Other names that are popular to describe the day before Ash Wednesday are “Carnival” (meaning “farewell to meat”) and “Mardi Gras” (meaning “Fat Tuesday”) which refers to the ancient custom of using up or disposing of animal fats before the Christian Penitential Season of Lent.
Most Americans know Mardi Gras as a time of wild celebration in New Orleans and a time of major revelry before Ash Wednesday and the austerity of the Lenten Season. Here in San Diego, the Gaslamp District and Hillcrest continue to grow in their own organized celebrations of Mardi Gras. The celebration of a Zydeco Mass or religious service in Saint Paul’s Cathedral is a unique way to begin the public festivity of Mardi Gras in downtown San Diego, and the 45-minute worship service offers the festive music of San Diego’s well-known band “Theo and the Zydeco Patrol”.
Zydeco derives from the French phrase Les haricots ne sont pas salés, which, when spoken in the Louisiana Creole French, sounds as leh-zy-dee-co [ne] sohn pah salay. This translates as “the snap beans aren’t salty” but idiomatically as “I have no spicy news for you.” Zydeco music is the music of Louisiana. It is a spicy and syncopated sound which blends African rhythms with blues, rock, and swing straight from the Louisiana Bayou Country. The instrumentation consists of the diatonic “Cajun-style” button accordion, keyboard accordion, washboard, fretless four-string bass, guitar, drums, and vocals in the original Cajun French of Southwest Louisiana.
Why Zydeco music for a religious service? First, some history: the word Cajun is derived from the original French Acadian which refers to French subjects who lived in the Province of Nova Scotia, Canada. When Great Britain acquired Nova Scotia from the French, the Acadians wanted to remain loyal to their French homeland. The British ordered them to pay homage to the English Queen and to give up their Catholic religion.
The Acadians refused, and after 42 years of protest against the British Crown, their entire population of over 10,000 souls was loaded into prison boats, with families being intentionally separated and their homes burned. The Acadians were sent to the colonies and the British Isles as prisoners of war. Many hundreds died en route and many hundreds more never saw their families again.
Those who survived found hope in the stories of a place far to the south where they could rebuild their homes and where their French language would be understood and preserved. As they escaped they made their way to the heart of Louisiana. On farms, where many could only see an unworkable swamp and barren grassland, they built their paradise.
It is this spirit of survival against religious and cultural oppression and surviving almost insurmountable odds, that unique spirit of hardship, and oppression gave birth to what we now know today as Cajun Music.
Today, the music is lively, infectious, and spirit filled. The words in French speak of tragedy, survival, and joy. Cajun music is about life, love, loss, home, family, death, and a fate worse than death… a life without love. It is infused by the inter-marriage of the plantation folk music of slaves, freed-slave ballads and Gospel music, blues, and local Louisiana folk music, melded into the musical traditions of the Acadians whose earliest French musical roots came with them from Nova Scotia and the Old World.