“The word ‘zydeco’ comes from the Cajun-French song ‘Les haricots san pa sale,’” says Peter Oliver, musician and co-promoter of the Gator by the Bay Festival. “In French that means ‘the snap beans aren’t salty,’ and if you couldn’t afford salt it means you’re poorer than dirt. Zydeco is a word that was made up — it’s a manufactured word from that song, because when you sang [‘les haricots’] it sounded like ‘layzedico.’” Zydeco developed in the early 1900s when French-speaking Canadians migrated to Louisiana. The language of the area eventually morphed into the Cajun French dialect.
The seventh annual Gator by the Bay Festival will be held at Spanish Landing Park on Saturday, May 10, and Sunday, May 11. Twenty-five bands will play blues and zydeco music. Like French folk music, zydeco often includes a piano accordion along with a guitar and a corrugated aluminum rubboard, also known as a vest frottoir, which hangs from a player’s shoulders on the chest and is used as a percussion instrument. The tempo of zydeco is fast, and the songs tend toward minor keys and syncopated rhythms.
“Zydeco is like oysters,” says Oliver. “People are never middle-of-the-road about oysters — you love it or hate it.” As with other musical genres, zydeco has its own style of dance. “Zydeco dance is really close in; you hold on to each other really tight. You’ve got your knees bent a little bit, and you’re moving up and down ever so slightly.” The standard zydeco stance is a half crouch, with the feet shifting quickly from left to right.
“Typically, in zydeco dancing, you have your hand around your partner’s body,” says Oliver. “You know how you do a waltz? For a woman, she puts a hand on her partner’s shoulder. In zydeco the woman will frequently have her right hand down at the man’s waist level, and he’ll have his hand around the small of her back, holding her close in, and you do a lot of really close turns. It’s a passionate dance.”
Oliver describes the dance as “anarchistic.” Unlike most structured social dancing, such as the waltz or two-step — where dancers move counterclockwise around the dance floor — zydeco dancers tend to pick a spot and stay there. “I can dance in two square feet,” says Oliver. “You just sit there, hold on to your partner, and groove out to the music.”
“Zydeco dance is like a slower-paced salsa,” says Amariyah Israel, who teaches zydeco moves to festival attendees. “But with zydeco the man and woman do almost identical footwork. They don’t do a lot of spinning or twirling — they’re just in a groove.”
Just as zydeco musicians have begun to incorporate drop beats and rap riffs, Israel has begun adding hip-hop moves to his routine. “Not to brag, but I’m the only one I know to do stuff like that,” says Israel. “I add the latest, like, ‘Crank That (Soulja Boy).’”
In addition to zydeco dance lessons and music, the festival will host a crawfish boil in the traditional Louisiana manner. Mitch Olivier of Opelousas, Louisiana, is bringing 8000 pounds of live crawfish packed on ice to Spanish Landing. “That’s a big-ass truck,” says Oliver.
Oliver stresses that crawfish are “tiny, freshwater lobsters — not shrimp, not cockroaches, but little lobsters.” The crawfish will be slathered in Zatarain’s, a Creole spice rub, and then tossed into a 50-gallon tank set atop a gas cooker. Crawfish-eating lessons will take place every hour. “There’s a saying, ‘Pinch me, squeeze me, suck my head, and eat me,’” says Oliver. “Once you get the knack of it, you can get quite a bit of meat out of them. It’s like learning how to use chopsticks.”
Oliver suggests holding the body of the crawfish in one hand and the tail in the other and twisting in opposite directions. “Then you can take the body [the head portion] up to your mouth and suck the juice out. Then you drop that down on newspaper — everybody eats crawfish on newspaper — and now at the bottom of the tail, in the skinniest part, if you pinch just above where the fan is and hold on, you grab the meat with your teeth and gently pull it out. After about eight of those you have to have some potatoes and some corn, which are also in the boil. And beer...you’ve got to drink beer.”
Gator by the Bay Festiva
Saturday, May 10, and Sunday, May 11
10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Spanish Landing Park
North Harbor Drive
Cost: $20 (under 17 free)
Info: 619-234-8612 or www.gatorbythebay.com