One Man Dancing Creates Cajun and Zydeco Festivals

The footprints of Franklin Zawacki are on the ground in California and New England, where he started out as one man dancing, but got thousands of people to dance with him.San Francisco poet and high school teacher Franklin Zawacki created and produced Cajun and Zydeco festivals for 30 years

If you follow Franklin Zawacki for more than a few minutes, you’ll end up at the music. This evening Zawacki is at the home of friends in San Francisco.

That’s Miguel Govea and his 17-year-old daughter, Cecilia Pena-Govea doing Malaguena, a song from Mexico.

Zawacki loves this music.

But it doesn’t have to be traditional Mexican music to please Zawacki.

“One of the things I introduced was Conjunto, which is also called Tex-Mex and that’s from San Antonio, Texas. I’d already gone there, I speak Spanish. I love dancing to that music. I love Mexican-American culture as well as Mexican.”

Zawacki introduced Tex-Mex music at a New Orleans-style festival he started in New England. If it seems like a lot of mixing of cultures for man with a Polish name– Zawacki — well, it all adds up to what he likes best …..dancing.

“Whoa, hey, yah…..”

Zawacki and a friend are twirling around the living room.

The music that inspired Zawacki to start a festival is Cajun from Southwest Louisiana, usually sung in French. Two members of the Cajun band, The Creole Belles, live in this house.
Zawacki discovered Cajun music when he was 19 and driving around the United States. In Lousiana, he helped a man with a broken-down car. The man was Cajun, a culture descended from French-speaking Acadians from Novia Scotia. The culture is mixed with African-American and Native American.

The Cajun man took Zawacki touring through Southwest Louisiana bayou country.

“..we went to dance halls. And I’ve always loved dance halls. I was extremely shy when I was about 14 But as soon as the music started I could always dance. And then when the song ended I would..laugh…freeze. But as long as the music played I could dance. That was certainly true when I was 19… ”

Zawacki spent a relatively short time in Cajun country.

“I think it was about four days, but we would hit two or three dance halls in one night, cuz they would go til 4 in the morning, and I guess the word is party. These people were just wild and partying.”

It was a life-changing experience.

“Cajun dance halls were very raucous and very lively… and I fell in love with them.”

It was different from California in a way that appealed to him.

“The other thing that I totally loved was in a Cajun dance hall, everyone danced with everyone. Grandma danced with Grandpa. Kids danced with each other. And it was family.”

After Zawacki earned a master’s degree in creative writing from Brown University in Providence, he and a musician friend lauched the Cajun Country Bluegrass Gospel Festival in 1980. The festival was at a ranch in Rhode Island and was soon narrowed to bluegrass and Cajun. Zawacki brought along cultural traditions.

“New England did have to learn this. In a Cajun dance hall a woman will always say,’Yes’ when you ask her the first dance.”

Zawacki produced the festival for 19 years, always encouraging people…

“….to understand that sort of dance courtesy.”

That dance courtesy, where everyone dances with everyone, is a hallmark of Cajun dances that continue to thrive in New England.

Zawacki spiced up his festivals with Louisiana’s Creole-inspired and blues-y Zydeco music.

In addition to the original Cajun Bluegrass Festival, Zawacki produced The Big Easy Bash in Rhode Island for eight years.

In California, he produced Cajun Zydeco festivals at Travis Air Force Base for two years, in the San Francisco Bay Area for nine years, and in Southern California for 21 years.

Zawacki stepped back from producing festivals in the past couple of years. He’s focusing on writing and is a subsitute teacher at a San Francisco high school.

Still, he’s always dancing. Zawacki was recently spotted at a dance hall in Alameda dancing, rather wildly, to the music of a Zydeco band.

Rhonda Miller, San Francisco.

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Broadcast history:

Posted on Public Radio Exchange, May 11, 2010

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