It’s a sultry Sunday deep in the countryside of St. Landry Parish, Louisiana. Apart from an old fellow with his head deep in the bonnet of a truck, the place is deserted.
A field, a barn, a clapped-out truck. I wonder if I’ve followed Bird’s directions correctly. I found his number online and we’d spoken only briefly on the phone.
It’s barely 11am and already stiflingly hot. Just as I contemplate giving up, a shiny pick-up truck towing a battered horse-box pulls in. One pick-up becomes thirty and soon the muddy field is full.
Families of all ages spill out, horses are saddled up and beers cracked open. As the scene unfolds I pick my way through the cars and horses to a barn where I find Bird arranging the bar.
Bird is a bear of a man sporting a hooded sweater and baseball cap perched to one side. He steps forward, grinning broadly to reveal a shiny gold tooth and firmly shakes my hand.
“Welcome to West Side Riders, Miss England,” he says, conjuring my nickname for the day. Out in the field, the steady thump of bass overlaid with choppy accordion begins to throb from a hefty sound system mounted precariously onto a trailer.
The procession of riders prepare to set out. I’m at a Creole trail ride in southwestern Louisiana, 150 miles west of New Orleans and deep in the heart of zydeco country.
Zydeco is a snappy dance music that originates from the rural Creole communities of southwestern Louisiana, where descendants of French and Creole-speaking African Americans (who today still call themselves Creoles) merged their traditional folk songs with accordion and later added rhythm and blues.
The word zydeco is thought to come from the French “les haricot sont pas sales” which, spoken in Creole, sounds like ‘leh-zy-deeco sohn pa salay’.
It translates literally as “my snap beans aren’t salted” and was an expression used to described hard times.
Trail rides are blowing up in Louisiana, but their roots trace back to the 18th century. The State has a rich history of ranching and horsemanship to which the Creole population has been key.
Inland from the coastal bayous and swamps, the region’s lush green prairies were hugely attractive to French colonists and ideal for rearing cattle and horses.
By the 1730s, southwestern Louisiana was spotted with trading posts to enable the exchange of horses and cattle between the French settlers and indigenous Indian population.
The posts were established by the French but tended to by their African-American slaves, who (together with the Indians and French) came to be referred to as Creoles and are considered to be among America’s first cowboys.
While only a handful of ranches remain in Louisiana, trail rides are spirited social events centred around eating, drinking, dancing to zydeco and celebrating horses.
As Michael Tisserand, author of The Kingdom of Zydeco, explains, “It was and is a very conscious effort to reject certain facets of modern life and an effort for people to reconnect with their country roots by embracing certain cultural traditions.”
Initially small affairs for close groups of friends and family, trail rides have evolved into something much bigger.
They’re usually held on weekends and always accompanied by a DJ, moving at a slow pace and culminating in a dance party. They’re also run by a tight network of trail ride associations (social clubs) and take place around the countryside of Lafayette.
Despite the now international reach of zydeco music, these rides go largely unnoticed to outsiders.
You may catch wind of one mentioned on a local zydeco radio show, but they’re difficult to find.
I am here by chance, having stumbled upon a post on a zydeco blog, detailing the date, meeting place, and organiser’s number.
After a few crackly phone conversations with the gruff-sounding man known only as “Bird”, I was given the green light.
Zydeco’s history has been one of slow but certain change. It’s roots can be found in juré, a form of acappella praise sung by field hands who, too poor to afford instruments, accompanied themselves with hand-clapping and foot-stomping.
By the 1920s, with instruments more readily available, Creole musician Amédé Ardoin laid the foundations for zydeco on accordion, becoming one of the first artists to record Louisiana Creole music.
Then in the 1950s, accordionist and singer Clifton Chenier shook up the genre by fusing traditional elements with rhythm and blues.
He became a hit on regional radio stations and by 1964, had signed with independent folk label Arhoolie Records bringing him, and zydeco, to the nation’s attention and eventually earning him a Grammy in 1984.
But the zydeco belting out today steps to a different beat. A new generation are making it their own, integrating the rap and hip hop they’ve grown up with.
“This is the birth of the zydeco re-evolution,” says zydeco musician Ruben Moreno. “I experiment with anything and everything that moves me – whatever is hot and fresh on the radio today.”
Throughout zydeco’s evolution, the accordion has remained a hallmark along with the corrugated rub-board, or froittoir, which gives zydeco its unmistakeable syncopated rhythm.
As our procession clatters its way along the empty country road, I cannot fail to notice how closely the horse’s hooves echo the rollicking tempo of the beat.
It is now mid-afternoon and as many as one hundred Creoles on horseback are following the tractor-towed sound system complete with a DJ, MCing all the way.
The latest hip hop zydeco booms from the speakers and riders young and old whoop and holler to their favourite tunes.
“Say I’m off and I’m throwed, ’cause I’m addicted to zydeco,” the procession chants along to the rapping of zydeco sensation Chris Ardoin.
Ardoin descends from a prominent line of zydeco musicians (including Amédé) and is known as a pioneer of nouveau zydeco, which fuses R&B, reggae and hip hop. (“You say I’m hood and I’m a G / How you trail-ride gonna keep you country.”)
The accordion kicks back in at the end of each verse, sending the riders wild. Horses buck in the excitement and diamante caps glitter through the kicked-up dust.
Heading up the cavalcade is the local off-duty sheriff cruising along in his State Police Chevrolet, siren lights flashing. The sense of kinship and community is palpable.
“It’s all about country people getting together to enjoy horses, zydeco music and good food,” Leo Lee, 35, tells me. “It’s a tradition that keeps our culture going.”
Lee is a lifelong trail rider from Jeanerette, a town 70 miles further south. “We do it every weekend with our families and support each organisation that holds a trail ride.”
He is with his two young sons and all three are wearing matching T-shirts with ‘Showtime Riders’, the name of their trail ride association, emblazoned across the back.
By the time we complete our circuit, it’s early evening and the number of cars in the field has doubled.
Keith Frank, arguably Louisiana’s most successful zydeco musician, is playing on a stage in the barn.
Dressed in a baseball cap and baggy jeans, the 40-something switches between four different accordions and is accompanied by his Soileau Zydeco Band, who blend in elements of funk and reggae – a mix that has dismayed purists but is met by wide approval from his younger audience.
Frank makes regular appearances on the trail ride circuit. His fusion of zydeco with a more urban, contemporary sound is exactly what the younger trail riders are clamouring for.
If you want to make it as a zydeco musician in Louisiana you need to give the trail riders what they want to hear.
Broadcaster and journalist Herman Fusilier has witnessed the divide. Fusilier – “the hardest working man in zydeco without an accordion” – presents Zydeco Stomp, a show on Lafayette-based radio station KRVS.
“There is always gonna be conflict,” he says. “Palm for palm the best accordion player is Jeffrey Broussard and he’s from one of the first families of zydeco. As good as he is, he has to take his art and skills on the road as he is not appreciated as well as he should be.”
Cedric Watson is another musician caught between the old world and the new. Despite a Grammy award and gigs at the likes of WOMAD and the Barbican, he’s never been booked to play a trail ride on his own doorstep.
“There are only a handful that can do it full-time in Louisiana,” Fusilier adds. “Many musicians have to leave Louisiana to play; they bring people back to Louisiana but yet are not accepted in Louisiana.”
Keith Frank, however, never has to gig outside of Louisiana. Frank comes from a long line of celebrated traditional Creole musicians but he’s chosen to change with the times to keep things fresh.
“Frank registers what the audience likes and gets his music to fit their tastes,” says Fusilier.
Back at the trail ride I find David Wright, who is taking some time out and sitting alone in a camping chair next to his truck.
The 69-year-old is from Lake Charles and the ex-vice-president of the West Side Riders. I find him still sporting the high-vis jacket he wore on the ride and nursing his can of Michelob. He bats away the flies with his cowboy hat and reminisces about the old days.
“Where I’m from Boozoo was the main man,” he says, referring to Boozoo Chavis, a zydeco musician and contemporary of Clifton Chenier.
“We’d ride our horses and Boozoo would have his little band set up under the shade of a tree. We’d play music, eat and have a good time.”
Wright sighs. “The younger generation that’s coming up now, the way they start acting, they only care about the party.”
In the barn, that party is in full swing and the floor is filling up with young couples dancing zydeco two-step.
Regardless of age, everyone knows the moves. Knees bend, hips sway and toes zealously tap. Some of the older generation watch from the safety of benches.
I catch up again with Leo Lee, who has been dancing with his young family and ask whether David Wright’s sentiment is one that is held widely. Lee shakes his head.
“It’s not to everyone’s tastes,” he says, “but I respect what the young people are doing with the music. It’s their way of being creative.”
Change has always been a part of zydeco and appears to be playing a vital role in ensuring the genre remains both alive and current.
When Chenier came on the scene in the 1950s, traditionalists smirked. A few years on he was being hailed as the ‘King of Zydeco’.
“The older people don’t really consider the new style of zydeco even zydeco,” says 25-year-old musician Ruben Moreno.
“But it’s the perfect example of zydeco. I apply the same exact things to my music as Clifton Chenier did. The dancers need something to relate to so you have to be able to read your crowd.”
Fusilier is the first to champion the evolution. “Today we can say zydeco is not in a museum but alive and well in trail rides. To keep it alive, young people have to do their thing.
“We have to make it open for them to give their vision of the music and keep the culture going.”
Back at the party, Keith Frank and his band are doing what they do best. The dance floor is packed and his audience show little sign of tiring.
As the sun sets over the heaving barn, it looks like this party isn’t going to end any time soon.