Through The Generations

Written by on October 25, 2015

I really hadn’t expected the Zydeco Crossroads grand finale weekend to get me deep in my feels.

Documentary filmmaker Robert Mugge did a great job at capturing the highs, lows and in-betweens of being a part of this treasured Louisiana musical tradition. Our friends at XPN should be extremely proud of the job they’ve done drawing sizable crowds to party and dance to a folkloric art form–swamp music–full of accordion grooves, poetic storytelling and cultural history. But when it comes to the future of zydeco, the story seems much more tentative and uncertain.

What strikes you immediately, as you study zydeco music or watch this film, is the generational aspect of its practitioners. There are hardly any musicians playing zydeco today who did not inherit their talent and even their instruments from an elder in their bloodline or someone as close as family. Everyone might not agree on the trajectory of the music, the correct balance of legacy and contemporary, but there is due respect for the foundational elements of the sound, and the mentoring/apprenticeship that was mandatory before one could step on stage to lead a band feeling equipped to take up the charge.

It became abundantly clear to me, first watching the film and then speaking on the subsequent panel, that zydeco is able to pass down history and expertise in a way that urban public education used to do through its in-school music programs. All of the high school band directors who earned their degrees from HBCU music programs, and then came back to the hood to pass down the principles of superior musicianship, repertoire, work ethic and enjoyment to a new batch of students. The camaraderie that was built. The respect that was earned. The pride in taking the stadium stands or the streets, in uniform, confidently knowing you have the goods to make the people scream and dance along. And now that we’re in the era of drastic cuts and austerity budget measures, how many thousands of students will never have that experience.

I had both paths to artistic enlightenment: the brilliant instructors in my formal theatrical, orchestral and choral training; and the family ties that surrounded my life in stageplays, music and dance, just because. Not a day goes by that I don’t marvel at the idea that my love for music was encoded in my DNA because my parents met singing in a group together. I have been surrounded by creative indulgence since the date of my conception. And now I owe a debt to the children who would otherwise only have a small fraction of the exposure to the power of the arts that I’ve enjoyed my whole life. Even moreso because I have chosen not to have children of my own, babies who would be raised in a household where finding their voice and exploring their gifts would be mandatory. Vital. Delightful.

At no point can we take the longevity of our gifts for granted. Everything essential for our well-being is an innovation on something that was ancestrally bestowed. Once we acknowledge and apply that, we as a people will do far less lamenting and hand-wringing and far more excelling and celebrating.

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