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The rubboard, also called a frottoir, is a variation of a washboard that is used as one of the core musical instruments in Zydeco music. The undisputed King of Zydeco, Clifton Chenier, redesigned a standard washboard so it could hang on the shoulders of the person who played it. Because of his design, Chenier is given credit for its invention. The rubboard is made of crimped tin and is played by rubbing a bottle opener or other metal piece, such as a thimble or a spoon, over the crimped tin to make a scraping sound that adds to the rhythm of a song, so it is considered a percussion instrument.
Zydeco music is a type of folk music born in the United States in the late 1800’s. It originated as a vehicle for socialization of the French-speaking Creoles and free people of color in rural southern Louisiana and was heavily influenced by the diverse culture in the region during that time period. More specifically, the music started in the Opelousas, Louisiana area as entertainment at house dances. Regionally popular for over fifty years, Zydeco was not brought into the mainstream until the mid 20th century by rubboard inventor, Clifton Chenier.
In addition to Chenier’s rubboard, Zydeco music’s other core instrument is the accordion. After Zydeco made a jump to the mainstream, other instruments such as electric guitars, fiddles and horns have been added to the traditional accordion and rubboard. Many Zydeco bands have also included a bass and drums.
Opelousas, Louisiana, home of Clifton Chenier and birthplace of the rubboard, hosts a yearly Zydeco music festival where Zydeco enthusiasts gather to continue the musical tradition. In 1982, with the fear of Zydeco music dying out a group of concerned citizens organized the first festival which has been held ever since. Most of the music at the festival is sung in Creole French in true Zydeco tradition.
Although the origins of Zydeco and the rubboard are in rural southern Louisiana, the rubboard can also be heard throughout Louisiana. Tourist attractions in New Orleans, Lafayette and Baton Rouge give locals and visitors a taste of the home-grown music tradition. In a few establishments in New Orleans Historic French Quarter and on Bourbon Street, patrons can enjoy Zydeco music. They may also be lucky enough to have a chance to play a rubboard themselves. Many bands come to Bourbon Street equipped with an extra one or two rubboards, so they may encourage audience participation.