Occasionally, accordionist André Michot sets his squeezebox aside in favor of a lap steel, an instrument that's believed to have been adopted into the Cajun music arsenal in Port Arthur and here in Houston, where transplanted Louisianans sought to emulate Bob Wills and other kings of western swing. The resulting fusion, called Cajun swing, is one of the Lost Bayou Ramblers' fortes. On Une Tasse Café, the band's newest record, the Ramblers assume the role of an alter ego group called The Mello Joy Boys. That band's music harks back to the Depression era -- there's a rendition of the classic Wills instrumental "Steel Guitar Rag" and French-language versions of "Trouble in Mind" ("Fais Pas Ça") and "You Are My Sunshine" ("Mon Soleil"), the biggest hit ever to be penned by the governor of a state. (Louisiana's Jimmie Davis had that peculiar honor.)
And all these years later, this music still has appeal. The median age at this show is about 33, and the crowd spends a lot of time out on the dance floor, whirling and boot-scooting to Louis Michot's wailing fiddle and keening voice and his brother's percolating accordion. It fairly well begs the question -- why are there so few Cajun bands in Houston? After all, this city is home to close to 100 Cajun restaurants and probably about 30 locally based zydeco bands. In the last census, roughly 26,000 Houstonians identified themselves as Cajun, which is close to one percent of the population of the city proper, and a larger number than all but a couple of parishes in Louisiana.
Long ago, Houston was something of a Cajun music hub. Cajun music patriarch Iry LeJeune made his first recordings here, and the legendary Harry Choates even first cut "Jolie Blonde," the unofficial national anthem of south Louisiana, here at Gold Star studios. And while the Cajun music on Huey Meaux's Crazy Cajun label wasn't that traditional, there was a definite swamp pop influence on just about everything he produced. What has happened since then?
First, let's define our terms. Zydeco and Cajun music are not the same thing, despite the fact that zydeco is almost always called "Cajun music." "People think one is the other," says Steve Bing, the leader of Grand Texas, Houston's most active Cajun band and a diligent champion of the style. "You tell people you play Cajun music and they retort, 'Oh, I love zydeco!'" (Perhaps it's no surprise that Bing is moving to Louisiana next week.)
So what's the difference? "It's kinda hard to explain the differences without using the words black and white," says Louis Michot over the phone the morning after his gig. "While they are both accordion-based music, Cajun music comes more out of a fiddle/European folk music and ballads/country and western background, whereas zydeco comes more out of an African rhythmic point of view. But both of them are mixes with the German accordion and European melodies. And in zydeco the accordion player is always the leader of the band, whereas in Cajun the leader could be accordion and fiddle or fiddle and lap steel. There's always a fiddle in Cajun music, and there's almost never a fiddle in zydeco, unless you are talking about Creole music, which is kinda the middle-of-the-road melting point of Cajun and zydeco."
Herman Fuselier, a black journalist and DJ from south Louisiana, has no qualms about using the words "black" and "white." In his view, the PC brigade, in falling over themselves to avoid using racial descriptors, has only ended up insulting pretty much everybody in south Louisiana. A couple of years ago, he penned a justifiably annoyed piece on the matter:
"OK, repeat after me -- black. Now, say this word -- Creole," he wrote. "Let's put the words together -- black Creole. Good. That didn't hurt, did it?
If we can say the words 'black Creole' and the world doesn't explode, why are my brethren in the media afraid to do the same?
I bring this up because over the last week or so, I've come across media accounts, local and national, on Zydeco.
Nearly all describe Zydeco as 'Cajun music.'
To do so is to disrespect the black Creole people of southwest Louisiana who invented it, as well as Cajuns, who have worked hard to preserve French music.