Zydeco explored through WXPN project

Rosie Ledet, one of only a handful of women in the world of zydeco, fronts the Zydeco Playboys. She will be among top acts to perform throughout 2015 as part of WXPN's Zydeco Crossroads project.
Rosie Ledet, one of only a handful of women in the world of zydeco, fronts the Zydeco Playboys. She will be among top acts to perform throughout 2015 as part of WXPN's Zydeco Crossroads project.
Posted: August 15, 2014

You may know Philadelphia public radio station WXPN-FM as the sponsor of the annual star-studded XPoNential Music Festival.

This year's XPoNential had a bit of a Southern kick, thanks to an appearance by CJ Chenier and the Red Hot Louisiana Band. Chenier is one of the founding saints of contemporary zydeco, and his performance - complete with accordion riffs - was for more than concertgoers' entertainment.

Another reason Chenier was at the festival was to generate buzz about WXPN's latest endeavor, the ambitious, 15-month-long Zydeco Crossroads project. In addition to hearing Chenier's tunes, guests could take home promotional material about the project.

The goal is to increase awareness of the genre of zydeco, that electrified dance-cousin of Cajun music that originated in southwest Louisiana.

Influenced by a mélange of genres (including blues, R&B, Cajun, and Creole), zydeco has a sound and heritage all its own. It's also a family affair. The music is passed down from generation to generation, which is why you'll see the same surnames - Ardoin, Broussard, and Chavis, to name a few - crop up again and again in the biz.

"What makes southwest Louisiana so interesting is that it was cut off from the rest of the state for a number of years until they built the raised highways," said documentary filmmaker Robert Mugge. His film Zydeco Crossroads is expected to debut in October 2015, during the last week of the project.

"The music is so influenced by what people heard on the radio from elsewhere," Mugge said. "Their musics and culture maintained a kind of purity for a number of years because they weren't as subject to all the mainstream media."

With the support of the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, WXPN will present a series of programs and events in Philly that explore and celebrate the Southern musical culture.

"Zydeco in the Northeast has popularity primarily with older white folks who like to dance," said Roger LaMay, WXPN general manager and co-executive director of Zydeco Crossroads. "Part of the challenge of this project is trying to attract a wider audience to it."

For maximum outreach, the station is taking a multimedia approach. Beginning in September, there will be exclusive Web content about zydeco history, featuring music streams, audio and video clips, and performance footage.

The project then gets underway with a live broadcast from Lafayette, La., which, LaMay said, is "sort of ground zero for zydeco."

The first live event in Philly, however, doesn't take place until December, when zydeco acts Curly Taylor and Zydeco Trouble arrive for a dance party.

Throughout the year, there will be performances by top zydeco performers including Creole United, Leon Chavis, Rosie Ledet, and Lil' Brian. In addition, for those who want to get their groove on, the Philadelphia nonprofit Allons Danser will give Cajun/zydeco dance lessons.

Ledet, who first played in Philadelphia 18 years ago, is one of only a handful of women in the world of zydeco. When she got interested in the genre, she knew of only two female zydeco singers, including the great Queen Ida. Now, she said, she can think of about eight off the top of her head.

"Philly's really cool," Ledet said in a phone interview from the Bronx, en route to a Canadian blues fest. "The dance groups are really good. They dance better than me, I'll tell you that. They're always, always nice. They give you all the energy you need."

Allons Danser is active throughout the year, but the group's dances, held every couple of weeks, attract no more than 150 or 200 people. Plus, the group can't afford the top-billed talents.

Terry Spross, who oversees publicity and special projects for Allons Danser, said he was "jumping for joy" when WXPN reached out to the organization nine months ago about Zydeco Crossroads.

"They contacted us and asked us to help them so they could write for the grant," Spross said, "and we recommended the bands, we recommended some marketing ideas, we talked to them about dance instructors."

Mugge said his movie, Zydeco Crossroads, focuses on "the idea of cross-fertilization between southwest Louisiana, Lafayette in particular, and Philadelphia, which is itself a great music city."

Mugge previously examined zydeco traditions in his 1994 work, The Kingdom of Zydeco, which followed performers Beau Jocque and Boozoo Chavis as they competed to become zydeco royalty.

"It's fun to return to these musics and watch how they evolved over time," Mugge said. "A lot of the family names are the same as when I was shooting 20 years ago. Some of the names go back another 50 years before that."

During the closing weekend, there will also be a lecture by Tsitsi Jaji, a University of Pennsylvania English professor and the author of Africa in Stereo: Modernism, Music, and Pan-African Solidarity.

Jaji, born in Zimbabwe, is a musician herself. She studied music at Oberlin, where her friends introduced her to other genres, such as reggae.

"I haven't talked about zydeco in classes until this point," said Jaji, whose scholarship centers on the literature, poetry, film, and music of Africa and the African diaspora. "The invitation for me was an opportunity for me to broaden my own research interests and in particular to think about a really important strand of Afro-Caribbean music."

For now, at least, Jaji's engagement with zydeco is academic rather than applied.

"I doubt if I'm going to become a zydeco artist, and my instrumental background is more in piano,"

Jaji said. "If I come across an accordion, and I'm asked to play some music, that would be awesome."

For more about WXPN's Zydeco Crossroads: http://www.xpn.org/music-


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