SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) — One Bay Area artist nominated for a Grammy on Sunday represents a rich, often-overlooked slice of local history — the Louisiana Creoles who settled here.
To see Creole history in action, pay a visit to the St. Finn Barr Parish in San Francisco Sunnyside’s district during Lent.
On a recent night, the parish was packed with Louisiana Creoles as well as other church-goers who celebrated Mardi gras while raising money for school scholarships.
“Mardi Gras is part of our culture,” explained Charlmaigne Chavez-Thibodeaux. “We support the Catholic church that is part of getting ready for Lent.”
“Most everyone here is from Louisiana,” said organizer Louis Guidry.
At their biggest fundraiser of the season, the music comes from Andre Thierry and his Zydeco music band.
Thierry is nominated for a Grammy for Regional Roots Music, and he is rocking the house on this night where the crowd was dancing or moving in their seats, as spicy gumbo and jambalaya was passed around and savored.
Ella Kendrick could not help but get up and dance. “I think it’s wonderful,” she said. As for the award, she laughed “it’s a long time coming.”
“My family’s all from Louisiana,” said Thierry.
It’s hard to believe that Thierry didn’t really take to Zydeco music as a kid. His grandparents used to bring him to concerts in the Bay Area. But then, the Zydeco bug bit him.
“I fell in love with the accordion… slowly, I just went nose deep into it,” he said.
Born in Richmond, Thierry grew up listening and playing this style of Louisiana French music. The word Zydeco comes from the French word meaning “green beans” and shouldn’t be confused with Cajun.
“Sometimes I play for four hours straight and people don’t sit down for four hours,” Thierry said.
Zydeco moved from Louisiana to the Bay Area during World War II, with the arrival of thousands of Creoles. They were part of what some historians call “The Great Migration.”
Their destination: the Richmond shipyards. The American industrialist Henry J. Kaiser recruited southerners with the promise of a better life and jobs.
“I think its important to this history is the fact that Henry Kaiser did his most aggressive hunting for workers in 5 southern states: Mississippi, Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana,” explained Betty Reid Soskin. Soskin is a National Park ranger at the Rosie the Riveter World War II National Historic Park. She is the oldest National Park ranger of Creole descent in history .
Her family came to the Bay Area from New Orleans before World War II.
Soskin recalls what life was like for blacks as they migrated from the South to the West. She remarked how Richmond was a sleepy little town before Kaiser’s transformation.
“He [Kaiser] brought into a city of 23,000 a workforce for his four shipyards of 98,000 white and black Southerners,” Soskin said.
Louisiana Creoles helped to build hundreds of Liberty and Victory ships and they brought with them a rich culture.
“It changed the character of the Bay Area, the greater Bay Area for all time,” remarked Soskin.
Louisiana Creoles also brought about the revival of an old Creole Tradition: the House Dance.
House dances were a way for the community to socialize, share food and talk especially so far away from home.
“There was food and drink and everybody had a nice time,” said Chris Strachwitz.
Strachwitz is president of Arhoolie Records in El Cerrito. Arhoolie is a small record label that publishes American roots music.
In the 60s, Strachwitz recorded Creole music in the Bay Area. He first encountered the Creole community at a dance hall in South San Francisco.
“It was real community and it was wonderful,” Strachwitz recalled.
The Creoles put on dances in homes, church halls and community centers all around the Bay Area.
Strachwitz wishes Andre Thierry all the best on Sunday night.
“I think he’s really wonderful,” he said. “I’ve gone to see him many times.”
Thierry has a son and he wants his child to understand and keep Creole traditions alive.
“I want to keep it going for the next generation,” said Thierry. “You know trying to hopefully turn somebody else on and carry [on] because I’m not going to be there forever.”
At a recent show at the Baltic in Point Richmond, Thierry and his band Zydeco Magic rocked the house: it was an old-fashioned house dance packed with Bay Area Creoles. You could hear French being spoken, and feel the sweat rising up to the rafters. If you closed your eyes you might swear you were in Louisiana.
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