Nathan & the Zydeco Cha Chas
Representing the crème de la crème of the vibrant Black Creole dance music native to Southwest Louisiana, Nathan & the Zydeco Cha Chas have delivered the rollicking, accordion-driven sounds of zydeco to audiences around the world for almost 40 years. Led by accordionist Nathan Williams, arguably zydeco accordion’s foremost living practitioner, the group is known for its classic style infused with reggae, R&B, and rock—a winning formula for a nonstop party both on and off the dance floor.
Legend has it that the word “zydeco” derives from an old song, “Les Haricots Sont Pas Salé,” while another theory suggests it comes from one of many African words for “dance.” Its origins aside, zydeco sprung from the unique blend of Afro-Caribbean, French, African American, and Indigenous cultures in Southwest Louisiana, emerging when earlier Creole music traditions, “la la” music in particular, mixed with blues and R&B after the Second World War. Early pioneers who popularized the music include Boozoo Chavis and, especially, Clifton Chenier. Today, zydeco remains as adaptive as ever—accordion-led and accompanied by frottoir, or rubboard (a variation of the washboard), electric guitar, bass, and drums, today’s up-and-coming artists often incorporate elements of hip hop, inviting new generations into an ever-innovating tradition.
Born in 1963 in St. Martinville, Louisiana, Nathan Williams was one of 10 siblings raised by a French Creole-speaking grandmother, a widowed mother, and a neighborhood full of musical family. His uncle, Harry Hippolite, was a well-known bluesman who played with Clifton Chenier (allegedly, Clifton once had a case of the hiccups during a show, and invited underaged Nathan to fill in on a song), and he remembers regular porch jams and block dances where he’d sometimes see the legendary Buckwheat Zydeco (Stanley Dural Jr.). Williams considers Buckwheat a gift from God: He provided Nathan with his first accordion, and during Nathan’s bout with a serious illness as a teen, the star played for him in the hospital. When Williams moved to Lafayette to work at his older brother Sid’s store, El Sid O’s—part convenience store, part butcher shop, and part dance hall—Buckwheat was living across the street and fronting the house band. When opportunity beckoned, Nathan took his mentor’s spot. Soon after forming Nathan & the Zydeco Cha Chas in 1985, Williams was invited to sub for Buckwheat on a Rounder Records session—which he credits with launching his career.
Williams’s accolades include induction into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame in 2005 and the Zydeco Music Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012. After 25 years and eight recordings with Rounder, in 2013 Nathan and his band recorded A New Road on Cha Cha Records, which Williams founded with his sons Naylon and Nathan Jr. (of Lil’ Nathan and the Zydeco Big Timers). Recently, they’ve been busy recording the band’s latest record, Lucky Man, slated for release in summer of 2022. “If you don’t get up and shake a leg to this record,” Williams jokes, “call the undertaker.”