A Conversation with Sylvain Piron

Part One
Sylvain Piron
Sylvain Piron – diatonist, piper, nickelharpa-ist, dancer, and singer – has been a central figure in the traditional French music and dance scene of Alsace for years. He might deny that, but ask any of the dancers and musicians around the scene, and the level of their esteem will be clear. I met Sylvain in 1998, as recounted here, and it’s safe to say that, more than any other person, he is the reason I play this repertoire on this instrument. The lightness and feeling of his style – playing and singing together – is the bedrock of my aspirations (if something that light can, in fact, be a bedrock …). For this reason, my gratitude to Sylvain and his wife, Catherine Piron-Paira, is immeasurable.
Four of Piron’s CDs — Par coeur, Tranches de temps, Fleur de ciel, and Le plume et l’anche — are available for free download here
The interview was conducted entirely in English.

Gary: Could you tell me when and how you got started playing?
Sylvain: I started to play diatonique during the holidays of 1977 near Saint-Malo in Brittany. My [first] wife had been offered a Hohner 2915 few years before. It was sleeping in our flat, waiting to be played. My wife was a violinist and had learned two or three tunes on the 2915, not more. We took it with us, as I had the idea to take profit of holidays to give it a try. Within two days I was able to play 2 or 3 tunes, not very well but already danceable! I remember having started my playing with “En avant blonde,” a famous waltz played on record by Marc Perronne at this time. Since that, even if I had some periods where I played less, I never really stopped playing.
What was the diatonic accordéon scene like in those days?
The traditional music movement (called musique folk), at this time was led by groups like Mélusine, la Bamboche and Malicorne — all coming from the revival movement born after May 68. In Alsace there was Le folk de la rue des Dentelles, a famous group who started to reintroduce old forgotten tunes and dances. At this time there were two generations of diatonists, the elders being more than 60 years old, people who used to play in villages. They usually had big and heavy 3 row Hohners. The second generation was young, like me at this time, people of the revival movement. We did not have a lot of relationships with these old players as their style and repertoire were not really the same. Most of them (in my regions, Normandy and Alsace at least) played musette style or songs of the beginning of 20th century. We, the youngest, were much more interested by older  musics, collected in the 19th century for most of them. We were very few diatonists at this time, maybe less than five in Alsace and a few tens in France.
What was your repertoire at the time?
Sylvain, the blur in the middle, leads the dance
The first tunes I tried to play were from Centre France and Alsace. As I said before, it took me a short time to begin to play, but a long time to play correctly! That is a strong point of this instrument: you can get a result rather fast, faster than with violin or bagpipe or hurdy-gurdy. Even so, you have to work a lot to get a good feeling, a right tempo, a light bellow squeeze, a soft touch, in one word: a good sound! 
As my technique on accordion was improving I began to play with Heidi (my wife at this time) who is a good violinist. We began to play at friends’ parties, and also in the pedestrian streets of Strasbourg, with Pascal, a friend violinist as well. I enjoyed a lot to play like that and to, sometimes, make people dance in the streets. We played mainly Massif Central, Alsace and Breton and Irish tunes but our choices were based on music and not on dance at this time.
Dance is central to what you do, now.  When did you start focusing on that?
Sylvain Piron and Charles Gonfalone, back in the day.
In the late 80s I began to play from time to time in small bals organized by the school of my children. But it remained a bit confidential and not really open to public. In the late 90s I founded a group with two friends, Raymond Frank and Charles Gonfalone, the group was named “les Abandonnés” in double reference to a Cajun song by Moïse Robin and to the fact that we were all alone, “abandonnés,” without any girl friends around us at this time. My involvement in music for dancing increased a lot when I met Catherine, and when we started a dance workshop ten years ago. In fact, I started to lead the bal in a more official way at that time, rather late in my practice of accordion.
Sylvain with Raymond Frank, in Alsace

My attraction for traditional music and dances was in fact very old. When I was about 15, we founded in my village in Normandy, a group to do folkloric regional dances. It was for showing on stage, not for the bal. But that experience was very positive, and I discovered the richness of our heritage. That probably influenced me in the choices I made later.

You mentioned other players around at the time. Who were your primary influences?
Perlinpinpin Folk, with Marc Perrone.
When I started to play accordion Marc Perrone became rapidly a reference for me. He was at the origin of the diato revival and his style fascinated me: light, délicate, subtle, fits to the dance, not too fast, with a very sensitive touch. The result is a very expressive music which drives you in a delicious mood. Marc’s play is transparent, and his personality is that of a very generous man and musician. Very few musicians have this generosity, a fundamental quality for a musician.
Marc often tells the funny story of having gone in the 70s to Paul Beuscher music shop in Paris (close to Place de la Bastille), and, having asked — “What is this instrument on the top of the shelf?” — he was told, “Accordéon diatonique, but nobody knows how it is played.” Marc tried and immediately bought it and learned it within a few days.
I had a similar experience around eight years after in the same shop — this would be the end of the 70s. I went there to buy my own accordion after having started on my wife’s. Eight years later, diatonic was still not known … The guy in the shop was surprised by my interest for that thing. There was only one choice: a Pier Maria in D/G. I was not aware of tonality differences at this time. I bought it, 2000 francs ($400). Back home I saw that its tonality was totally different than Heidi’s one in C/F actually.  The Pier Maria stayed again for a while on shelf … It is several years later, as I was more familiar with singing and playing, that I discovered that D/G tonality was very suitable for my voice.
Part Two is here! Part Three is here! To read more about my 2004 visit with Sylvain Piron and his family in Alsace, go here.

My Trip to Alsace (Part Three)

Part One

In 2004, my wife, Bethany, and I were given the gift of a trip to Alsace, France, to visit my accordion teacher, Sylvain Piron, his wife, storyteller Catherine Piron-Paira, and their family. I wrote the following shortly after the trip. It appeared some time later in Wolf Moon Journal, a local Maine literary magazine. I present it here in installments over the next few months.

Sylvain Piron, J’ai un noveau chapeau, MP3

(This tune plays a part in the story a few paragraphs down, but I thought I’d include it here because it’s just that good.)

Accordion besotted simpleton (me).
Charlie playing stage left.  Bethany
in cantaloupe sweater in back.

Sylvain and Catherine threw a party for us on the third night of our trip. Not just a small gathering, but a grand fête held in the community center of Steinbourg. After the birthday parties of our youth, very few of us have the experience of having a party thrown in our honor. Not that this crowd really needed an excuse to party, but when we walked into the hall and saw the vast banner with the words, “Welcome to Gary and Bethanie,” stretching across the entire length of the stage, we were speechless. Would it be possible to feel more welcome?

“We’re in Alsace, about to play Alsatian music with Alsatian friends.” The happy mantra of an accordion-besotted simpleton. Sylvain seemed nervous, not knowing how many people would show up. Throwing parties is an anxious business on any continent. Folk dancers and musicians are notoriously tardy people. It was Tuesday, a workday. Sylvain wasn’t sure how well he had publicized the event amongst the music community. Yes, the meal was a potluck, but how much beer and wine should he buy?
A good amount, it seems. Throw a party, they will come. And they will bring wonderful food, and they will be prepared to dance and drink. They will also be thrilled to try out their English on you, and–in the age of Bush and the Iraq war–discuss politics and art. Many came from Sylvain and Catherine’s monthly dance group. They knew the tunes and dances in a way that few American crowds–even contra-dance aficionados–would have. After eating, a group of five or so musicians drifted to the far corner. Gilles, the guitarist, tuned up. Marie, Sylvain’s daughter, assembled her flute. The accordionists noodled. We don’t need to tune. 
An agglomeration of accordionists, with François and
Dani on fiddles

In came Charlie, an accordionist, still dressed for work. Then François, a lanky and excellent fiddler arrived. Cedric, a charismatic accordionist who’d learned from Sylvain, came and shook the hand of every musician in the room. This was the first time I’d participated in this particularly French gesture which, to me, says, “We’re in this together.” Danielle, another accordionist, was introduced to me as an English teacher. I had one of those moments in my mind and blurted our, “You’re kidding!” Not because I didn’t believe her, but because it occurred to me that an English teacher in Alsace is a very different thing from an English teacher in the States. Yes, I know it’s obvious, but the fact of that difference delighted me.

After two hours, the crowd achieved its number. Sixty to eighty people. Twenty musicians, ten of them accordionists. It made me wonder: if sheep come in herds, ravens in murders, and Mongols in hordes, what do accordionists come in? Are we merely a “band”? (We few, we happy few …) What is our unit of agglomeration?
Even though I’d spent years learning tunes from Sylvain, I found I didn’t know half of what was being played. Of course, this means that I did know half of what was being played, and that fact was a comforting gem of amazement. Sylvain regularly turned to me, asking me to start a tune. It struck me that, even playing tunes that I’d known for years, my fingers were being guided by the musicians around me. Very subtle issues of tempo or touch–which I had struggled with back home–were settled merely by my being in a room with the accordionists who belonged to these tunes. French accordion music was not an obscure passion for them. It belonged to them, and they to it. They were at home, and standing next to them, I learned, musically how to get home.
An English country dance in France
Photo by Martine Lutz

At various points through the evening I found myself fixating on my wife. Bethany had been a bit anxious about dancing, not cowardly as I was, but nervous. The week had been filled with dance of the most charming sort. Catherine took Bethany under her wing, teaching Bethany to waltz and mazurka while Sylvain and I played. Catherine was an excellent teacher, intuitive and kind. Bethany was an excellent student, grateful and willing. The two of them were a delight to watch. Bethany shimmered as if she were the object of a love song. She looked beautiful, happy, and fluid. Through the Breton circle dances, the an dro and hanter dro and the English country dances, mazurkas, scottishes, and waltzes, I was proud of her in a very lusty way.

Sylvain Piron, J’ai un noveau chapeau, MP3

“J’ai un noveau chapeau …”
Photo by Martine Lutz

Later in the evening I started a tune. “J’ai un noveau chapeau” was written by Sylvain, and it was well loved. As soon as they heard the first notes, the crowd flew into action. The size of the dance circle doubled, musicians, who had been milling about, ran over to get their instruments to get a a piece of the action. Sylvain walked over to the circle, beckoning us in. Charlie, Cedric, François, and I followed. The circle opened, and we stepped into the middle. It was an embrace, the dancers and the musicians. Sylvain sang the first line, “J’ai un noveau chapeau …” and the entire room took up the song. Fifty people, it must have been, singing together, with Sylvain at the center. Catherine led the dance, but no one needed to be led, really. The very simple Breton rhythm, the simple steps, Sylvain’s funny lyric, his voice, his tune, his accordion. It wasn’t louder than the ten other accordions playing, but it was certainly more central.

I looked at Sylvain. I looked at Catherine, his fiancé. Cedric,his student. The dancers. Their friends. Their children. Bethany dancing! And myself — was everyone happy?

(Sylvain Piron’s CDs are available for FREE DOWNLOAD at his website, Tradfrance.)