Wouter and the Dragon

Wouter Kuyper is an accordionist from the Netherlands. He’s a member of the bal folk band, Lirio, and recently joined in duo with Joris Alblas (guitar) on a new recording, Wouter en de Draak. Via the interwebs I got into a convo with Wouter about his music, his accordions, and the bal folk scene in the Netherlands, which seems so far away from here. The interview was conducted via email. Emoticons are Wouter’s.  🙂

Click here to listen to Wouter en de Draak while reading the interview.

Wouter Kuyper

How did you come into the world and find the accordion?


I was born in 1978, and I live in the Netherlands. I started playing music when my parents took me to some sort of traditional music camp when i was 10 years old. For our family this was really the first encounter with this kind of music. No one played before that. But we started going there year after year, and my mom took up the accordion, and I started playing the pipes, at 12. I still play and love those, but at the age of 15 I picked up my moms accordion when she wasn’t home. I absolutely loved the fact that you can accompany your own melody, a thing I missed when playing pipes or flutes/whistles/recorders/etc.

The nights at those gatherings were awesome. Especially for a kid my age. During the day you would get music lessons, which was fun and all, but it was really about the nights. People were dancing until the sun came up again. I really wanted that too, but for a 12 year old boy it was easier to sit in a corner on stage trying to play along with the session, than to dare ask a girl to a dance that you never danced before…I still learned to dance the dances in that period too 🙂

Could you talk about your recordings? Two with Lirio, and then Wouter en De Draak (Wouter and the Dragon).

Those are the three closest to my heart, yes, those really feel like my own bands, in which we play a lot of my own tunes. But with Lirio we recorded some stuff for albums together with others as well. And I also recorded some albums with singers, still folky, Dutch language, but not as trad as Lirio or Wouter en de Draak. “Laroux” has a bit of Zydeco-flavor sometimes, but i mostly play pipes and whistles there, and De Vliering is a bit singer-songwriter-folk-like… (you can both find them on YouTube and/or Spotify)

Lirio Hanterdroom

How did Lirio come together? What were you trying to achieve?

Well, I must have been around 20 years old when we started the band, I knew Gerdien, our violinist who is a couple of years younger from another band (medieval) that died not much later. Her boyfriend at the time was Sander, the guitar player. All of us were really just starting in bands and making music and stuff. Over the last 15/20 years it has been great. Seeing each other grow, both musically and as human beings 🙂

What we were trying to achieve? We wanted to create the atmosphere in the Netherlands that we found at several gatherings/festivals in Belgium and France. At those places we saw such intense music and dancing, by young people, too, that we thought we could and should bring that to the Netherlands. So we started a band, and started organizing bal folks. And we tried inspiring each other and other people too. And it worked, even now, when we don’t do any organizing anymore, there is a foundation to keep this scene alive, there is a nice national website, which has all the bal folks on it, where you can find dancing classes, music workshops etc etc. It isn’t that big a community, but it is very alive.

The last couple 2 or 3 years we don’t play that much anymore, life gets in the way, the others got real jobs. 😉

Is this why you did Wouter en de Draak? The new group? (Love the flute!) What are your goals with this work?

Love the flute too! Music is good, more music is better. 🙂 At the moment we started this band I was playing solo a lot. And i really like that, but for my own variety and the dancers’ variety I wanted another band, Joris was a guitarist who always jumped in my ear when i heard him play in other bands, and a very lovable person too, so I gave him a call … and here we are. We normally play with just the two of us, but for the CD we wanted to do something extra, so we called in the cavalry 🙂 I am very happy to have such wonderful musicians as friends playing on our album (Ies Muller, Flute, Frank van der Vliet Trumpet/Bugle and Roeland Uitdewilligen on percussion).

And about goals … making beautiful music, seeing people dance before us and having fun, and have fun ourselves on as many stages as possible :-). At the moment I am looking around to see if we can play more in countries around us, the Dutch scene isn’t that big. It is hard finding good spots.

The name? Just a joke, is Saint George and the Dragon a myth that you know? I thought “Joris en de Draak” (the myth in Dutch) would be a fun name because of the guitarist’s name. But he preferred this one.

Can we talk about the scene there? From here it seems like there’s an accordion movement going on in the Netherlands and Belgium. Is there actually such a movement? Or does it just look that way from afar?

It is a bit difficult question. There are quite a few different scenes here that don’t interact a lot. For instance, i have very little knowledge of who plays what in the Irish scene. Most people playing diatonics around here, play shanties, and music like that. I am pretty sure both those scenes don’t use 3 row accordions. I only follow the diato-world (bisonoric) a bit. I know nothing of the chromatic world (unisonoric).

But if you look at the bal folk scene here, then yes “three row is the way to go.” I think it started with Bruno Le Tron teaching in Belgium a couple of times, having Didier Laloy as one of his students, and later playing with Wim Claeys (in Tref) who has had lots of students. Then, of course, Naragonia. In Belgium in the last few years you can learn diato at several main stream music schools, and they require a third row with accidentals. I must be honest, and tell you that i jumped on that wagon a lot later. I have been playing 2 rows for a very long time, and i teach all my students on 2 row, rather then 3 rows. I think it is better to comprehend the playing of a diato on a 2 row, and then later add the options of the third row.

I still don’t play a lot of tunes in different scales than the scales that work on a two row. I try to stick to scales that only require one extra accidental (on a GC for instance Dm, or Bm) so as to keep the logic and feeling still the same.

Milleret and Pignol had their influence on the bal folk scene as well, mostly through the playing of Aurelien Claranbaux who played here a lot. So yeah … especially in Belgium, but also in the Netherlands bal folk style playing is mostly on a 3 row, other styles not so much.

[In] the current bal folk scene … all balls are organised by individuals, enthusiastic volunteers. Mostly people who have been dancing for a couple of years, and want to dance closer to their homes. Utrecht, a city right in the middle of the Netherlands has been the centre of the scene for over a decade, with bal folk nights about monthly. When we had a big and cheap location at the [height of the scene] we would get close to 300 people in. Nowadays, smaller locations, a big ball is for around 140 people, but most evenings get around 50-80 people. When I organised evenings, we would get mostly students (17-25) but lately the crowd has grown a bit older (like i did 😉 ) i think most people are now 25-35, mostly highly educated. Of course, you see all other ages as well 🙂 Most people come for the atmosphere, and they like the dance and the music too, in that order 😉 We’ve been giving dancing lessons as well, at several locations.

There are not enough musicians in the scene here in the Netherlands, it is quite a small country … and since it isn’t really traditional we need to import music too. Sometimes from Belgium, sometimes from France. If I am not on stage, it is usually a band from abroad. Which isn’t bad, per se, but it would be nice to have more bands and musicians just from close by.

What is next for you?

Ha ha, I am not a planning person that much. 🙂 I just try to take and see opportunities as they come along. But making sure the the bal folk scene survives and making music for it will always be on the top of my list. With my kids growing older (youngest is now 4, eldest 10) everything keeps changing anyway. 🙂

For more info on the bal folk scene in the Netherlands go to the official Dutch bal folk website.

Tribute to Dino Baffetti

I was sad to hear that, earlier this month, the Maestro Dino Baffetti passed away. When one considers the reach of Baffetti Accordions, the amount of joy he’s responsible for bringing into the world is amazing. As a tribute, here are some videos of folks playing Baffetti accordions and translating that joy. Thanks to friends at mel.net for helping put this together.

The Language of the Button Box

This was originally published in February 2011, in a slightly different form. Reading the front pages of today’s “fake news” rags, I can still see that our world’s understanding of accordion lingo could fairly be described as a dearth. I hope this piece serves as a still-potent paliative

(for the inimitable, and inexplicably quiet, Tom B.)

A friend made a comment a few weeks ago indicating that those who are not Of the Bellows may have difficulty grasping the lingo of the box. “Yeah, yeah,” I thought, “thus is the fate of squeeze-muggles.” Then I read a sentence in another friend’s accordion blog, and it shocked me into sympathy. Describing a sort of uber-box, Andy, at Melodeon Minutes wrote, “It was a Gaillard, 4-voice — yes, 4-voice — in D/G, tuned LM-MM+, with two switches behind the keyboard.”

“Good Lord,” I thought, envious, “That’s quite a thing!” Then I imagined the uninitiated perusing that line (maybe the boys at Homeland Security) wondering, “What kind of thing?”

Then, in my own paean to the Hohner Corso, I found that I’d described the red, pearloid wonder as, “A wet tuned French-sounding box.” Holy Cow! Is that even legal in New England?

So, what does it mean? With apologies to Andy, I’ve decided to use his exemplar sentence to explain some of the naming conventions of accordions.

  • Gaillard: That’s the name of the maker, Bertrand Gaillard, of France.  Highly esteemed. Other makers are CastagnariSalterelle, and Loffet, to name just a few.
  • 4-voice: Button accordions — aka, melodeons — generally have more than one reed for each note. Each reed is a “voice.” Two or three voices are normal.  Four is extraordinary in a multi-row box because of the weight.  Each voice requires an entirely separate bank of reeds.
  • In D/G: Button accordions are diatonic, meaning they are designed to play in specific keys, rather than all keys (like a piano). In this case, the outside row plays in the key of D, while the inside row (the one nearest the bellows) plays in the key of G. Different types of music have differently keyed accordions that are most common. English music tends to favor the D/G melodeon. French music the G/C. In Irish music, B/C and C#/D accordions are all the rage. There are fantastic exceptions to all of these generalizations.
  • Tuned LM-MM+: This means Low Medium-minus Medium Medium-plus. Is that clear? Back to the four voices. Each reed for a particular note is not tuned to the exact same pitch. Say that the note being tuned is A. The main reed will be tuned dead on pitch. This is the Medium reed. The Low reed will be tuned a full octave below, filling out the sound. The Medium-minus and Medium-plus will be tuned slightly above and slightly below the Medium reed, creating a sort of tension that is generally pleasing to the ear — similar in function to vibrato for other musicians.
  • Two switches behind the keyboard: These allow you to turn on and off entire banks of reeds. So you can play all four reeds, or just the M reeds, or just the low reed. That it’s a switch behind the keyboard makes it simple to, for example, throw open the flood gates and engage all the reeds the last time going through a tune, whipping the crowd into a frenzy. Not that you’d actually do that, though. It would be vulgar.*
  • A wet tuned French-sounding box: So, back to the LM-MM+ thing.  When tuning the reeds, the further apart the tuning, the “wetter” they are said to be. Some types of music call for a “dry” tuning, with the reeds tuned relatively close together — Irish music, for example. Other types of music call for “wetter” tuning, French and other continental musics, for example. A demonstration (on a piano accordion) of dry to wet tuning is demonstrated in under two minutes in the below video.

So there you go. Suddenly it all makes sense, hey? Additional resources for this can be found at Melodeon.net, and Steve Dumpleton’s excellent Voices and Tunings FAQ.

Further questions, comments, or corrections are welcome.

*This is sarcasm.  I love vulgar.