Two-Stepping with Evangeline

Louisiana Cajun-Zydeco Festival brings big names and driving rhythms to New Orleans

 

Jennifer Gibson Schecter was once a tourist in New Orleans herself and is now proud to call NOLA home. She also writes the Wednesday Tourism Blog on BizNewOrleans.com.

 

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When you hear the squeeze of the accordion and the zip of the washboard, you may feel you’ve traveled deep into Louisiana Cajun and Creole country. But when you look around and see the statue of Louis Armstrong and the architecture of the French Quarter, it is evident you are still in the confines of cosmopolitan New Orleans.

How can this be?
One special weekend each year the traditional music of the southwestern parishes is celebrated during the Jazz & Heritage Foundation’s Louisiana Cajun-Zydeco Festival, scheduled this year for June 23-24.

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This free weekend festival gives locals and tourists alike the opportunity to dance along with some of the most talented musicians of these genres without that pesky drive west along Interstate 10. From 11:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. on both days, Louis Armstrong Park will be filled with some of the biggest names in Cajun and zydeco, tempting food and creative artisans.

The festival has grown in its 12 years, with increasing attendance expected to attract 9,000 people this year. Additions will include a dessert oasis in Congo Square, an oral history interview stage and a special focus on “trail ride” music.

“We think it’s great that younger audiences and artists are keeping the zydeco tradition going and updating it with contemporary influences,” explained Scott Aiges, director of programs, marketing and communications for the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation. “It’s interesting that while the traditional zydeco dance halls of southwest Louisiana are disappearing, young audiences are keeping the music and the dancing going with parties that they have at the end of horse rides, or trail rides. It’s an awesome spin on a historic tradition. Every year we look for a new twist or angle to keep the festival from getting stale, and we thought this would be a good year to bring some attention to the growing popularity of trail rides that feature zydeco music.”

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Popular “trail ride” circuit zydeco artists in the festival’s lineup include Li’l Nathan & the Zydeco Big Timers, Chris Ardoin & NuStep, and Corey Ledet & His Zydeco Band. A big name in zydeco, Grammy-nominated Dwayne Dopsie & the Zydeco Hellraisers will close out the festival on Sunday. On the Cajun side of the French-music tradition, Bruce Daigrepont, Les Freres Michot and Grammy Award-winners Lost Bayou Ramblers, round out an incredible schedule of performers.

The Louisiana Cajun-Zydeco Festival is the only festival in New Orleans that exclusively features these styles of music. Festival-goers arrive from international locations and across the United States to experience the vibrant rural music by day, and more urban jazz standards by night.

Aiges pointed out that jazz, Cajun and zydeco all emerged at roughly the same time — the late 19th and early 20th centuries – with jazz in New Orleans and Cajun and zydeco developing in the prairies of Southwest Louisiana.  

“Both were a sort of folk or vernacular music that people of modest means used as a way to lift their spirits,” said Aiges. “It’s all dance music.

Cajun and zydeco are very closely linked, musically and geographically. Jazz is not closely related, musically. But it’s all music that comes from the people, and it demonstrates the resilience of folks trying to make their way amid difficult circumstances.”

That resiliency and tendency to celebrate life even in hard times is intrinsic to the spirit of the people of Louisiana. It’s little wonder that the music styles originating here express that “glass half full” outlook on life. We turn to music and dancing to commemorate births, deaths and the possible hurricane that will impact us in between.

Our musicians serve as ambassadors to the world, sharing that perspective, and the Jazz & Heritage Foundation plays an important role in supporting our culture bearers. It channels the annual economic impact of more than $300 million generated by its namesake festival, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival presented by Shell, into free, year-round programs, grants, festivals and opportunities for food and art vendors to benefit, as well as musicians.

“It is important to us that the musicians who perform are well paid, and that the food and craft vendors use our events as opportunities to generate revenue for their businesses,” said Aiges. “So we keep the cost to participate very low for our vendors, and we pay the bands what they ask.”

To learn more about the foundation and the Louisiana Cajun-Zydeco Festival, visit at jazzandheritage.org/cajun-zydeco.

 

 

 

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