America’s Creole migration brought a whole new flavor to California.
At 4:00 on a Saturday afternoon, the cars start turning onto Embarcadero Way. The street in Palo Alto, Calif., has all the charm you’d expect from a Silicon Valley business park: squat office buildings, shrub-lined sidewalks, the high-pitched drone of a water-treatment plant. But as we get out of our vehicles, it’s immediately clear that none of us is heading to work. The sidewalk is a parade of cowboy hats and matching boots, flouncy skirts for dancing and festive Hawaiian shirts. We pull coolers and grocery bags from our trunks and look for a small sign trimmed with Mardi Gras beads. It has an arrow and a single hand-lettered word: zydeco.
R.C. Carrier near his home in Crockett.
We walk down a footpath. The sound of an accordion grows louder. Zydeco is an infectious dance music that comes from the Creole culture of South Louisiana. It’s filled with French, African and Haitian rhythms, and it’s sprinkled with American blues and R&B. We follow the sound, and soon another instrument reaches our ears: the corrugated metal rubboard worn as a vest and known as the frottoir.
Then our noses kick into action. We smell a slow cooker bubbling with seafood gumbo, as roux-y and hot as if it came straight from Louisiana’s bayous. Salmon sizzles on an outdoor grill. We arrive at the source of this happy commotion: a woodworking shop decked out with streamers in the Mardi Gras colors of green, yellow and purple. Once a month, the craftsman who owns this shop, John Seltzer, clears out a dance floor and hosts one of the hottest parties in the Bay Area’s thriving zydeco scene. Everyone is welcome; just bring food or drink and remember to tip the band.
And, Lord, what a band this is. Andre Thierry, the accordion player and frontman, is 32 and shy, a green-eyed virtuoso with parents and grandparents born in Louisiana. He wears a loose-fitting black shirt and plays with his head tilted back, saucer eyes facing skyward, as if channeling the generations of Creole accordionists who came before him. While Thierry sings in French and English, his band, Zydeco Magic, makes the concrete floors tremble. Everyone who is not slurping gumbo is dancing: indoors, outdoors, young, old, black, white, Creole, Asian, Louisianan, Californian.
It’s a rollicking, friendly party. It’s also the culmination of a century-long chapter in American history — an epic migration that transformed this nation’s cultural landscape.