A Down-Home Party: Original Southwest LA Zydeco Festival

In 1982, a south Louisiana soybean field and goat farm was the site of an event the world had never known--a Zydeco Festival.


French-speaking, African Americans around the city of Opelousas were concerned that zydeco, their Creole, accordion dance music, was dying. The music's pioneers were aging and few young musicians were picking up the culture.


But in 1982, the Treasures of Opelousas, a grass-root civic group associated with Holy Ghost Catholic Church, the nation's largest black Catholic congregation, made zydeco its mission. The group hired a handful of musicians to play on a flatbed trailer in a soybean field in Plaisance, just north of town.


Four hundred attended that first zydeco festival. A year later, 4,000 were dancing in the dust.


Despite its wordwide reputation and imitation, the Zydeco Festival hasn't changed much. Located about a mile off the main highway, the original festival site still has one gravel road for incoming traffic--and the same gravel road for outgoing traffic.


That same road is a great barometer of recent weather conditions. If it's dusty, the weather's been hot and dry. If it's muddy, it's been hot and rainy.


In recent years, a huge, covered pavilion close to the stage protects fans from the elements.


At its peak in the 1980s and '90s, the Zydeco Festival drew more than 10,000 fans. Imitators across the globe, along with other local zydeco events that weekend, have reduced the crowd considerably.


Yet, 2,000 to 3,000 from near and far still come to witness zydeco legends and newcomers in their native environment.


Besides 12 straight hours of zydeco music, the faithful are treated to authentic Creole soul food, which includes red beans and rice, fried turkey wings, sweet potato pies, hog cracklins and more.


The festival is symbolic of the region's rich music and cultural history. St. Landry Parish and its largest city, Opelousas, are considered the cradle of zydeco. In 2000, the state legislature issues a proclamation naming Opelousas as the Zydeco Music Capitol of the World.


Grammy winners Clifton Chenier, Rockin' Sidney, and Terrance Simien are all natives of the area. Amede Ardoin, John Delafose and numerous other pioneers and musicians were born there, too.


The children and grandchildren of these trailblazers, such as C. J. Chenier, Chubby Carrier and Lil Nate, carry the tradition into a new millennium.


Yet there remains only one Original Southwest Louisiana Zydeco Music Festival, held every Saturday before Labor Day. The landmark event celebrates its 35th birthday September 2, away from the soybean field where the seed was planted.


This year's 12-hour party starts at 11 a.m. on the Yambilee Festival grounds, 1939 W. Landry St., in Opelousas. In case of rain, the festival moves indoors at the nearby Yambilee Building, a civic center that generations have used for meetings, dances and wedding receptions.


Chubby Carrier will receive the Zydeco Goodwill Ambassador awards and serve as grand marshal of the Zydeco Parade, which rolls through Opelousas at 10 a.m. September 2.


Fore festival ticket prices and more details, call (337) 290-6048 or visit www.zydeco.org.


Herman Fuselier is a writer and broadcaster living in Opelousas, La. Listen to his "Zydeco Stomp" radio show from noon to 3 p.m. Central time Saturdays on KRVS 88.7 FM and online at www.krvs.org. He is the author of "Ghost of Good Times," a book about south Louisiana's disappearing dancehalls, on UL Press.

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10 Aug 2017

By Herman Fuselier