Dance, Dance, Dance
Take a Trip to Cajun Country Via Alameda's Eagles Hall
With a blanket of fog rolling slowly in off the bay on a cool Friday evening in August, no one is likely to mistake Alameda for Louisiana’s sweltering bayou, but if you close your eyes, the accordion pulsing through the doors of the Eagles Hall provides an instant passport to Opelousas. Inside, Jeffery Broussard is working the squeezebox, dripping with sweat as his Creole Cowboys whip the couples on the dance floor through a waltz so fierce the entire room seems to be bouncing in three/two time. It’s just another Friday night at Alameda’s Eagles Hall, which since the mid-1990s has served as a focal point for the Bay Area’s Cajun and Louisiana Creole communities, and the many people who happen to love their music. The crowd is mixed in every way, with black and white Louisiana expats and their progeny, Asian-Americans and Latinos, grandparents and young ’uns all moving to the ferocious zydeco beat.
“People come to dance,” says Dana DeSimone, who books the long-running Friday night series and teaches two-steps and waltzes before every Eagles Hall session. “The band’s up high enough that you can watch the musicians and some people do that, but mostly it’s a social event. People come with a good attitude to party on Friday night.”
How did Alameda end up as a crucial outpost of Gulf Coast culture? It’s a classic case of niche ecology, where an open space provides just the right conditions for a scene to thrive. Eagles Hall is just the latest, and perhaps most unlikely, venue for the music of Francophone Louisianans and their descendants. The region’s affinity for Cajun and Creole culture can be traced back to World War II, when the demand for shipyard labor turned the Bay Area into a vital outpost for Louisianans looking for better times.
A number of important Louisiana-born players, such as accordionists Danny Poullard and Queen Ida, turned the Bay Area into their home base and spread the gospel of Gulf Coast grooves, while touring stars like Clifton Chenier regularly came through town to play Richmond’s St. Mark’s Hall. Berkeley’s folk music redoubt Ashkenaz has hosted Cajun and zydeco bands since the late David Nadel opened the venue in the mid-1970s, but after a while the more popular combos drew too many people to host a proper dance.
“David Nadel couldn’t expand,” DeSimone says. “We realized we had a nice hall. Swing had been playing there for years, and it was known as a place that people had dances. But the Navy had just left, and the whole town took a hit. At the time we were starting, we mostly had the strip to ourselves.”
A San Francisco native, DeSimone is another zydeco convert. He turned onto the music in the early 1980s as an avid dancer, when a girlfriend introduced him to the scene around New Orleans. When he came back to the Bay Area, he sought out venues presenting the music. Around 1990 he started teaching Cajun and zydeco dance and promoting concerts with Louisiana Sue, who helps produce the Eagles Hall series and maintains an invaluable website detailing concerts and dance events (www.louisianasue.com). Extraverted and gregarious, Louisiana Sue embodies the embracing nature of the Bay Area scene, just as the Eagles Hall concerts represent the transformative effect of the West Coast’s ethnically diverse audiences on Cajun and zydeco music.
The story of Cajun music starts with the French settlers of Nova Scotia, who were forced out of their homeland when the British defeated the French in 1754. The Acadians made their way to southwest Louisiana, where the term Cajun was first used as a slur and then embraced as an identity. By the mid-19th century Cajun music had absorbed an array of influences from surrounding peoples, most importantly African rhythms, blues cadences and call-and-response vocal patterns.
Just as Cajun music was evolving through contact with surrounding peoples, the descendents of African-American slaves and free people of color who gained independence during French and Spanish rule of Louisiana were developing a distinctive Creole culture, one that encompassed its own divisions according to class and skin color. To this day in Louisiana, Creole is used generally to refer to French-speaking African Americans and their descendants.
The intertwining of Cajun and Creole culture meant that the distinction between their music was a matter of degree. Both grew out of the same French traditions, but Creole music drew more strongly on the blues and Caribbean rhythms. It’s hard to overstate the degree to which Cajuns and Creoles influenced each other, a symbiotic relationship documented in the 1929 recordings of legendary Creole vocalist and accordion master Amédé Ardoin and Cajun fiddler Dennis McGee. They often played white dances, and their music became a template to which succeeding generations of Cajun musicians returned again and again.
Cajun and Creole music started to diverge in the 1930s, as the music absorbed sounds and songs from country music, western swing and jazz. But it was the rise of zydeco after World War II that led to distinct musical styles. Cajun music continues to center on accordion, fiddle, triangle and guitar, while zydeco dropped the fiddle, focusing on the accordion and trademark frottoir, an instrument invented by seminal zydecan Clifton Chenier, who hired a Port Arthur metal worker to construct a corrugated steel rub-board that could be worn on the chest. Zydeco bands also often incorporated horns and R&B rhythm sections, and more recently hip-hop and reggae grooves.
Eagles Hall presents a pretty full range of music, and November’s lineup includes Richmond-raised accordion expert Andre Thierry and Zydeco Magic as well as the Pine Leaf Boys, a great young Cajun dance band from Lafayette, La. Much like the music itself, which mostly flies under America’s pop culture radar, Alamedans often don’t seem cognizant of the musical treasure trove in their own backyard.
“The accordion’s the lead instrument, so that’s two strikes against right there,” jokes MotorDude Zydeco guitarist John Graham, a long-time Alameda resident who has played Eagles Hall since the series started in 1995. “People don’t realize that the scene has this welcoming vibe you don’t pick up at the average club. I’ll talk to people around town, and they’re usually aware of the concerts, but they’re just not curious about the music. They don’t know how much fun it can be. The basic dancing isn’t hard to pick up. We get people coming from miles around.”
The dances at Eagles Hall (2305 Alameda Ave., Alameda) are at 9 p.m. Fridays with free dance lessons at 8:30 p.m.
The cost is $15. For more information, call (415) 285-6285 or visit www.sfzydeco.com