Part of this year's Mardi Gras throwdown at the Mystic Theatre comes together thanks to an unlikely conspirator — Henry J. Kaiser, the Bay Area shipping magnate.
When Kaiser put out the word in the 1940s that he needed thousands of workers to build Liberty ships in his Richmond shipyard, word traveled all the way to the swamps of Louisiana.
Thousands of creoles from Louisiana migrated to the Bay Area for better jobs in the shipyards and a better way of life, with less racial strife. Among those were zydeco accordion player Andre Thierry's grandparents — Houston Pete Pitre from Basile and Mama Lena Pitre from Soileau, Louisiana. Not long after settling in Richmond, they were throwing monthly dances (known as La-La's) at St. Mark's Catholic Church.
“I can remember going to my grandmother's dances, especially when she would bring in different bands from Louisiana,” said Thierry, who shares the Mystic stage on Fat Tuesday with Rhythmtown-Jive and the 23rd annual Mardi Gras Mambofest.
Once word got out, zydeco pioneers Clifton Chenier, Rockin' Sydney and John Delafose would drop in and play the communal Richmond church.
Only 3 or 4 years old at the time, Thierry remembers “the energy was crazy — in a good way. It was just like a big house party, with a lot of French-speaking people and in the '60s and '70s there would be the hippie crowd in there, too.”
He was immediately drawn to the accordion “because the keys were flapping and stuff and it was kind of mesmerizing. I just wanted to know how to do that.”
By 9, Thierry was pumping his own squeezebox and by 13 he'd put together his own zydeco band.
“It's happy music. It's drama-free,” he says. “So people — the rest of their lives they have all this kind of drama and they can let it all go when they come to hear zydeco. It's this mixture of every other kind of music — jazz, blues, R&B, country. It has all of that and you can put anything into it.”