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The U.S. and Canada: Cajun and Creole Music

Bienvenue Patrons!   This week, yet another treat – we go down on the bayou to enjoy a truly international, truly North American form of music. 

Cajun Music is a genre that developed in Louisiana but that has its firm roots in the Maritime provinces of Canada. In the 17th century a group of French settlers, hailing from all over France but primarily from urban areas, colonized the eastern part of the country we now call Canada--specifically today's provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. At the time the land was called Acadia, which was part of "New France."

In 1710 the British conquered Acadia. The British feared the Acadians in New France would rebel, and, in fact some did. From 1755-1764 the British used this threat as justification for "The Great Expulsion," during which they brutally deported about 11,500 Acadians, sending most to France. An estimated third of deported Acadians died en route. Acadians who the British had deported to France yearned to return "the New World," and many thousands did, taking advantage of an opportunity to settle in southwestern Louisiana. The Acadians became known in Louisiana as the "Cajuns." (Say "Acadian" like this -- ah-cA-djun -- and you'll get it.) 

The history of the French Creole people is very different from that of the Cajuns. The word “Creole” comes from the Spanish, “criollo” which refers to someone who was born in the colonies. Initially “Creole” people were Louisiana-born descendants of Spanish or French settlers. Over time the term shifted to refer to slaves who were born in Louisiana, as opposed to slaves who had came directly from Africa, and also to free, relatively well-to-do blacks born in Louisiana, many of whom owned land. To confuse matters more, during the Haitian slave rebellion and independence movement of 1791-1804, a set of wealthier French-descended Haitians fled to Louisiana, bringing with them their Haitian-born, African-descended slaves, and eventually became part of the Creole community as well. By the mid-1800 an aristocratic Creole culture developed in New Orleans, composed mainly of light-skinned blacks. 

Because of complicated race and class dynamics, while musicians have always been among the members of society most likely to cross racial and cultural boundaries – united by song! Still, because of complicated race and class dynamics Cajun and Creole music developed in parallel. Here are some differences:   

— Cajuns use the “diatonic accordion,” while Creoles generally use the more versatile “piano accordion.”   

— Cajun music often includes the steel guitar and features the fiddle. Creole music often has no fiddle at all.  

-- Cajun music is usually bright, lively and even acrobatic. Creole music can be slower and the songs often focus more on narratives about things like the hard life on the bayou.  One similarity? Both genres are awesome.  

This week in class we sing:

We sing "We Are Happy," a hello song from Uganda, to open every All Around This World class. This week we sing hello in Cajun French: "Bienvenue."

"Douce Dame Jolie,"  one of the most widely sung medieval melodies, is an "Ars Nova" love song from 14th century France. (More.)

V'la L'Bon Vent” is an Acadian fur trappers' tale from the dense forests of Canada's northeast. (More.)  

"Angelique O" is a folk song from Haiti that Haitians knew as metaphorical rallying cry against the U.S. military's early 20th century occupation. (More.)

"J'ai Passé,” a Cajun Classic, is a sad song about lost love. (More.)  


In the late 1940s Creole musicians embraced the urban blues and jazz they heard on the radio and fused that with French-Creole music known as "la la" which they performed at rural house parties. They also removed the fiddle from their ensembles and added frottoir, also known as a "rubboard," which essentially a tin washboard hung over a musician's shoulders. The musician plays it by scraping bottle openers over its ridges. In 1954 accordionist Boozoo Chavis released "Paper in My Shoe," which was the first song to become popular in this new genre. [Watch Boozoo perform "Paper in My Shoe" with frottoir accompaniment.] In the late 1950s a Creole bluesman named Clifton Chenier, a French-speaking Croele son of Opelousas, Louisiana, had a hit called, “Les Haricots Sont Pas Salés” (“The snap beans aren’t salty”), an expression that alludes to times so hard enough that there wasn't any no salted meat to available to add spice to beans. The words "les haricots" (pronounced “lay zarico”), became “le zydeco." [Watch Chenier perform "Bon Ton Roulet" and the more up-tempo "I'm a Hog for You."]

A Creole-zydeco music developed into a robust genre it became more and more separate from Cajun music, which clung very much to its Acadian roots. For a comparison, watch Buckwheat Zydeco perform the deeply bluesy, "Hey Ma Petit Fille," rubboard and all, then listen to popular Cajun band BeauSoleil perform at the Richmond Fest in 2008, featuring the Cajun fiddle.

Today Cajun and Creole music are still separate genres, and many artists create solely in one or the other. On the other hand, popular bands all over Louisiana, but especially in New Orleans, are known to play songs from both genres in their sets, and even to blur the lines between the two in the same composition. Popular Accordionist Wayne Toups calls this fusion of Cajun, Creole and bluesy Zydeco, "Zydecajun."  [See Toups perform "Johnny Can't Dance."]

Even more: An explanation of the difference between Cajun, Creole and Zydeco music | The also helpful, "Brief History of Cajun, Creole and Zydeco" | If you'd rather actually see this music in action, get your hands on a copy of the 1989 documentary J'ai Été Au Bal. Get a taste of the documentary on YouTube.   



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