Creoles, at the risk of oversimplifying, are the black, French-speaking people of Southwest Louisiana, and zydeco is the versatile term for their dances, dance halls and infectious dance music. Sometime in the 19th century, black musicians adopted the accordion-driven repertoire of their Acadian neighbors — white, French-Canadian exiles who had settled the bayous and prairies two centuries before.
In the 1950s, accordion master Clifton Chenier galvanized the style known as zydeco by fusing traditional sounds with the rhythmic intensity of R&B and urban blues. Today, zydeco continues to change in response to the tastes and social habits of black Louisiana audiences young and old, implicating new influences from reggae to hip-hop.
Louisiana journalists Ben Sandmel and Rick Olivier have captured this journey magnificently in Zydeco!, a book of black & white photographs and narrative that should rank among the best photo-documentary work on music in print. Olivier’s pictures include graceful portraits of key zydeco musicians interacting with the Louisiana landscape and interior shots from the area’s humble zydeco clubs, where he captures the feverish rush of the dance. He exploits strobes tastefully, juxtaposing, for example, the blur of a dancer against a crisp image of a singer; in another image, a rubboard player’s hands appear transparent as they skate over his instrument. Zydeco is anything but static, and Olivier has taken a static medium and conveyed sweaty motion.
Sandmel offers a concise and engaging portrait of Louisiana musical history and the roots of zydeco, lingering on two of its giants, both accordionists and singers: Chenier, who died in 1987, and Boozoo Chavis, a 68-year-old horse trainer who still rocks the house like few people on the planet. A chapter on Buckwheat Zydeco introduces one of the music’s key popularizers outside of Louisiana. The latter section focuses on the music’s younger stars and the rapidly evolving “nouveau zydeco” scene, perhaps best personified by the book’s cover subject, 17-year-old bandleader Chris Ardoin.
The publishers cut no corners in production; the photographs are lush, and the text is treated with elegant, modern typography. The subtext here is that zydeco is not some calcified craft destined for a museum, but a living music from a dynamic and beautiful piece of American turf that has retained its regionalism against all odds.