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Up Beat - Feeling the Squeeze

Up Beat - Feeling the Squeeze

When it comes to injecting a note of gaiety into social occasions, nothing has quite compared to the accordion. Roger Moss looks at the nation’s enduring love affair with these remarkable instruments...

LM Michel Mathé 329-

Daily life in France is not normally accompanied by a romantic soundtrack of accordions, although filmmakers can’t resist perpetuating such an appealing myth. In fact, the accordion appears to have come to France in the hands of late-19th century Italian settlers, some of whom set up workshops to manufacture concert instruments. Eventually, though, l’accordéon made the transition from concert halls to the Parisian bars and cafés opened by Auvergnat migrants, and later to provincial guinguette bars. The resulting bals-musette dances became hugely popular, spawning a musette accordéon style fusing folkdance melodies with swing, Latin, gypsy-jazz and much more to create the sound which has become synonymous with France.

The instruments themselves are remarkable pieces of engineering, with a bank of reeds (typically a pair per note) mounted on either side of a large bellows unit. The air produced is fed to the reeds by pad-style valves usually operated by push-buttons, the left-hand bank producing bass notes, while the right-hand plays the melody. ‘Diatonic’ accordions have something in common with harmonicas, each button producing a choice of two different notes, depending on whether the bellows blow or suck. This means they need fewer buttons than one-note-per-button ‘chromatic’ models. The third variant, the ‘piano accordion’, is a hybrid whose right-hand controls are piano-style keys rather than buttons, offering an easier transition for piano-players and, arguably, a more fluid playing style. Needless to say, playing any of these requires both co-ordination and commitment (not to mention the musical talent which adds style and passion to a performance) but the rewards can be spectacular.

A key factor in the quintessential ‘French sound’ is musette tuning – instead of each pair of reeds being in unison, one is tuned slightly above the note and the other below it, much like a honky-tonk piano. You can see the whole manufacturing process in the town of Tulle (Corrèze), home of Maugein Frères since 1919, and now the last complete manufacturer of accordions in France. It’s a fascinating place, to which professional players drop in to try new instruments and to have their own repaired and serviced.

A Maugein in full-song is impressive, particularly in the hands of accordionist Michel Mathé, from Champagne-Mouton (16). Michel came from a family of players and began learning musette-style accordion as an eight year-old, then specialised in the instrument at the Conservatoire de Musique de Bordeaux. “I was fascinated by the Argentine tango, studied with Richard Gallianno, and played many concerts with Astor Piazzolla, the world’s leading tango accordionist. I then went to Bulgaria and Moldova to explore the music of Eastern Europe, and worked with more great musicians.” Michel’s obvious passion for the instrument is shared by a growing number of players: “In France Rock & Roll and Disco changed music, but when the accordion was accepted by the conservatoires in 1987 it was finally recognised as a ‘real instrument’. Today it’s used in rock, jazz, traditional music, and of course, musette.”

When not playing live concerts (which this summer included a local tour in his newly-constructed gypsy caravan) Michel teaches for Charente’s École Départementale de Musique, which provides opportunities to a new generation of players from rural communities. It’s something he clearly loves: “Young people see it as a new instrument, so I see a bright future for the accordion!”