Cajun music arose in the 1700s from French-Acadians that migrated to Louisiana. Music was a favorite pastime, and it was common to have small evening bands playing on people’s porches after a long day.
Though often paired with zydeco music, Cajun music is its own distinct genre. Cajun music started with a small set of instruments–the fiddle, accordion, and triangle–but it evolved over the decades. It eventually included several other musical instruments that now play a vital role in modern Cajun music.
The Guitar can take center stage in many bands, but it tends to be a supporting instrument in Cajun music.
Most Cajun songs contain either one or two melodies.
If it has two melodies, the first melody is called the “Tune” and the second is called the “Turn.”
The guitar part of a song with a Tune and a Turn can remain the same throughout the entire song.
Or, it can play the same chord progression and strumming pattern in both the Tune and Turn.
Overall, the guitar plays a crucial role in keeping the song’s rhythm and creating a supportive space for the lead instruments.
2. Bass Guitar and Upright Bass
Traditional Cajun music utilizes the Upright Bass, while more modern Cajun music and Cajun bands have a Bass Guitar player.
The bass started to get incorporated into Cajun music because of inspiration drawn from swing music in the 1930s.
It mainly remained in the realm of Cajun swing for several decades, but it grew even more prominent in the 1960s when fais do-do music became popular.
The rise of fais do-dos, or Cajun public dance halls, expanded the Cajun music genre and incorporated several other instruments, including the bass guitar.
This instrument boosted the power and fullness of live performances, and it continues to play a vital support role that works harmoniously with the percussions and acoustic guitar.
The Accordion often takes center stage in Cajun music. It got introduced to Louisiana in the late 1800s and helped evolve the regional style of music in South Louisana.
The primary influence of the accordion was the development of Cajun two-steps and waltzes, which are two styles of music that accommodate well to the mechanics of an accordion.
It briefly stepped away from the limelight in the 1930s when string instruments became more popular in the World War II era.
It quickly regained popularity after the war, and it’s now difficult to find a cajun band without an accordion playing the lead.
The Fiddle (which is another name for the Violin) is one of the original instruments in Cajun music.
Because of its compactness and portability, many early immigrants brought it with them as they crossed over to the Americas from Europe.
Eventually, more people migrated to Louisana, and the Acadians brought their fiddles with them in the late 1700s.
It was the main instrument for Cajun music until the introduction of the accordion. However, it never completely stepped away from the spotlight.
Today, the fiddle plays a versatile role in Cajun bands. It most often plays the melody, but it can also help keep the rhythm.
Many Cajun music quartets will have two fiddlers to play harmonies that give a song a fuller sound.
5. Drums and Percussion
Drums and Percussion didn’t become a part of Cajun music until the 1930s.
However, the influence of rock and roll in the 1960s made its way into this genre.
Now, it’s hard to find a cajun band that doesn’t use a drum set.
The drums secured their spot in Cajun music when they were incorporated into fais do-do music.
They provided a solid rhythm that encouraged people to dance in fais do-dos.
Unlike rock and roll bands that use a full drum set, Cajun bands tend to have a more straightforward set with a bass drum, hi-hat, and snare.
The Harmonica isn’t as common of a sight to see in Cajun music bands. However, many people recognize it as a staple in Cajun music.
There are even harmonica competitions held during Acadian and Cajun music festivals.
The harmonica started to appear in modern Cajun music.
Several prominent Cajun harmonica players include Jerry Devillier and Isom Fontenot.
These musicians paved the way for helping this instrument secure a permanent spot in Cajun music.
The Cajun harmonica plays a role similar to the accordion or fiddle in a Cajun band.
It usually carries the melody and is the featured instrument in most songs.
The Triangle also goes by “Tee-Fer” in Cajun music. This term derives from the French words “petit fer,” which means “little piece of iron.”
The tee-fer is one of the original instruments of Cajun music. People originally made tee-fers from old hayrakes to hold the rhythm for traditional songs.
It was perfect for musicians because it was portable and could easily fit on the small stage of someone’s porch.
While the triangle may not have a strong role in large bands and orchestras, the tee-fer holds a respectable spot in Cajun bands.
Modern Cajun bands may use a drumset, but most drummers usually have a tee-fer or triangle included in their set.
8. Steel Guitar
Steel Guitars rose to popularity in the 1940s with the era of Cajun swing. It’s not as widely used as in the past, but you can still find steel guitarists in bands that play fais do-do music.
Many musicians also used the steel guitar to infuse country elements into Cajun music.
Cajun songs with a country flair often feature the steel guitar as the main melody. Other Cajun subgenres mostly use this instrument to help keep the rhythm in most parts of a song.
If a steel guitar does carry a melody, it’s often within a solo break incorporated near the middle of a song.
Summing up Our List of Cajun Instruments
Cajun music is a distinct genre with a rich history that evolved with significant periods of Western history.
It’s a type of music that holds a special place in many people’s hearts because it provides respite amid very trying times.
Today, Cajun music holds onto its traditional roots and still features the accordion and fiddle as its main instruments. However, this genre is a melting pot of other musical genres.
So, as modern Cajun music continues to grow and evolve, we wouldn’t be surprised if our list of Cajun music instruments expands in the years to come.