Get acquainted to the rhythms of Zydeco
By Theresa Poalucci
If music is the international language, it certainly has many dialects, all of which start regionally. You can exactly pinpoint where Zydeco music comes from. It is the discourse of Louisiana specifically Southwest Louisiana home to Black Creoles, a group of people of mixed African, Afro-Caribbean, Native American and European descent. This community is traditionally rural, French-speaking and is somewhat intertwined with the Cajun culture.
For some who grew up in the region, they say that Zydeco is in their blood. This is certainly true of Richard Allen. Raised in Lafayette, Louisiana, his parents spoke fluent French and his Great Grandmother taught her children about the sounds of Zydeco.
“I grew up listening to my uncle playing the accordion,” said Allen. “The whole family would dance to this joyous music.”
Allen did choose a career in music, but not the accordion and not Zydeco. He started out on the drums, which earned him a scholarship at LSU. He eventually earned his masters in music and became a conductor. It was leading an orchestra that brought him to the northwest when he got a gig conducting for the 5th Avenue Theater.
After years of formal education, it was a friend who reintroduced him to Zydeco when he played for Allen a 1950s recording of Clifton Chenier. Allen found himself drawn to the accordion. Clifton Chenier is considered the "King of Zydeco." He pioneered a new kind of music, blending old-time French Creole and Cajun sounds with electric blues and R&B.
“I wanted to learn to play the piano/accordion like my uncles did, with no formal training. I wanted to teach myself,” said Allen. “After getting my masters in all types of music and instruments it was strange because it was the most challenging instrument I ever took on. But I remembered this sound and it still always takes me back home.”
Allen is proud to now be sharing Zydeco with world through his band the Louisiana Experience. The group consists of Allen on accordion, along with a washboard player, a drummer, a bass, and guitar. The washboard (or rubboard, which is called a frottoir) is of particular importance because having this component in the band distinguishes Zydeco from Cajun.
“It took me seven years to find someone who was proficient at playing scrubboard,” he explained. “I finally found her in Edmonds and she has a naturally ability. She studies Zydeco dance as well.”
Zydeco music does have its own dance form as and it has become increasingly popular over the years. You can visit gatorboyproductions.com to find a list of Zydeco dance events in the Northwest. Zydeco dancing is intensely passionate, and it has been heralded as the new salsa.
While working as a substitute teacher for the Mukilteo School District, Allen has been spending his time on producing his first CD. Nine of the 10 tracks are his original music. Entitled “Now’s the Time,” the CD came out last fall and is available online.
“Audiences often react first with a ‘what is this’ look, but soon they are moving with the music as the rhythm is contagious,” said Allen. You can’t be unhappy and listen to Zydeco. My mission now is to branch out to new audiences and share my cultural heritage through this music.”
“I am happy with my practical musical training. It has help me to make a living. Now it is all Zydeco,” he concluded. “It has been an amazing journey so far.”
To purchase his new CD or learn more about Richard Allen and the Louisiana Experience visit www.louisianaexperience.com.
Richard Allen and the Louisiana Experience perform on the festival’s Stage on Frdiay, June 3 staring at 4:30 p.m.