San Diego shares more than a few similarities with New Orleans. Both are port cities, geographical and cultural gateways to an endlessly diverse steam of influences. Imports can range from commodities to languages to immigrants-all of which bring variant culture reflected most vividly in the arts. But whereas other American ports like San Francisco or Chicago have historically nurtured very insular immigrant communities, both Surf City and The Big Easy have more seamlessly blended cultural influences for centuries.
Walking the streets of downtown's Gaslamp District, San Diego's connection with New Orleans is obvious. Basically a replica of Louisiana's French Quarter, the ornate, faux-Pirates of the Carribean facades and regal colors in our own renovated downtown are dead giveaways. And from the smells of Cajun cooking to the Mardis Gras aesthetic of the state's largest music festival-Street Scene-San Diego is enamored with the style and culture of its older sister from the South.
All of which makes us a perfect toehold for Cajun and Zydeco music. Cajun-Zydeco share histories as intertwined and storied as jazz and blues, but French and Spanish roots music combined with African American and white rural traditions to chart a far narrower course. Even while "old timey" bluegrass went multi-platinum recently, Cajun-Zydeco remains blissfully off the mainstream media grid.
Peter Oliver, co-founder of San Diego's Bon Temps Social Club, which in turn co-founded the Gator by the Bay Cajun-Zydeco Music Festival, says the two forms evolved out of unusual cultural collisions.
"When the British crown forced French settlers out of what's now Canada," he explains in an interview about the third annual Gator festival, "they came around Florida and settled in the bayous of mostly Louisiana. There, they mixed with the Spanish and freed slaves, and that's how Cajun music was born. Cajun, and Zydeco later, is music made more for couples dancing, more like the two-steps [waltzes] of Texas than almost all other American folk music and dancing. Plus, they were almost always sung in French or what they called Cajun French."
Zydeco, Oliver says, is younger and more raw, and until just five years ago, was considered an offshoot of Creole traditions as different ethnically from its Cajun forbearers as blues is considered different from country music.
"All forms of Cajun and Zydeco have accordions," he says, "but they traditionally have been differentiated by very specific types. Cajun had a button, or diatonic, keyboard, which was from White or German roots. Zydeco was always played on a piano-style keyboard accordion, because it came from the slave culture. So Cajun was always considered the white version and Zydeco was a Black or Creole style."
Oliver says that since 1998, an injection of urban dance and hip-hop by young Zydeco groups such as Brian Jack & the Zydeco Gamblers and the style of local Cajun stars the San Diego Cajun Playboys has led to a revolutionary change in how the music is played, and, most importantly, who is dancing to it.
"The two used to be considered separate," he says, "with the dancing to Cajun more epic and sweeping and the dancers in Zydeco closer, more intimate, with smaller, faster moves. Now, with the new players and hip-hop styles being injected, the two have come together and it's very exciting. It's something we're very proud of. Now, everybody's dancing at once. It's amazing."
But Oliver did give a hint that Cajun-zydeco is on the verge of finally making it big:
"You know, I hear more and more Zydeco in commercials all over television today. People may not know it, but advertisers are using it a lot."
Gator By The Bay San Diego Cajun-Zydeco Music & Food Festival is Oct. 11-12 at Spanish Landing (3650 N Harbor Dr., across from Shelter Island). 619-234-8612. Free. (www.sandiegofestival.com)