The sounds and smells of Louisiana

Posted: March 4th, 2016 | Arts & Entertainment, Featured, Features, Music | No Comments

Annual Cajun and Creole festival tickets now on sale

By Wendy Lemlin

May is still a few months away, but if you are a fan of Gator by the Bay, one of San Diego’s largest music and good time festivals, you’ll be happy to know that advance tickets for the popular four-day event have just gone on sale. Taking place May 5 – 8 at Spanish Landing Park on Harbor Drive, across from San Diego International Airport, the festival attracts participants from around the world.

Now in its 15th year, Gator by the Bay began as a celebration of the upbeat, highly danceable, Cajun and zydeco music of Southwest Louisiana, drawing the top musical artists of the genre from the bayous and prairies of that region to San Diego.

150509 Gator By The Bay, Zydeco Blues & Crawfish Music Dance Festival at the Spanish Landing, North Harbor Drive, near the Airport in San Diego, CA on May 9 2015. Entertainment by Crown Point Music Youth Group, James Harman & The Bamboo Porch Review,

(above) Dancing at one of seven stages at Gator by the Bay (Photo by Joseph McDonald); eating some of the 10,000 pounds of crawfish (Photo by Shawn Mil/iga11)

(above) Dancing at one of seven stages at Gator by the Bay (Photo by Joseph McDonald); eating some of the 10,000 pounds of crawfish (Photo by Shawn Mil/iga11)

The accordion- and fiddle-driven Cajun music stems from the traditions of Louisiana’s French Acadians (aka Cajuns), while zydeco, the music of the multi-cultural Creole people, is the wilder, looser sister to Cajun music, infusing African, Caribbean and R&B influences. Both styles are made for partner dancing, and at Gator By the Bay, the dance floors are always filled with happy feet.

Presented by the local Bon Temps Social Club — a dance club founded in 1991 to “spread the love of Louisiana Cajun dancing” to the local community — the event draws nearly 18,000 participants over its four days. While its musical focus has expanded in recent years to include blues, swing, salsa and Latin, and rockabilly and roots, the Mardi Gras spirit of Cajun, zydeco, Swamp Pop and New Orleans jazz has remained at its heart.

Gator By the Bay is considered such an authentic experience, it has been recognized by the state of Louisiana as an official ambassador since 2012.

It is important to note that Gator By the Bay is more than just another music festival, however. Its wide-ranging appeal is also about food, culture, and joie de vivre.

“While we focus a lot on the highest quality music from many genres, we also create a Mardi Gras-style experience, which includes genuine Louisiana food, colorful ‘second line’ parades with New Orleans style brass bands, and educational workshops,” explained Peter Oliver, the event’s organizer. “[We even spend] an entire day, pre-festival, dedicated to introducing local school children to the sights and sounds of a truly unique segment of American regional culture.”

Indeed, the festival is fully experienced with all five senses.

There’s the rich smell of aromas emanating from the French Quarter Food Court, including 10,000 pounds of fresh crawfish brought directly from the ponds of Louisiana, along with gumbos, etouffees, jambalayas and other signature Cajun and Creole dishes, served by carefully curated vendors.

The color and pageantry of daily Mardi Gras parades are as much fun to watch as they are to participate in, and live-cooking demos can be viewed throughout the day on Friday and Saturday.

Mardi Gras parade at Gator by the Bay (Photo by Joseph McDonald)

Mardi Gras parade at Gator by the Bay (Photo by Joseph McDonald)

Festivalgoers will hear an eclectic collection of over 90 musical performances across seven stages, and can listen to stories about the roots of the music and culture at the “Bayou Grove.” Dance partners hold and swirl each other around dedicated dance floors at four of the music stages. There is even a full schedule of dance lessons for beginners — from zydeco to swing, and from line dancing to salsa — or those wishing to add some new moves to their repertoire.

One of the unique facets of Gator By the Bay is its multi-generational appeal, attracting fans of all ages. Always falling on Mother’s Day weekend, attending the festival has become an annual tradition for many families and it’s not unusual to see three generations celebrating together.

Marie Mintz, who travels to the event from her home in the San Francisco Bay area, is one of those for whom the festival is a “must-do” every year.

“My daughter and her family lived in San Diego for many years and Mother’s Day has always been spent with her and my granddaughters at the festival,” Mintz said. “Two years ago, she moved to Pasadena, but we still continue the tradition, with all of us enjoying this great excuse to come to San Diego on what we consider to be the best weekend of the year.”

Gator By the Bay kicks off on Thursday evening, May 5, with a special zydeco concert featuring the Grammy-nominated C.J. Chenier and the Red Hot Louisiana Band. C.J. is the son of the late great “King of Zydeco” Clifton Chenier, widely acknowledged as the father of modern zydeco and the first Grammy Award-winning musician of the genre.

The festival continues on Friday evening, May 6, and all day and evening Saturday, May 7 and Sunday, May 8.

Cajun and zydeco headliners from Louisiana include Jeffery Broussard & the Creole Cowboys, Curley Taylor & Zydeco Trouble, and Bonsoir Catin. Some of the blues heavyweights include Roy Rogers, John Nèmeth, Curtis Salgado, Sugaray Rayford, and The 44s with Kid Ramos.

Filling in the schedule is a full roster of other regional and local favorites, including Johnny “V” Vernazza, Sue Palmer and her Motel Swing Band, the Bill Magee Blues Band, Robin Henkel, Manny Cepeda, and the popular world music of Todo Mundo.

Daily advance tickets start at $25 and multi-day packages start at $102.

MTS bus service is available to the airport (just across the street) from both Downtown and the Old Town transit station and free shuttles are available from some parking locations.

For all the details on musical lineup, schedule, festival experiences and ticket info, visit

—Wendy Lemlin is a San Diego-based freelance writer. She can be reached at

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