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L.A. Group Takes a Pop Approach to Louisiana's Cajun Sound

Lisa Haley and her band create zydeco from 100-year-old tunes so the listener wants to 'dance and act like a little kid.'


Ask her nicely and Lisa Haley might tell you exactly how to eat a crawfish.

After all, it's been hot lately and the effervescent leader of the Zydekats, an L.A.-based Cajun quintet, has been adding a spicy dash of authentic gumbo to the steamy weather.

"Cheer up everybody!" she whooped in her one-of-a-kind corn bread voice during the recent outdoor concert in Universal City. "It's a lot hotter back in Louisiana!"

Haley, a willowy redhead, and Louis, her bright blue fiddle, have been keeping joyful and exotic zydeco alive outside Louisiana for more than 17 years. Her band, the Zydekats, plays Sunday at Newhall Park as part of the Santa Clarita Summer Concerts series.

"This music is happy, family-oriented and there's no swearing," said Haley, who sports a kind of Chelsea Clinton frizz that she has to tie back to keep it off her fiddle. "It makes you feel good and want to get up and dance and act like a little kid."

Backed by a family tree of several fiddle players rooted in the Louisiana-Arkansas-Texas region, Haley played her way onto the professional stage behind legendary Cajun accordionists Queen Ida Guillory and Joe Simien. She spent nearly seven years with the L.A.-based Zydeco Party Band before going off full-time last fall with the Zydekats, with which she wants to hew closely to traditional styles.


Zydeco was cooked up in the Mississippi Delta swamps when French-speaking colonists from Canada mixed their music with that of immigrants from Africa, Spain, the West Indies and Portugal. Its traditional French-language form almost died out before the first recordings were made in the 1930s, said Barry Ancelete, a professor of French and folklore at the University of Southwestern Louisiana.

Zydeco enjoyed a popular revival in the 1960s, due largely to the late Clifton Chenier, known for performing in an elaborate emperor's crown. Now, Haley hopes, a traditionalist revival that some say is underway in the music industry will sweep zydeco along with it.

"What we do is take the feel of the 100-year-old Cajun tunes and turn them into American pop music," she said.

In the key barometer of Southern California radio play, zydeco is limited to little more than "Gumbo," which airs Sundays from 10 p.m. to midnight on KCRW-FM (89.9), which means that the area audience is devoted but far from huge.

But no matter the number, 'Kat drummer Michael Jochum of Sherman Oaks said, the fans appreciate an authentic sound.

"People are always asking us what part of Louisiana we're from," he said. "We're Californians, but we just have an affinity for the style. Lisa studied with Joe Simien and knows all these old Cajun tunes he learned from his grandfather."


Haley sings many Cajun songs in English that have never been translated before, and will take the time to always explain a song if she sings it in French. "I want everybody to understand it so they can all share in the joke," she said.

A typical Zydekats' set touches a range of feelings from festive to heartbreaking, reflecting Cajun sensibilities. Songs such as "A Mosquito Ate My Love" and "Your Folks Threw Me Out" are followed by the sorrowful "Chere Mama" and "Farewell Waltz."

Another mournful ballad, "Until the Sun," is fast becoming an audience favorite, Haley said. Her voice, a throaty contralto a la the bluesy moans of Janis Joplin, fits well with the turns of tragedy and gaiety that coexist in zydeco.

Haley and the Zydekats occasionally travel out of the Southland: They played at the National Assn. of Music Merchants convention in Nashville last month and in Europe last summer. But they never stray far from the Valley. They laid down a new album, "Lisa Haley and the Zydekats," at Powerhouse Multimedia in Northridge, and are ready to shop it to major labels.


A little farther afield, they are booked at the Santa Barbara Jazz Festival on Aug. 31 and the California Beach Party Festival on Sept. 22 in Ventura. The Zydekats will also play Oct. 5 in the California County Music Assn. competition at the Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks.

Haley and accordionist David Jackson won a regional contest and are competing for statewide honors on their respective instruments.

While she has yet to hit the big time, Haley is far from a stranger to Southland audiences. She had a part in the 1993 movie, "The Beverly Hillbillies," she performed behind Randy Newman last March on the "Tonight Show" and she and Louis are heard in two current TV commercials--for Taco Bell and Direct TV.

"It's good that zydeco music is starting to be heard in commercials," she said. "It's a very good time to be a woman with an unusual voice playing folky music."

Now then--exactly how does one eat a crawfish?

"First, you make sure you cook him till he's good and red, but not too much, or he's all mushy. And if you don't cook him enough, he'll still be alive," she said, warming quickly to a favorite topic: the tiny freshwater lobster that's a Delta diet staple.

"Then you break off the tail and crack open those ribs and get at that tail meat. It's kind of like shrimp, with a little red lining you've got to take out. And then pop that tail in your mouth and suck a little juice from the head."

"It's a frightening thing to watch," shuddered Jochum.

"There's nothing to it," Haley said in that throaty growl. "I can do 50 an hour."


* WHAT: Lisa Haley and the Zydekats.

* WHERE: Newhall Park, 24933 Newhall Ave., Santa Clarita.

* WHEN: 5:30 p.m. Sunday.

* HOW MUCH: Free.

* CALL: (805) 286-4034.

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