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A lot of us are familiar with music in church: Congregational hymns, choir singing, organs playing. But in Houston, Catholic Church dances play a key role in creating and maintaining a distinct style of American music, zydeco. As part of the NPR series "Ecstatic Voices: Sacred Music in America," David Brown of member station KUT reports.

DAVID BROWN, BYLINE: The modest, cream-colored '50s-era chapel that's home to St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Church in Houston looks like many other places of worship you might find in urban America. The first clue to a unique tradition here pulls up Sunday afternoon.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLE)

BROWN: It's a truck and trailer with Louisiana plates. Out come the amps, the drums, an accordion and a washboard.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Excuse me. (Foreign language spoken)

BROWN: And within the hour, under the giant wooden crucifix in the church family center, Jeremy and the Zydeco Hot Boyz kick into gear, and the dance floor gets busy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BROWN: It's a party fueled by beer, boudin and red beans and rice from the church kitchen.

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BROWN: If it's Sunday in Houston, parishioner Bennie Allen Brooks says it's zydeco.

BENNIE ALLEN BROOKS: If you go to any of the Catholic churches, they have zydeco bands. You know, and most of our parishioners are from Louisiana.

BROWN: There's a reason for that. Houstonian Roger Wood, author of the book "Texas Zydeco" traces the origins of the zydeco church dances to two distinct migratory waves: from the poor towns and villages of Louisiana, to southeastern Texas in the first half of the 20th century.

ROGER WOOD: After the Louisiana flood of 1927, and then after World War II when black Creole servicemen came home and no longer were willing to be sharecroppers, they tended to migrate to where the work was. And in southeast Texas, it was, you know, what the Cajuns call Gran Texas, Big Houston. And there were lots of jobs to be had there.

BROWN: The migrants brought their washboards and their accordion-driven la-la music, as they called it, which, once amplified, became known in Texas as zydeco. The term itself is a local corruption of a poor Creole lament: Les haricots sont pas sale or the beans are not salted. Over the years, Wood says les haricots became zydeco.

WOOD: What Chicago was to the blues, Houston is to zydeco.

BROWN: And in large part, that's because of these church dances, says Bennie Allen Brooks, who's a lector at St. Peter's.

BROOKS: It's just natural. It sounded like shoes and feet.

(LAUGHTER)

BROOKS: We dance, and we praise God. And it does talk about dancing in the Bible, so there's nothing wrong with it. At least that's our interpretation.

BROWN: For predominantly Catholic Creoles who'd left tightly knit small towns in Louisiana, Houston's churches fostered a new sense of community, not just as places of worship, but as spaces where Creole families could find each other in the big city and share their traditions from back home: faith, food and music.

STEP RIDEAU: Coming to Houston, well, it's quite natural you want to find something that, you know, familiarize you with home. And here in Houston, the big thing was, you know, Catholic Church dances.

BROWN: Step Rideau came to Houston in the 1980's, a Creole teenager looking for a construction job. After years of attending the church dances, he says he was moved to connect with his heritage on a deeper level.

RIDEAU: At some point, I just went and purchased an accordion. And as a matter of fact, that's it back there. That little old Hohner accordion came from a pawnshop for, like, 45 bucks. I said if I can teach myself to play it, I would purchase the professional real one. And that's what happened, so...

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RIDEAU: I'm going to play the first song that I learned on it (unintelligible).

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BROWN: Were it not for the church dances, Rideau doubts he'd have ever picked up an accordion and become part of a new generation of musicians carrying on a tradition started by those first immigrants. Today, he records his own albums.

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STE RIDEAU AND THE ZYDECO OUTLAWS: (Singing) Oh, yeah. Uh-huh. Yes. You let me be the one you love 'cause I might be the one you've been looking for.

BROWN: Zydeco dances are such an important part of church life and fundraising, many parishes long ago added the post of dance chairman.

PERCY CREUZOT: Well, the Catholic Church is just a no-brainer. I mean, if you're going to have a dance, zydeco and the Catholic Church just go hand in hand.

BROWN: Percy Creuzot is in his 20s. He grew up in Houston attending the weekly zydeco dances at the city's historically black Catholic churches. In the back window of his Texas-sized pickup is a decal that reads Creole.

CREUZOT: My family is from New Orleans. And my dad didn't know what zydeco was until he moved to Houston and became a member of St. Peter's. And I don't know that anybody that can actually tell you how it all got started. It's just always been this way.

BROWN: A fall zydeco church bazaar can draw more than a thousand fans of all generations and span three consecutive nights, like giant la-la parties back home. Today, the churches in Houston maintain a coalition, the Inter-Catholic Association, which sets a formal rotation for the weekend zydeco dances. Creuzot is the ICA representative for St. Peter the Apostle.

CREUZOT: You'll see the same folks because they travel from bazaar to bazaar on the different weekends, bring their family out and just taste the different boudins, the different gumbos, you know, the different zydeco bands. And every church has a little something different that they offer.

BROWN: But it's what these historically black Catholic churches have in common that's remarkable: perpetuating a zydeco tradition that flowered here and providing a living sanctuary for Creole culture deep in Grand Texas. For NPR News, I'm David Brown in Houston.

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