Touching down in San Francisco, we drive straight to No Name Ranch, a black-cowboy ranch in the hills above Hayward, south of Oakland. Amidst the horse stalls and wood-chip paths, there’s a huge wooden dance floor with a panoramic view of the valley. Corn is grilling on a sawed-off oil drum. A beer-and-burger tent does steady business. Two veteran dancers give lessons to newcomers — and then accordionist Mark St. Mary and his band take the stage. St. Mary comes from a large Louisiana musical family, and tonight he squeezes out two sets of his trademark bluesy zydeco. The music seems to coax the sun to set and the sky to turn a wheaty orange. We leave before the evening ends because today is also Thierry’s birthday. He’s playing for his own party, at an elegant Oakland nightspot called the Capri Lounge.
Tuesday we visit Ashkenaz, the nonprofit Berkeley music club that, back in 1976, gave many Californians their first live exposure to South Louisiana rhythms. With a bar in back selling tofu sandwiches and organic pale ales, Ashkenaz has a completely different vibe from the No Name Ranch. But the musical energy is similar. Accordionist Andrew Carriere, the 74-year-old son of the renowned Creole fiddler “Bébé” Carrière, has a radiant smile and the most massive biceps I have ever seen. He and his band — playing a mixture of zydeco, Creole, Cajun and country — turn the dance floor into a spiral of motion.
We end our week at John’s woodshop, where there is yet another birthday party for Thierry. (This time the cake is decorated with a bottle of Crown Royal.) This is where I meet Semien, the retired transit worker. Semien tells me that zydeco parties are “sacred” to him — and looking around, I understand what he means. For all the laughter, there is also a reverence, both for the music and for the coming together of old friends, Creole and otherwise. Admission to the woodshop parties is free, yet no one has to be reminded to tip the band. (There are $100 bills in the tip bucket.) And in the sweating and spinning of bodies, it’s easy to feel the transcendence.
So many people have described the dancing as having a power over them that borders on the religious. A woman named Betty LeBlanc, who is also at John’s woodshop, describes it best. LeBlanc, who is Creole, moved here in 1960. Now she organizes the dances at 23 Club. During one of our many conversations, LeBlanc talks about getting lost in the music and the movement. “It’s one of the highest fevers you could ever wish to have inside of your body,” she tells me in English inflected by the Creole French of her childhood. “You can’t control it. It control you. Just like you go into church — you’ve heard of the Holy Ghost spirit? That’s what comes over you: the Holy Ghost spirit. It’s just a part of you shaking and you don’t know why you shaking, and you don’t know why you can’t help yourself. That’s what good zydeco do.”