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June 13, 2010

June 11th marked the start of the Creole Tomato and Zydeco Music Festivals in New Orleans.  Some of the members of our group went down to the French Quarter to spend the afternoon at the festival.  There were stands selling all sorts of New Orleans dishes like crawfish, gumbo, alligator sausage, and catfish.  Of course, they were selling Creole tomatoes and Abita beer, and there was plenty of Zydeco music.  I thought I would give everyone a breakdown on Zydeco music, and why it remains important enough in Louisiana culture to create an entire festival in its name.

According to Louisiana State University at Eunice, Zydeco grew out of Cajun and Creole music, blending European, African, and American Indian styles, creating a unique genre of music reflecting the southwestern Louisiana way of life.  Arcadians came to Louisiana from Nova Scotia in 1764, bringing with them French music which slowly blended with their new American culture.  European tunes were changed to reflect new experiences and stories of Louisiana life, and clapping or stomping often accompanied a capella songs to keep rhythm for dancing.

Zydeco Creole Musicians from 1930’s Era. Photo: Library of Congress

In the 19th century, African rhythms, blues, and Native American styles began mixing with Arcadian music and European fiddle tunes to create a blend of styles and a new type of music, Cajun, emerged.  Although the accordion became popular in the late 1800’s, it was not incorporated into Cajun music until 1925, when a new accordion tuned in the same key as the fiddle was created.  Accordions have the loud sound necessary for southern dance halls so it quickly became popular in Cajun music.  The fiddle has a much wider note range than the accordion; so many old melodies had to be translated or were lost.

As Cajun music developed throughout southwestern Louisiana, African American decedents of slaves were creating their own style of music.  Both Cajun and African American cultures influenced one another, and their histories are complicatedly intertwined.  African American history in Louisiana was very complex as there were free blacks of considerable wealth dating back before the Civil War, impoverished slaves freed after the war but unable to gain prominence, and mixed race groups whose ancestry dated back to French and Spanish rule over the area.  These groups lived in southwest Louisiana together, creating the origins of Creole music.

Sunpie and the Lousiana Sunspots. Photo: Natalie Mello

Creole included the same influences in its creation as Cajun music but combined African, Caribbean, and Indian music as well.  Most often, songs were still written and sung in French.  Washboards, triangles, spoons, and bottle openers were added to the instrument mix.  Washboards were invented with shoulder straps for added ease when playing long hot nights with the band, and bottle openers were scraped across them to keep rhythm.  When southwestern Creole music blended with blues styles in the mid 20th century, the new music acquired the name Zydeco.  Blues music influenced the addition of saxophones, guitars, drums, and brass instruments in the new Zydeco style.  The term Zydeco comes most likely from the French phrase meaning “The snap beans”.

Louisiana has a rich history filled with a mix of unique features found no where else in the world.  We have said many times that we feel like New Orleans could be its own country because it has enough culture and quirky things about it to make a name for itself as an entire nation.  The music culture is evident every day as we see jazz bands in every bar and recording studios just down the street from our house.  Zydeco is part of the state’s history and proves to be a huge part of New Orleans past, present, and future.


UW NOLA 2010 Group

June 9, 2010

We are a group of five undergraduate and five graduate students from the University of Wisconsin – Madison, who are in New Orleans for a month-long course on wetland ecology and community development in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina brought national attention to this neighborhood, exposing issues ranging from poverty to wetland degradation. As both social and natural scientists, we hope that our work will provide useful data to help community and government organizations rehabilitate the wetlands abutting the Lower Ninth Ward, and in turn strengthen the community itself.

New Orleans from the Bayou. Source:

After nine days in New Orleans, we’ve already acomplished quite a lot. We’re well into surveying residents of the Lower Ninth Ward (L9) in order to assess current usage and attitudes about the Bayou Bienvenue Wetland Triangle (BBWT), a body of water that borders the neighborhood’s northern edge.

The BBWT is 427-acre, triangular-shaped body of open water which used to be a healthy cypress swamp. When the Army Corps of Engineers (ACoE) built the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO) in the 1960’s to improve shipping access between New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico, salt water began to infiltrate the wetlands, causing salinity levels that are toxic to the swamp’s cypress trees. In turn, the once-fertile Bayou is now an open body of water. The still-standing cypress stumps remain as a reminder of what has been lost.

Cypress offer more than a verdant view and wildlife habitat. The trees, grasses and marshlands act as a regulator for storm surges, such as the one that inundated New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. The example we often use is to imagine a glass of water spilled on a hardwood floor. With little to stop it, the water will spread quickly. However, on a carpeted floor, the water’s movement is stalled and spreads more slowly. In a healthy bayou, cypress trees act like this carpeting, slowing water surges and acting as a natural protection against hurricanes. With this in mind, we believe that a healthy bayou will help protect the Lower Ninth Ward.

The BBWT and the northern edge of the Lower Ninth Ward. Photo by Andrew Leaf, January 2008

While in New Orleans, we will continue to survey both residents of the L9 as well as visitors to a viewing platform built by students from the University of Colorado. Before the platform was built, many residents had never looked over the levee; now it is regularly visited by both locals and tourists alike. The ACoE is developing plans in conjunction with neighborhood associations and Tulane and LSU landscape architecture students for an expanded area with possible improvements such as a boardwalk out into the bayou, picnic facilities, fishing and viewing platforms and walking trails. Members of our group hope to be part of this planning process.

Restoration Plants for New Orleans Wetlands. Source:

We plan to use this blog both as a reporting and documentation tool as well as a resource for members of the community to learn about and engage in activities associated with the BBWT restoration. We hope to start dialogues with the site’s visitors and welcome questions and comments. Thanks for checking in with us and be sure to return – we’ve got a wide range of projects in the works and look forward to sharing our experiences with you.

The UW NOLA 2010 Group