July-August 2007



June 22-24, 2007

By Joel Okida

Guyland Ledet
Guyland Ledet

It's a bit of a challenge when you try to recreate a Louisiana bayou in a sprawling southern California park.   Located across the street from a harbor which embraces the Queen Mary and the Pacific Ocean on one side and a major hotel and convention center on the other, it's a stretch to imagine the rustic swamplands of the south.  You won't see a ‘gator launching itself out of the water nor will you be digging crawfish out of a muddy marsh.  The man-made Rainbow Lagoon isn't Lake Ponchartrain or even Lake Charles and nothing resembling the mighty Mississippi River snakes through the groomed green turf of the park.  However, for one weekend in June, the sounds emanating from the 21st Annual Long Beach Bayou Festival's Center (Bayou) stage can transport you and your imagination to Louisiana, home to two very unique forms of dance music: one called zydeco and the other, similar, but distinctly different, called Cajun.  Rounding out the musical spectrum, a short walk over to the smaller Club N'Orleans Stage might find you listening to a musical genre born in  the Crescent City:  jazz; this followed by another form of song which meandered thru New Orleans and along the delta: the blues.  Add to the music an offering of cultural workshops, dance lessons and a wide variety of consumer booths and you will get as close to the mud bug state without hopping on a plane or train.  If you‘re off your diet, you can sample gumbo, crawfish etouffée, hush puppies, red beans and rice, and a variety of other ethnic foods.

This year gave the attendees some southern California beautiful weather, much better than the typical stifling Louisiana bayou heat and humidity of summer, and there was no fear of losing your toot-toot to a gator chomp.  California's longest running Cajun and Zydeco festival benefits Comprehensive Child Development (CCD), a local non-profit organization helping out needy families and children.  The Long Beach Bayou Festival is an all ages event with a kids play zone and crafts area, and an arts and crafts marketplace for everyone else.  It's all put on by a dedicated group of volunteers who keep things moving and keep things clean.

It also provides dancing on a large covered dance floor.  Here you'll find a crowd of people from all over the country, sliding, slipping, shuffling, and two-stepping.  No, these aren't cool teenagers slumming on the dance floor, but red-hot middle-aged hoofers who have discovered a fountain of youth or at least a reason to postpone the aging process.  A week of Advil and massage therapy, post-festival, seems a small price to pay for a weekend of perspiration, gyration, and inspiration.  You might add integration to the experience, too.  One of the side benefits of Cajun and zydeco dancing is that it has no age, race, or size restrictions.  Of course, real life is supposed to be like that, too, but here you're out there to have fun and only you can judge or put parameters on yourself.  Evidently, rural Creoles and Cajuns knew long ago how to leave the work day behind and enjoy an evening or weekend of music and dance.  The LB Bayou Festival underlines that philosophy.

Like most festivals of this type, the music is combined with all things Louisiana into one potpourri or "gumbo" pot so there is often a common belief that cajun/zydeco music along with Dixieland jazz is synonymous with New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Shreveport and every other major city in Louisiana.  While jazz might be the music of New Orleans, in reality, cajun/zydeco is more the indigenous sound of rural southwest Louisiana and over the border into Texas.  You will find Lafayette to be the closest Louisiana city to the clubs and festivals which cater to the dance music on a regular basis.  Within that regional boundary, there is another line drawn between the music of the Creoles and that of the Cajuns.  Historically, the line, often blurred, sometimes for the better and sometimes for worse, follows the segregation of the south.  You can trace the parallel evolution of the music and the early struggle where sometimes, musicians, regardless of race, would play together or learn from one another.  At other times, the split, both racially and musically, was wider and a distinct direction was defined, hence, the uniqueness of each style.  Acceptance for each probably didn't occur until racial barriers, in general, had eased.

Where zydeco is heavily beat-oriented and driven by the accordion and rub board (frottoir) with an electric bass and drum backbeat, Cajun music can be identified oftentimes by the addition of the fiddle, the absence of the rubboard, and the insertion of a waltz for every other number.  Where zydeco borrows heavily from rhythm and blues, soul, and a dash of funk, Cajun takes a dash of country swing and can pick up the speed of a fast polka.  Both rely heavily on folk music themes or simple tales of daily life.  It's dance music after all.  In the modern era, the contemporary Cajun band may play a zydeco tune and vice versa.  Although some bands stay true to traditions of the past, the distinctions can often blur as world music and competition promote flexibility and a need for creative approaches to old standards.

Away from the rural areas and bayous, you can hear jazz still evolving in its birthplace of New Orleans.  The Long Beach Bayou Festival gives you snippets of jazz along with another closely associated Louisiana event, Mardi Gras.  The LALA Secondline and the N'Orleans Traditional Jazz Parade Band contributed energetic accompaniment for a Mardi Gras march through the festival grounds each day.  Providing the jazz groove for the weekend were the Ernie Andrews Jazz Band and the Al Williams Jazz Society.

Although the blues has many "birthplaces", local bands covered all the angles, with riffs from Chicago, the Delta, and Texas.  L.A.'s own Café R&B, Mississippi-born, Texas-raised Zac Harmon and his Blues Band, and the Gregg Wright Blues Band, got the crowd's attention.  Likewise, the Oscar Jordan Band, the Oozie Blues Show, Texas-born Bobby Griffen and San Diego's Candye Kane all gave crowd-pleasing performances while swing dancers took spins around the adjacent dance floor.

Highlights on the Cajun & zydeco Bayou Stage were plentiful and dancers, novice and old-timer, could grab a few new moves in between band sets with a lesson.  Exemplifying the zydeco world's love of royalty and titles, the "Crown Prince of Zydeco," C.J. Chenier, son of the late great King of Zydeco, Clifton Chenier, played a high energy set accompanied by The Red Hot Louisiana Band.  Kevin Naquin & the Ossun Playboys, (a 14 time CFMA award winner), played both Friday and Saturday nights keeping the dancers on their feet with energized cajun jitterbugs , bouncy two-steps, and some beautiful waltzes.  From Eunice, LA, a zydeco dancer and west coast favorite, Geno Delafose, also the son of a great zydeco musician, John Delafose, always gives the dancers the rolling accordion driven beat that keeps them happy.  This time was no different as he offered up some traditional zydeco but wasn't afraid to throw in a spiced up oldie or a Sam Cooke special served up Geno-style.

The highlight of the show and perhaps giving notice to the older, experienced accordionists, Same Ol' Two-Step was anything but that as featured performer, little Guyland Ledet, the nine-year old accordion Whiz Kid, aggressively showed his talent and displayed a preternatural bit of showmanship on every song.  If zydeco music and dancing made you feel young, watching Guyland play and bend that tiny body could suddenly make you feel old!

One of the driving forces behind the festival was lost a couple of years ago.  Some of the people that make up the zydeco cocktail of dancers were stirred but most were shaken when Murphy Matthews passed on in 2005.  His love for the music and his dedication to CCD were huge factors in keeping the local dances and the festival going, only overshadowed perhaps by his love for the dance.  Years ago, I would watch Murphy and wonder if I could ever attain the ability and style to dance anywhere near that inimitable choreography that he brought to the scene.  Moreover, while I grimaced and bit my lip with each step, I really wondered if I would ever enjoy myself as much as Murphy; he of the spirited and almost sprite-like movements.  I thought to myself, "That's satisfaction, personified."  Well, I never did get his step and moves but his presence kept me focused on getting that beat down and through persistence and inspiration from him and a few others, I overcame my fears.  He was an integral part of that transformation and I won't forget it.  Perhaps a good portion of his legacy is handed down to the festival to help carry on the tradition and the life that zydeco dancers have known, embraced and reveled in.  Connie Arizmendi, CCD Bayou Festival Coordinator and the rest of the board honored Murphy by naming the VIP Tent "Murphy's Place".  However, sometimes when I look across that dance floor, out of the corner of my eye, I often think I see a figure, a bobbing cowboy hat, a flashing grin, could it be?  Maybe next year, Murphy's Place will be read on all four sides of the dance canopy.  That's where I remember Murphy.

The recent passing of Bois Sec Ardoin, legendary Creole fiddler, might have closed another chapter in the origins of zydeco.  The passing of Murphy Matthews ended another chapter in our own local history.  But the future of zydeco burns a little brighter because of those two, and the torch seems to be in the small but mighty accordion-playing hands of Guyland Ledet.  The Long Beach Bayou Festival continues on because of the figures of the past and because we have seen the future.  Oh yeah, those volunteers have a lot to do with it, too.

As they say in Louisiana: next year, come on by and pass a good time.

Joel Okida is a struggling artist, struggling writer, and struggling musician. It occurs to him that life is all about the struggle. Fortunately, he did not take up acting. However, he's not half-bad as a zydeco dancer and the ability to make a mean gumbo and lovely walnut tortes has gotten him by.