Daniel Thonon was a first contact for French music for many North American players. Residing in Quebec, the multi-instrumentalist — accordéon, pipes, hurdy gurdy, recorders, harpsichord — was one of several key members of Ad Vielle Que Pourra, which was a featured group on the Green Linnet label, and their sub-label, Xenophile. Being associated with Green Linnet during the Celtic music boom of ’90s brought them into my sights. I was playing Irish flute and whistle at the time, and, honestly, had a narrow view of what music ought to be. Hearing Thonon and crew rip through their “New French Folk Music,” much amazement ensued. Worlds opened up.
Ad Vielle Que Pourra used traditional French instruments to produce a music that blends tradFrench, Breton, and Quebecois music. There are also touches of Parisian bal musette, and even some baroque. (Thonon is an impressive harpsichordist.) But rather than producing a sort of “more eclectic than thou” folk music, Ad Vielle Que Pourra produced music with a focused vision that captivated me. Perhaps this was because almost all of the music was original, thoroughly in the style of trad.
Throughout his time with Ad Vielle Que Pourra, Thonon played a bit of everything, most prominently the vielle à roue. I was not a box player at the time, and didn’t notice in that context what extraordinary things he was doing with his Castagnari Mory. In 1997, Thonon released Trafic D’influences, a recording that focused on his box playing. It has since been re-released as the less-obscurely titled, Master of the Diatonic Accordion. Again, worlds opened up with this set of mostly original-in-a-traditional-style played on a two and a half row, twelve bass, beautiful sounding instrument. (Aside: when word got around that the Mory had been destroyed in an airline baggage accident, more than one player bowed their head in grief.)
When I moved to Maine in 1997, I met Matt Szostak, a hurdy gurdy player and builder from Camden. I was just beginning my accordéon journey, hearing La Chavanée for the first time, and Matt was a fantastic resource for me. It also happened that he was friends with Daniel Thonon. Matt put me in touch with Daniel, and when I took a trip to Montreal in 1999, I drove out to Daniel’s for a lesson on the box. I can’t say for sure what I learned there — other than the fact that Daniel Thonon is a fantastic, generous person, and a great teacher. Daniel’s approach to the lesson was to watch my very rudimentary playing and make kind suggestions. “Have you thought about this?” or “Did you know you could do this?” Without being able to say exactly how my playing changed, I improved tremendously in that hour and a half. Certainly, I came away encouraged, enthused and loving the box and French music more than ever.
I haven’t heard much out of Daniel Thonon’s camp in recent years. Listening to his catalogue as I write this piece, I can tell you I very much would love to hear more music from him. There are no videos of Thonon playing box on YouTube, but here’s a vid of an accordéon group in Helsinki playing one of Daniel’s compositions. If you notice in the comments section, Daniel himself “liked” this.