Zydeco Kingdom

Inside Slim's Y-Ki-Ki one Saturday night during the 1996 Labor Day weekend, the dance floor was packed at the Opelousas, Louisiana, joint. The crowd made space on the floor as zydeco accordionist and bandleader Keith Frank made the announcement: It was time. What looked like 100 women, standing alongside a smattering of men, formed parallel lines across the center of the floor. Frank and his Soileau Zydeco Band launched into a tune, and the rows of dancers started to move, twisting and kicking as if they were one giant multilegged creature.

That was the first time this writer ever saw the "Zydeco Shuffle," a hustle line dance that, in its way, is as engaging as anything in Riverdance.

Although the walls of the wide, low-slung room were damp with condensation, there was an infectious energy and bonhomie throughout the place, an air of celebration that the heat only seemed to stoke. Nothing like party weekend in the proverbial Kingdom of Zydeco.

The Kingdom of Zydeco, though part of America, is almost another country. It stretches from Houston, the western capital of zydeco, to New Orleans to parts of the Gulf Coast and through inland bayou country. It's a place with distinctive languages, customs, cuisine and, most especially, music. Visiting its otherworldly terrain is as easy as popping in a Clifton Chenier CD. Visiting its physical locale is as easy as heading east on I-10.

There are few better times to experience this truly magical domain than this coming weekend. The reason is the Southwest Louisiana Zydeco Festival, held annually on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend in some fields near the tiny burg of Plaisance, just northwest of Opelousas. Although the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, staged over three weeks around Memorial Day, is the biggest Louisiana musical draw, Zydeco Fest is the keystone of a weekend-long fete in which zydeco music and its attendant culture can be tasted in big bites.

Some things to help the new zydeco reveler: One is the Cajun Country Guide (Pelican) by Macon Fry and Julie Posner, a comprehensive compendium of all that can been seen and enjoyed in the area. Though marred by some minor mistakes, and slightly out of date since its 1993 publication, the book remains the basic primer to the land. Another helper is Michael Tisserand's acclaimed The Kingdom of Zydeco (Arcade Publishing). It provides a vivid Rosetta stone to all things zydeco. An accompanying compilation CD, Music from the Zydeco Kingdom, released on Rounder earlier this year, offers a fine 19-track overview of the regional Cajun and zydeco sounds. And Zydeco! (University of Mississippi Press) is full of sharp black-and-white photos by Rick Olivier as well as keen insight by Louisiana writer and musician Ben Sandmel, producer and drummer for the seminal Cajun band the Hackberry Ramblers. Sandmel writes from his insider's perspective and gives the musicians ample space to ramble.

There are also a wealth of visual aids, including Les Blank's noted documentaries, such as Hot Pepper (about zydeco veteran Alphonse "Bois-sec" Ardoin) and Dry Wood (which follows zydeco popularizer Chenier); John Sayles's 1992 film Passion Fish, which includes scenes shot at Slim's Y-Ki-Ki and features the music of the late John Delafose, who has passed the mantle to his son, Geno (zydeco is often a family affair); and The Kingdom of Zydeco (BMG Video), filmmaker Robert Mugge's 1994 movie chronicling the mock-serious competition for the "crown" between veteran accordionist Boozoo Chavis and the recently deceased vibrant upstart Beau Jocque.

The kingdom has even gone high-tech. Last year Rounder issued an innovative CD-ROM, Allons en Louisiane, which brought not just the sights and sounds of southern Louisiana to computer users, but also its dances and foods. Furthermore, it worked as a travel guide and offered interviews with local musical stars and a 15-track audio CD featuring some of the best acts in Louisiana. (And Texas: The disc ends with Lil' Brian and the Zydeco Travelers' tribute to their hometown, "H-Town Zydeco").

And of course there are the artists, admirably documented by such independent labels as Rounder, Arhoolie, Shanachie and local outfits such as Maison de Soul out of Ville Platte, Louisiana. Thankfully there are numerous albums, from classic to contemporary, from zydeco pioneer Amédé Ardoin to current innovators Zydeco Force, that preserve what may be the most truly regional American music.

While Jazz Fest has grown into a big-city party, this zydeco festival still feels like a village fais do-do -- friendly, fun and manageable in its one-day run. This year's Zydeco Fest starts with a pre-party at the site at 8 p.m. Friday with Li'l Pookie and the Zydeco Heartbreakers, followed by a concert at Slim's from 9 p.m. till 2 a.m. with Houston's Step Rideau and the Zydeco Outlaws. The Saturday festival starts at 11 a.m. and includes performances from H-town's J. Paul Jr. and the Zydeco Newbreeds as well as from Rideau. Nationally known stars Boozoo Chavis and third-generation bandleader Chris Ardoin will also appear, along with a host of local favorites on the nine-act bill. Priced at a mere $13 per person, Zydeco Fest is also a true bargain.

Over the weekend, clubs like Richard's (pronounced "Ree-shards") in Lawtell, just west of Opelousas, and El Sido's in Lafayette, the area's hub city, will also be hopping. And on Sunday Richard's mounts its own minifestival. Weather permitting, it will be held outdoors next to the club. The lineup at press time was still shifting. But that doesn't matter. Whoever shows up will make the affair feel like a multiracial family reunion.

Go to www.zydeco.org for more details.

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Rob Patterson