were getting ready to leave). With the growth of towns, most of the fais-do-dos were supplanted by dance halls, but the name fais-do-do stuck. Accordions, steel guitars, and drums were added and amplified to be heard over the noise of crowded barrooms.

Cajun music went through some lean years in the 1940s and ’50s, when the state attempted to eradicate the use of the Cajun-French language, but today Cajun music is enjoyed at street festivals and restaurants such as Randol's and Prejean's, which serve equal portions of seafood and song. These places not only keep the music and dance tradition alive, but also serve as magnets for Cajun dance enthusiasts from around the world.

Zydeco, the dance music of rural African Americans of south Louisiana, is closely related to Cajun music, but with a slightly harder, rock-influenced edge. The best place to find the music is in one of the roadside dance halls on weekends. Modern zydeco and Cajun music both feature the accordion, but zydeco tends to be faster and uses heavy percussion and electric instruments; electric guitars and washboards (called a frottoir), largely absent from Cajun music, are staples of zydeco. Zydeco bands often play soul- and rhythm and blues–inflected tunes sung in Creole French.

Dance is the universal language of Cajun Country, but don't worry if you're not fluent—there's always someone happy to lead you around the floor and leave you feeling like a local.

Updated: 2014-09-15

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