Richmond zydeco accordionist Thierry proudly advances musical genre
By Lou Fancher
Richmond-based Andre Thierry’s life as a professional accordion player and music educator specializing in zydeco is not just a career; it’s a calling.
The art form originating in Louisiana’s French Creole culture streams through the 42-year-old Grammy-nominated musician’s nearly three decades of playing zydeco and what he calls Accordion Soul music and extends along currents and tributaries launched 92 years ago with his grandmother’s birth. Reaching even further back, Thierry’s musical roots are anchored in and honor the legacy of seminal artists such as Amede Ardoin, who made numerous recordings in the early 20th century, and Clifton Chenier, a Grammy award-winning accordion player often referred to as the King of Zydeco.
The self-taught Thierry is featured in the short documentary “California Creole” (andrethierry.com/film) produced by Lavoi Creative for the “Roots of Fire” project, an exploration of modern Cajun and Creole music. Thierry’s moving, heart-bracing story is just a 5:27-minute part of the larger documentary project, but it caused a sensation when it premiered at film festivals in New Orleans and elsewhere in Louisiana. Subsequently made an official selection at film festivals in San Francisco, Oxford, Queens, Houston and other locations, a full-length feature documentary is in the works.
Creoles and Cajuns migrated from Louisiana to the Bay Area during World War II, finding work in Richmond shipyards and seeking to improve the circumstances of their families. Whereas Cajun music developed along lines that incorporated country music and fiddles, zydeco arose from Creole culture to blend blues and R&B-style influences into accordion player-led bands whose other members played bass, drums, guitar and “rubboard” (a ribbed metal washboard percussion instrument often resembling a vest). Thierry’s family, starting in the 1950s, migrated gradually to California, ultimately bringing his French-speaking Creole grandparents to Richmond, where they held French Creole dances called La-La at their church parish, St. Mark’s Catholic Church.
It was at St. Mark’s where Thierry was repeatedly exposed to top zydeco guest artists booked by his grandfather and came to cherish the Creole cuisine prepared by his grandmother. Today he is acclaimed for his virtuoso, versatile accordion chops and zydeco compositions grounded in authenticity but dazzling in their transformative approach and a sound that is neither old-school, R&B/blues-style zydeco nor the more nouveau, rap-infused style.
The Washington Post called Thierry a “master at pumping out fast, funky rhythms on an instrument not usually associated with earthy syncopation” and in a review once said his band, Zydeco Magic, “lay down both soulful, traditional slow dances and bottom-end-booming kinetic groovers.”
In an interview, he comes across as unassuming, thoughtful, almost shy. His story begins with steep irony: the tale of a 12-year-old boy who had zero interest in becoming a musician but was inexplicably riveted during one show by the sight of an accordion.
“My grandparents brought bands out to Richmond, so I had up-close-and-personal translation with these musicians. I was just soaking everything up without realizing it. I didn’t want to do it at first, not interested, but it just snowballed.”
It’s a snowball that melts hearts, as Thierry talks fondly of his grandmother and the visits during which he listens to her stories — about making gumbo, red beans and rice and other dishes for the crowds; about dances and music that brought together people who might never speak to each other on the street; about the lessons learned while studying and playing an instrument as unwieldy as an accordion.
As a multi-instrumentalist, Thierry primarily plays three styles of accordion in live shows: diatonic, three-row and piano. The diatonic is light with a loud tone and fields folkier, fast-paced, syncopated songs or waltzes. The three-row and piano play in a wider variety of keys, with the former having enough bass tones to sound like a full orchestra and the piano, heaviest to hold, best handling blues-style zydeco. Thierry, whose mission includes not just performing, producing and recording, but teaching youth, says even during his lifetime society and the music it produces has changed.
“In the last 20 years children don’t see live music. They give up on things when they get discouraged. I want to bring more confidence, get them to slow down and work things out. Even with my two boys, who used to pride themselves in ‘Daddy, Mommy, I can do it,’ I now see them hesitate.”
He finds that if he demonstrates, then leaves the room, they soon master a task on their own.
“I don’t push. For students, I bring my hand-to-instrument curriculum, not digitized stuff like Guitar Hero, which is teaching them wrong. I teach ear-training, giving confidence, learning the culture. Making the accordion cool in America? I won’t ever give up on that.”
The training he promises will always be based in zydeco’s true origins while inviting energetic blurring of boundaries as musicians push to include new sounds.
“If you have a million dollars and make a million tomorrow, will you throw away the old million? Or will you put old and new together. I say hold and fuse it all together.”
As an accordion player, Thierry has high technical prowess and is known for improvisation that he says arises in response to daily impulses and is steeped in humanity. He says he’s motivated primarily by witnessing times of tragic loss — the Loma Prieta earthquake and other natural disasters, the pandemic, racial injustices committed worldwide — how music causes people who are standoff-ish, mistrustful or merely shy to hug, dance, party and even come to love each other. Music, he says, “makes people happy, makes them think, slow down, appreciate culture, know that fame and money aren’t everything and that life ain’t that bad.”
Looking back over history, Thierry says he’d most like to sit at the feet of Ardoin and simply watch him jam, soak it in. Looking forward, he sees generations of young kids, taking immeasurable pride in mastering the accordion or whichever other endeavor yields to youthful resistance and leads to a lifetime of fruitful, rewarding engagement.