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Friday, September 29, 2023

Life + Arts

Zydeco part of city history

The distinctive sounds of an accordion and scrub board fill the room as the aroma of rich gumbo and ‘eacute;touff’eacute;e waft among the patrons that dance together to the rhythms of the zydeco band.

It is a Saturday night at JAX Grill, and the small dance floor begins to crowd with couples dressed in western attire. Some even wear matching outfits and, while each couple has their own style, all move together in synchronized motion to music that fills up the entire restaurant.

A few regulars begin to circle the room looking for a dance partner, as families gather around tables on the patio to share in food and conversation. They did not come here just because it is Mardi Gras – they are here every Saturday.

‘I come out because of the music,’ said Roger Levergne, a JAX’s regular from Texas City. ‘When I was young, it wasn’t what it is today.’

As the Mardi Gras season draws to an end, zydeco music fades into the background until the following year. However, zydeco is more than just music – it is a cultural element richly intertwined in southeast Texas and southwest Louisiana heritage. It is deeply rooted in Houston and a completely separate entity and tradition that, although it has become a vital part of Mardi Gras celebrations, originated in a different time and place.

Zydeco, or les haricots, is French for green beans and originated in southwest Louisiana in the early 1900s. It is a prevalent and evolving part of today’s Cajun culture.
‘ ‘When I came here in 1959, they had dances in the hall at the Catholic Church,’ Levergne said. ‘The music really started changing in the 70s.’

Originally created for house dances and played out in the country and at churches, homes and community functions, the intoxicating sounds of the swamp quickly spread throughout the south and along the gulf coast.

‘The younger generation took the swamp music and turned it into something good, they mixed swamp and rock ‘n’ roll,’ Levergne said. ‘It all started back in the woods (when) the people would get together after a week of work and play the music and eat crawfish.’

In 1922, Louisiana Creoles organized Frenchtown in Houston’s Fifth Ward. They built a home and brought zydeco music to the heart of the city. In fact, the spelling of the word ‘zydeco’ came straight from Fifth Ward when resident and musicologist Robert ‘Mack’ McCormick placed his preferred spelling in an album’s liner notes, and it caught on.

‘I used that spelling in the liner notes, so scholars picked up on it and passed it around,’ said McCormick in an interview with Houston Press’ John Nova Lomax in November 2008. ‘Second, a printer here named Fred Johnson started using the spelling on the posters he printed all around town. And then the Louisiana tourism industry picked up on it. They started calling their music ‘zydeco,’ which is inaccurate because it was an invention of Fifth Ward.’

Finally, more than 80 years after the establishment of Frenchtown, two historical markers have been placed in the Fifth Ward to honor the historic town and zydeco music.

So as markers are erected, zydeco ages, and older generations pass away while new genres and styles emerge. However, some still hold on to the tradition and music that shaped the early history of deep southern soul. Today’s zydeco bands even incorporate it into the traditional songs, reinventing the music, all the while keeping it zydeco.

‘I incorporate the feeling of the place to entertain people,’ said Curtis Poullard, band leader and accordion player of Curtis Poullard and the Creole Zydeco Band.’ ‘I feel it from my heart, and I just play what comes out.’

Houston clubs and restaurants such as JAX Grill, The Big Easy Social and Pleasure Club, The Continental Ballroom and Ragin’ Cajun, as well as the Kemah Boardwalk, are among some of many local places that still regularly host zydeco bands.

For a list of coming events and venues as well as other information on local zydeco, visit

www.zydecoevents.com and to hear zydeco music, tune into KCOH 1430 from 2 to 5 p.m. Tuesdays and KPFT 90.1 from 4 to 6 a.m. Sundays.

‘We started having zydeco here 14 years ago,’ said Toula Huliaris, manager of JAX Grill. ‘We really put zydeco on the map in Houston.

‘Our customers are very cultural and family-oriented people that are down to earth, love life and have a lot of fun and energy. We love our customers. We have a really great and laid-back crowd of people.’

For most, zydeco is associated with the vibrant green, gold and purple colors of Mardi Gras. But for the few that have and will continue to share in the tradition and heritage, zydeco is red like the roux of a good gumbo, murky brown, like the swamp waters of Louisiana, and white and black, the color or their diverse ancestors, dancing together side by side, all combined with the hypnotizing beat of a fast two-step.

‘I’m glad to see the younger ones comin’ in,’ Lervergne said. ‘Zydeco is gonna be here for awhile.’

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