Accordion music finds new fans among the young

Few sounds conjure up France like the accordion, one of whose great stars, Marcel Azzola recently died aged 91. Oliver Rowland finds out more from expert craftsman Laurent Jarry

27 February 2019
Accordion-maker and repairer Laurent Jarry
By Oliver Rowland

Accordions have been strongly associated with France since at least the late 19th century but they have recently been enjoying a renaissance.

They went through a low point a few decades ago when they were often badly played and young people saw them as something cheesy for their parents’ generation, according to maker and repairer Laurent Jarry.

Now the accordion is enjoying a comeback as young people discover how it is played in different cultures, such as Bulgaria and Macedonia.

It has been used by directors such as Emir Kusturica and Tony Gatlif – known for films on Roma culture – as well as in so-called nouvelle chanson française in the 1990s and 2000s by groups including Les Négresses Vertes.

“A huge number of young people are interested in it now,” Mr Jarry said. “And not just to play musette walzes, though they still play them now and again, but they’ll also play music from Brazil or Serbia. There’s a whole mixture now.”

Mr Jarry, of La Boîte d’Accordéon (laboitedaccordeon.fr) in Montreuil, east of Paris, said the first patent was in Austria in 1829 but accordions were being made in Paris a year later.

In the early days, they were costly, made from precious woods and inlaid with mother-of-pearl, and were played in posh salons. “Then, before the end of the 19th century, it became a manufactured product – made in quantity at an affordable price – and that’s when it became popular and spread around the world,” Mr Jarry said.

This popularity was originally partly due to mail order.

“It was the Amazon of its day. You could order one from a catalogue, along with linen and other home goods. It would be sent by train to the nearest station for you to collect.”

The instrument caught on to accompany popular music and dance, as it is versatile, has a good range of notes, and is cheaper – and more portable – than a piano.

It is also robust and needed less maintenance than other instruments such as violins and bagpipes. It uses the free metal reed (l’anche libre métallique), little metal tongues which vibrate to make the sound.

A basic accordion for learners has three-and-a-half octaves but others have a much bigger range. They are less standardised in design and sound than most instruments and there are several mechanisms, including the chromatic accordion, where a given key plays the same note whether you pull or press the instrument, and the diatonic one, which plays different ones.

The left hand presses buttons for bass notes or chords and works the bellows, the right plays the melody.

On traditional French instruments, the right side has rows of buttons, not the alternative piano-style design.

Mr Jarry said: “We’re talking about an instrument that was used to get people dancing, not for concerts, and it is autonomous – it can at the same time play the tune and the rhythm for accompaniment – perfect for dance.”

While associated with working-class urban music in the Paris area, it was also taken up in folk music in several regions, such as Brittany.

In the inter-war period it was used in guinguettes – venues for drinking and dancing in Paris suburbs – and at dances called bals musettes, which had a musical style mixing French music with that of Italian immigrants.

It became a favourite accompaniment to French chanson, and Marcel Azzola, a virtuoso born in Paris to Italian parents, accompanied Edith Piaf, Jacques Brel and Yves Montand.

Marcel Azzola and his accordion

Particularly famous is Brel’s recording of Vesoul: Azzola delivers a cascade of  fast notes and Brel exclaims “chauffe, Marcel, chauffe!” (go, Marcel, go!), which became a popular expression.

Another accordion figure Yvette Horner was known for accompanying the Tour de France and later for performing in extravagant Gaultier outfits.

While the accordion is mostly used in popular culture, modern classical composers – notably Argentinian Astor Piazzolla – have written for it and some musicians play classical pieces adapted for the instrument.

Mr Jarry has been in the business more than 30 years and both makes and restores the instrument.

He said Azzola helped him find his first job.

“He was immensely talented and crossed the decades. He started as a child and knew the pre-war period. He played things like classical overtures in brasseries, then had an orchestra for dance music, then a long jazz period.”

Mr Jarry said the accordion is complex to make and uses varied materials – different kinds of wood, metals, alloys, cardboard, cloth and leather.

There are three factories in France, including Maugein in Tulle, Corrèze - home of the annual Nuits de Nacre accordion festival.

Factory instruments are cheaper than custom-made ones but are still hand-made, so a quality instrument does not come cheap. A good factory-made one, suitable for learners, starts at €3,500.

Prices can rise to €10-15,000-plus for a top-quality instrument.

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