When you hear the lilting accordion strains that help define zydeco music you may be transported to Louisiana, where the tradition began. But Northern California has its own zydeco scene that dates back to World War II and the Creole migrants who came to work in the shipyards.
New Orleans is already gearing up for Fat Tuesday next week. Zydeco lovers in the Bay Area have also been celebrating. Local musician Andre Thierry is one of the few zydeco performers outside Louisiana who is considered a master of the art form. Thierry says he has been playing accordion for almost 25 years, since he was nine or 10 years old. In that time he has recorded seven albums and toured around the United States with his band.
Thierry grew up in Richmond’s vibrant Creole community, where his grandparents booked bands from Louisiana and brought them out to play at St. Mark Parish Church, in Richmond.
Thierry not only had front row seats to shows by zydeco greats like Boozoo Chavis and the king of zydeco, Clifton Chenier. But because the musicians often stayed at his grandparents’ house, Thierry grew up literally sitting on the laps of giants in the scene.
He says he was too young to remember, but many people have told him that Chenier took a look at the boy’s long arms and predicted Thierry would be a great accordion player.
To Thiery, whose family always brought him along to church dances, zydeco didn’t always feel like his destiny. “First part of my life, I didn’t like the music,” Thiery recalls. “I just went to sleep. And then one night I went up to the stage and started watching the accordion player. And I fell in love with the accordion.”
Now, Thierry is the Grammy-nominated accordionist up on the stage at church dances throughout the area.
At a recent Mardi Gras celebration at St. Finn Barr Church in San Francisco’s Sunnyside neighborhood, people are on their feet, out on the floor almost from the first note. Sometimes the crowd joins in a line dance 20 rows deep. Other times people rotate through partners.
Organizer Alice Guidry says the tradition has roots in big weekend parties called yard dances that people held at their homes in New Orleans. “Every Saturday they’d rotate having a zydeco dance in different people’s yard,” Guidry recalls.
Guidry says St. Finn Barr is home to a vibrant Creole community. That community includes Tai Coleman, who was born and raised in San Francisco but whose grandparents migrated here from New Orleans. Coleman points to the diversity on the dance floor, which, he says, reflects how welcoming the community is.
It’s also a sign of the rich cultural history of zydeco music. People who identify as Creole trace their roots to African, French, Spanish and Native American ancestors.
Coleman says he’s here with his wife, whose parents came from Nicaragua and Colombia. He says she was amazed to find the zydeco style of dance familiar, with similarities to the Latin American partner dances she grew up with. That’s the Spanish element of the culture, Coleman says — just as jambalaya has its origins in the Spanish rice dish paella.
Coleman says he recognizes that the local community’s connection to its elders is fading. “A lot of those folks have died off, they’ve moved on. They didn’t really pass it on to their kids — like me — the way they should have,” says Coleman. “But with festivities like this you get other people involved.”
Andre Thierry agrees the scene is in transition. Northern California’s largely white folk-music scene became interested in zydeco during the ’80s and ’90s, bringing in a new group of adherents. “My grandma used to say it was young hippie kids who got into it. Now they’re the older heads in it,” says Thierry. “So right now they are the elders and we’re just trying to get more younger people in it.”
So for the past two years, Thierry has been working with a group of five boys, ages seven to nine, in Marin City through the program Performing Stars.
On a recent day, Thierry shows up to the after-school class with new miniature accordions. He starts by drilling a few of the kids on dance rhythms. He plays a two-step rhythm and then the waltz beat, asking them to identify each one. They shout out the answers excitedly before moving on to play the beats themselves on snare drums and rub boards.
At the end of class, Thierry plays accordion while the boys accompany him on the drums and the rub board, a zydeco version of the washboard.
None of the boys come from Creole backgrounds, and when asked what kind of music they listen to at home, the answer is hip hop and R&B. Still they named themselves the Zydeco Boys and are full of enthusiasm. On stage at St. Finn Barr’s Mardi Gras dance, organizer Alice Guidry introduces them, and the boys bound up from the audience clutching snare drums and rub boards. They accompany Thierry for a waltz and a two-step. After the crowd applauds and hollers, they head backstage to pack up their instruments.
Thierry says despite the area’s relatively strong zydeco scene, it can’t touch Louisiana, where top zydeco performers are superstars. When he plays at venues that aren’t exclusively zydeco-oriented here, he says he sometimes feels people’s skepticism at first.
“You can tell when they see an accordion and a washboard walk in the building, some people are smirking and rolling their eyes,” Thierry says. “But when the music starts you get their attention.”
Thierry’s goal is to get as many peoples’ attention as possible. In March he has a busy schedule — including Mardi Gras performances around the region and an East Coast tour. This fall he’s organizing the Second Annual Creole United Festival in Sausalito.
“Whenever people hear [the music] they fall in love with it,” says Thierry. His mission to get people to hear zydeco probably means a lot of playing on his part. But his smile as he plays alongside the Zydeco Boys shows that’s the last thing he’s worried about.
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