First Tunes with the Baffetti

Videos down below!

The Dino Baffetti Tex-Mex II/34 arrived on Thursday! Very exciting! I had intended to do an internal examination of the box, a la Owen Woods or Daddy Long Les, but I found I couldn’t bear to take a screw driver to it, not even to remove the grill. I’m made of less stern stuff than that, it seems.

Instead, I’ve been playing the heck out of it. Here are some first thoughts:

  • Big one!  Playing a three row is different from playing two or two-and-a-half row or even two-row-plus-accidentals. Possibly this is obvious. The three row quint box can do different things that I don’t yet know how to do. New frontiers!
  • The two row repertoire works just fine on this one. Even if it is obvious that playing up-and-down the rows is not what it was built to do, everything I’ve been learning for the last 15 years is essentially transferable!
  • At melodeon.net there is a recurring discussion about stepped keyboards vs. flat keyboards. Playing a flat keyboard for the first time in years has made no difference to me.
  • Even though this is an F/Bb/Eb box (which is exactly what I was after) I’m choosing to name it as G/C/F and recognize that it’s a transposing instrument. All of the sheet music and tab is for G/C/F, so this seems simplest.
  • It sounds AMAZING. Essentially, as one colleague mentioned, it’s a clone of a Hohner Corona, done to a absurdly high level of quality. The sound is so very sweet. And the touch is effortless. I do have fond feelings for Hohner accordions, but this is a cut above.
  • I love it.
  • It is a little silly that with five rows of box to my name, I still don’t have a D row. What sort of psychological block am I dealing with? Is it PTSD from the Minneapolis Irish sessions?
Here are three videos with the Baffetti. The first is a hanter dro written by Sylvain Piron.

The second is another hanter dro, traditional, that I learned from Steve Gruverman.

The third is a Breton March, traditional, that I learned from the playing of Daniel Thonon.

L’intermittent

UPDATE: Gilles Péquignot of Au Gré des Vent has pointed me to their more current web site — Association Carnet de Bal. On that site, four of the group’s albums are available for streaming. They also have about twenty-five tunes available as sheet music.

Continuing my fascination with asymmetric tunes — and my fascination with the Alsatian duo Au Gré des Vents — I present one of their most infectious tunes. “L’intermittent” is the opening track of their album Fraxinelles. It’s a scottisch-marche-valse composed by Danyèle Besserer. Here’s their recording of the tune.

“L’intermittent” excerpt by Au Gre des Vents

And here’s a recording of my band, Le Bon Truc, performing same. As Gilles pointed out to me, we take the tune much more freely in this context. He calls it “Wagnerian,” which is fair. For dancers, of course, regularity is everything (all of the “ones” are an equal distance apart).

And for those who want to try such a thing for themselves, here are the dots for the tune, as transcribed by the inestimable Steve Gruverman.

Gilles Péquignot and Danyèle Besserer, with

Sylvain Piron in the tricorn hat.

BONUS Picture, sent to me by Mary Line, of the Journal d’Alsace. That’s the duo on the right, with Sylvain Piron in the tricorn hat.

Gratitude at 40,000 Hits

In the United States, the fourth thursday of November is Thanksgiving. I love this holiday and love having the opportunity to express my gratitude for the extraordinary blessings in my life, many of which center on the accordéon, its music, and its masters.

  • Speaking of masters, first on the list would have be my wife, who has been generally and genuinely supporting of my accordéon efforts during the course of our marriage. Just as one example, she did NOT send back the Castagnari Nik when it arrived in the post last February, when I was at work. Instead, she sent a picture on my phone, and called me up so I could hear how it sounded.
  • Thanks to the folks who have willingly discussed with me things accordéon related, including Frédéric Paris, Sylvain Piron, Dave Mallinson, Alexandra Brown, and, most recently, Andy Cutting.
  • Thanks to the friends of this blog — whether they know it or not — who have been willing to discuss issues with me as I developed posts.  Some have actually written stuff that I’ve published here. Thank you, Andy of Vermont, Chris Ryall, Geoff Wooff, Owen Woods, Steve Mansfield, Chuck Boody, et many al. Tom McDonald — despite being a non-accordéonist — has been a real help just on the blogging and inspiration front.
  • Thanks to melodeon.net! Not enough to be said about that friendly, squeeze congregation’s influence on my quality of life! Just today, a quorum from that parish helped talk me off the ledge over a reed that seemed to be going sour.
  • Thanks to everyone involved in the collective effort to bring the “La Bourrée” tune book out, a huge important task! The folks at concertina.net really stepped up for this one.
  • Thanks to my kids — Max, Brigid, Emma, Julia, and Sarah — who somehow think that it’s cool that their old man plays obscure accordéon music. They continue showing up to my gigs.
  • Thanks to Amy and Rob, at the Water St. Cafe, in Gardiner, who have given me a place to play regularly in the past few months, so that I could get my chops into shape.
  • Thanks to everyone who reads this blog. Having just crossed the 40,000 hits line, I have no idea, really, who you all are (the occasional comment would go a long way!) … and I monetize the blog in only a very minor way … but this blog was started because I wanted to talk about accordéons with people who wanted to listen to me talk about accordéons.  Thank you.

Sylvain Piron, Part Three


Sylvain Piron continues our conversation, discussing the current state of the tradFrench scene in Alsace.

Catherine and Sylvain

The trad scene in Alsace is currently quite busy. I remember the 80s and 90s were much more quiet. There was a bal from time to time. Nowadays every week-end offers at least one opportunity to dance. Public has changed as well and more and more young people are interesting in dancing. The facility offered by Internet has helped the organisers to disseminate information with no cost. In the same way, music groups have increased in number and quality, in the 80s there were only a few groups in Alsace. Now, Accrofolk has listed around 30 groups. This has been the same in all Fance.


Until end of 90s people interested were mainly those coming from the May 68 movement. A big difference since the 2000s is the involvement of young people in this music. Festivals have always been a big France, but they have increased a lot for the same reasons of growing interest.

There has been a movement towards multi-accordéon groups (see Pignol/Milleret, or Accordéon Samurai). Recently Piron joined with Raymond Frank, Flavien DiCinto, and Cédric Martin to form such a quartet.

In fact, we formed a 4-accordion group is just an idea we had with Cedric-Flavien, the 2 youngs, and Raymond-Sylvain, the two olds. The idea raised one day we were joking and playing together. In fact we noticed that young people have a tendency to play fast and punchy while older ones tend to calm and balance the tempi. We thought we could form a group where we play and joke about these differences. Here is a video of the group in action:





Of course, I know Piron best as a teacher, and others have talked about the guidance he’s given. He’s not entirely comfortable with that. 

I do not feel like an accordion teacher. I just give advice to beginners and take action to encourage them, but I miss two major qualities for a teacher: pedagogy and technicality. My accordion technique is not to be imitated because I have a lot of bad habits. Again it is the sound which interests me, not the way you produce it. Nevertheless, I like to gather people for playing together and share that music. 

What did Piron think when this American aficionado — that’s me — e-mailed him back in 1998?

I am very proud when you say I was your teacher, but I feel a bit usurping because you where actually your own teacher, I just gave my opinion on what I heard and felt from from your recordings. When you showed up in 1998, I was very happy that my small music home page was something interesting for at lest one American! Thanks to you, I discovered later that a lot of American people where involved in these European traditional musics and that through that practice I had a lot of potential friends in the States.

We very often think here that Americans are only fascinated by themselves and their own existence and way of life. The fact that a young guy, lost somewhere in Maine, was attracted by my music was really a great pleasure and surprise in the same time, a sort of miracle thanks to the web! I am a bit joking but not far from reality of my feelings at that time.
 

What does Piron think of the future of tradFrench music?

About future of trad French music, I would like it to remain a practice linked to dance more than to market! That means to keep the spirit of it away from commercial purposes. On one hand it is fair that professional musicians can live decently from their art but on the other I do not wish that this music become fashionable and loses its roots and fundamental role: to make people experience the great value of sharing dances, songs and musics.

Sylvain Piron, Continued

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Part Two (see Part One and Part Three)
Sylvain Piron continues his conversation as it ranges over a number of topics: instruments, song, and Alsace. 

At the end of Part One, Piron was playing inexpensive button boxes. When I met him in 1998, he had a wonderful 2.5 row Salterelle. The new instrument made a difference.


Piron with Benny
About instruments: getting the Saltarelle Pastourelle III was really a big step for my playing. It was the first accordion of quality I ever touched, with a large range of possibilities of sound and notes. I should have bought such instruments much before 1995. When beginners ask me for advice about buying an diatonic I would always advise a good quality instrument, even if a bit more expensive, you will immediately get good sensations which is incentive for improving. And if at the end of the day, the accordion is not for you, you will always resell it better.

When my wife and I visited Piron and Catherine in 2004, Sylvain had three Castagnari accordions, a Benny (tuned G/C/acc) and a Tommy (D/G) and a Giordy (G/C).

Chapin with the Salterelle, Piron with the Giordy, daughter Marie on flute
I am a Castagnari man! Yes! The first reason is the sound, the second the weight of the Benny, Tommy (and Giordy!). I like the sound of these accordions and their flexibility, their very light weight helps to get punchy attacks of the notes and allow you to use a lot push and pull which is the strength of diatonics.

He also plays many other instruments.

I am interested in the sound, and not so much in speed and virtuosity (too late for virtuosity for me anyway!). Catherine has the same approach and that leads us to buy new instruments just for their capacity to bring a special atmosphere by their sound. I use flutes, bagpipe, nickelharpa, épinette des Vosges, ocarinas. Catherine uses flutes, psalter, shruti box and tried hurdy-gurdy as well. 
Sylvain and Catherine with Nickelharpa and Psaltry
I must say again that sound makes my interest in these instruments. I do not master them at all. I just try to play very simple things that sound, that is the trick, when I touch a new instrument I am searching a good sound before trying to play a tune on it. I strongly think that to produce one nice note which sounds is much more effective than hundreds of notes poor and not in place.
Song is a central part of Piron’s music — hear Sylvain’s recordings, here. When did Piron begin matching music and song?

Music and song are intimately bound for me. It’s true that in France a lot of traditional dance musics are with words, and in Brittany and Centre France a lot are chansons à répondre, where a leader first sings and people repeat afterwards. Catherine and I like very much these sort of songs for dance, and we often use them in bal and workshop. It brings a special atmosphere of sharing music with dancers.
I started to sing with accordion very early as I considered these two components not to be split. At the beginning it is a bit difficult to play right hand, left hand, and sing at the same time. It took me a good amount of time to coordinate these 3 aspects. I still have big difficulties to play a second voice on right hand while I am singing the first voice. The tune must be very simple for succeeding in that exercise!
If I remember well, I managed to sing with accordion by starting to hum with my right hand, the same melody, no words, and progressively I added words and finally basses. For me, voice remains the royal musical instrument. I am much more relaxed with my voice than with my accordion. So much that if I make a mistake with accordion — it occurs very often! — I cover the sound with my voice. It is a trick I use very often. I told you once that to give more energy to dancers I like to suppress bass and keep only melody of the accordion, there is a trick which gives even more energy: to keep only singing and suppress totally the accordion.
Now, Piron is very strongly associated with Alsace, but he originally came from Normandy. How did he develop his connection with the eastern region?

Sylvain 1960
I was born in Normandy and lived there until the age of 20. I next went to Paris for my studies and began to work there. It is a job opportunity which moved me to Strasbourg in Alsace in 1976. I did not play accordion at this time, just flute and a little guitar. I discovered step by step the rich heritage of Alsace, its dialect first of all. In the 70’s there were still a lot of people who spoke Alsatian and you where first addressed in Alsatian in most of the shops, even in cities. It was fascinating for me, coming from the “inner France” where centralization had done its job for ages eradicating the local jargons. Alsatian language was very alive and spread. This is unfortunately no more the case now, even if a lot of people still speak and write in Alsatian. 
I also discovered the regional music and dances, thanks to groups like Folk de la rue des dentelles, Geranium, and individuals like René Eglès and Jean-Pierre Hubert. I must say a word on Jean-Pierre Hubert. He was a science-fiction writer and a traditional music and dance fan (funny association!). I was playing accordion for a few months and he was himself playing for a few years already when we met and quickly became friends. I learnt a lot of tunes from him. He was one of my models even if he was not my teacher. His way to consider tradition as a living heritage, open to others and not closed on itself influenced me a lot. The fact that he was born in ’41 in Alsace during the Second World War, the fact that he lived in Wissembourg, very close to German border, made him a man of dialog between people and cultures.

Sylvain with Roland Engel at Summerlied music festival in Alsace
Another thing surprised me at this time: what people considered as traditional music in Alsace was made of German music played by brass and reed bands! It was German music, not Alsatian music! The really old musics had been forgotten by the several layers of successive German occupations. The work of Folk de la rue des dentelles, Geranium, and others was to make those old tunes live again. And the pity was that there were not a lot of tunes remaining in the archives and in people memories, compared to the heritage left by other regions. A few dances remained as well. Nowadays thanks to creative people this heritage has been enriched by more recent compositions in music and in dance. What I like much in this repertoire are the collective dances and the 5 or 8 or 11 meter tunes.

In August, Sylvain and Catherine joined their friend Roland Engel at the Summerlied festival in Alsace. Does the traditional music have a following in Alsace?

The concert we gave on 15th August was in the frame of a music festival. The organizers wanted to promote traditional songs and musics and we were very happy to do that, but I must say that these musics are not as popular as rock, pop or even american country music… The festival is strongly supported by the Region of Alsace and other regional institutions. There is a clear political will to promote local creativity and exchange with the German neighbour regions.

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?

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Hohner 2915, Pokerwork

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?
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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 5 in Alsace and a few tens in France.
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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.
 

An Interview with Frédéric Paris

en Français

As I have written, Frédéric Paris has been at the center of my accordion world for over a decade. After the piece I wrote about him in March, he graciously agreed to answer a few questions. Thanks to Alex MacGregor and Sylvain Piron for help in translating. Thanks, especially, to Frédéric Paris.
____________________

Q: How did you begin your involvement in music?

  Carnet de Bal… Frédéric and Castagnari

A: I was 11 when I started playing the hurdy-gurdy in 1968. I tried an instrument that was at my grandmother’s and I liked it. I continued alone, and then I took a few courses where I met other kids like me, playing hurdy-gurdy.

Q: How did the Chavannée get started? 

A: Chavannée was founded in 1969 by my father who was the village teacher. He introduced his students and other young people from surrounding villages to the arts and popular traditions of Bourbonnais, our region in the center of France. Soon, we met the older musicians and singers of the region and we have since been researching the minstrels, instruments, repertoires, dances …

Q: Someone told me, “There is no such thing as French Traditional Music. There is Bourbonaisse music, Alsatian music, Limousin, etc…” It’s difficult from a distance to understand these regional differences. Do you think there is such a category as “Traditional French Music?” Do you think it is possible for me to understand “French Traditional Music” without a thorough knowledge of regional differences?

A: Yes, there are regional differences, but traditional French music does exist — through its atmosphere, melodic themes, its songs, the dance rhythms … Local or regional particularities exist, but they should not hide a real unity of the French-speaking area.

Fréderic Paris’s other great accordion recording:
Rue de l’oiseau

Q: Some of the music you play is very traditional (Carnet de Bal) and some is “traditional music of the future” (De L’eau Et Des Amandes) – how are they connected to you?

A: These records correspond to very different periods of my life. Carnet de Bal is my first solo production from 1984, I was 27! I wanted to share a little known repertoire, suitable for the diatonic accordion and playable by most musicians. De L’eau Et Des Amandes is much later (1995). Most arrangements are by Gilles Chabenat, and I took advantage of the flexibility and the volubility of the clarinet.

Q: You play many musical instruments. How did you start playing the accordion? 

A: I started the accordion at the time of revival of this instrument [in the 1970s] , under the influence of musicians such as Marc Perrone, Jean Blanchard … I met with traditional musicians in central France. I also adapted the repertoires from other instruments (clarinet, fiddle, cornet …)

Q: What role do you think the accordion has in traditional French music? In relation to hurdy-gurdy and cornemuse?

A: The accordion brings harmony, it can support or lead. Its attack brings energy to an instrumental group. This is a very flexible instrument.

Q: I noticed that you play a lot of accordions by Castagnari, and I’ve only ever seen you play the accordion in two rows. Can you tell me why Castagnari accordions? Why not three-row or two and a half? In other words: Why do you play the accordions you play?

A: I tried several kinds of accordions: 1 row, 2 rows 3 rows. The model I prefer is the “2-row 8 bass.” I love its intuitive, energetic light. Limitations make it necessary to seek solutions to diversify one’s playing. Castagnari is very reliable. They are instruments of good quality and I work with a very professional dealer-tuner (Jean-Pierre Leray in Rennes). What more? I use 3 diatos: one in sol-do (GC), one in a do-fa (CF) and one in re-sol (DG), all in “8-bass, 2-rows.” With these three accordions, I have almost all the tones I need.

Q: In the U.S., Carnet de Bal is an icon for accordion. I bought a cassette of Carnet de Bal in 1999 and I played it until it dissolved. This is a beautiful, clear statement of what the accordion can be. Can you talk about this? Is there a chance to do a reissue on CD?

La Chavanée, including, Frédéric and far too many hurdy gurdies.
I’m kidding! I’m kidding!

A: Some pieces recorded on Carnet de Bal have become “standards” for accordion players and I am very happy about that. At that time – 1984 – I adapted the repertoire of clarinet, cornet, hurdy-gurdy and unreleased songs collected in Bourbonnais (in the department of Allier). I added an accompaniment of clarinet (which I had played for a short time) a little voice and the vielle of Patrick Bouffard. The CD reissue has been requested for a long time. I should take care of this seriously …

Q: Here is a very specific question: What are you doing with your left hand in bourrées, 2 and 3 beat? It is a very important issue for accordionists in the United States! How should you play bass and chords for bourrées?

A: While playing 2-beat bourrées, I prefer to play long notes in the left hand, alternating chords (no third) and basses, like drones. I am inspired by the harmonium, which I have played since adolescence. Otherwise, bourrées sound like polkas and it’s a shame. I find it important to preserve the uniqueness of the 2-beat bourrée. The melodies have “horizontal” aspects. They must be left to unfold like songs, a capella, without chopping the left hand. Contrariwise, the playing in the right hand is at the same time bound and fast with ornaments, like the hurdy-gurdy. For 3-beat bourrées, the left hand accompanies with more traditional “bass – chord – chord,” but occasionally, I break this pattern with odd rhythmic combinations. It’s a bit complicated to explain, it would be easier with an accordion! I also sometimes get the effect of “drone” as in the 2-beat bourrée.

Q: Each disc of Chavanée is very different, how do you decide what will be done for each?

A: For many years, I choose themes for the records: the river, dance, Christmas … It gives me different ideas for arrangements. I let myself be carried away by the lyrics (the traditional repertoire consists largely of vocal music). Each song tells a story. Otherwise, I work with musicians I’ve known for a long time. This is important.

Q: Finally, is there a chance that you and Chavanée visit America in the future?

A: Why not? We are open to any suggestions!

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Une entrevue avec Frédéric Paris

in English

Comme je l’ai écritFrédéric Paris a été au centre de ma « planète accordéon » depuis plus d’une décennie. Monsieur Paris a fort gentiment accepté de répondre à quelques questions. Merci à Alex MacGregor et Sylvain Piron  pour l’aide à la traduction. Et merci, surtout à Frédéric Paris.
____________________

Carnet de Bal: Frédéric et Castagnari

Q: Monsieur Paris, comment avez-vous commencé la musique?

A: J’avais 11 ans quand j’ai commencé à jouer de la vielle-à-roue, en 1968. J’ai essayé un instrument qui était chez ma grand-mère et ça m’a plu. J’ai continué seul, puis j’ai suivi quelques stages où j’ai rencontré d’autres jeunes vielleux comme moi.

Q: Comment La Chavanée a-t-elle commencé? 

A: La Chavannée a été créée en 1969 par mon père qui était l’instituteur du village. Il a initié ses élèves et d’autres jeunes des villages alentour aux arts et traditions populaires du Bourbonnais, notre région située au centre de la France. Très vite, nous avons rencontré les “anciens” du pays et nous avons fait des recherches sur les ménétriers, les instruments, les répertoires, les danses…

Q: Récemment, j’ai écrit un article sur la «Musique Traditionelle Française» mais quelqu’un m’a dit, «Il n’y a pas vraiment de musique traditionelle française. Il y a musique bourbonnaise, la musique alsacienne, la musique du Limousin, etc… » Un américain comme moi a du mal à comprendre ces différences régionales. Pensez-vous qu’on peut parler de «Musique Traditionelle Française»? Pensez-vous qu’il est possible pour moi de comprendre «Musique Traditionelle Française» sans avoir une connaissance approfondie des différences régionales? 

A: I Il existe des différences régionales, mais la musique traditionnelle française existe bel et bien à travers ses climats mélodiques, les thèmes de ses chansons, les rythmes de danses… Les particularismes locaux ou régionaux existent, mais ils ne doivent pas cacher une réelle unité du domaine francophone.

Q: Certains airs de votre répertoire sont très traditionnels (Carnet de Bal) tandis que d’autres peuvent être qualifiés de «musique traditionnelle du futur» (De L’eau Et Des Amandes) – Qu’est-ce qui les relie selon vous?

A: Ces enregistrements correspondent à des périodes très différentes de ma vie. Carnet de Bal est ma première production en solo, c’était en 1984, j’avais 27 ans ! J’ai voulu faire connaître un répertoire méconnu, adapté pour l’accordéon diatonique et jouable par la plupart des musiciens. De L’eau Et Des Amandes est beaucoup plus tardif (1995). La plupart des arrangements sont de Gilles Chabenat et j’ai mis à profit la souplesse et la volubilité de la clarinette dont je joue depuis assez longtemps.

Q: Vous jouez beaucoup d’instruments différents. Comment avez-vous commencé à jouer de l’accordéon?

A: J’ai commencé l’accordéon à l’époque du renouveau de cet instrument, sous l’influence de musiciens comme Marc Perrone, Jean Blanchard… J’ai aussi rencontré des musiciens traditionnels dans le centre de la France. J’ai aussi adapté des répertoires venant d’autres instruments (clarinette, vielle, cornet à pistons …)

Q: Quelle place tient l’accordéon dans la musique traditionnelle française, en comparaison de la vielle à roue et de la cornemuse? 


A: L’accordéon apporte l’harmonie, il peut accompagner ou “mener”. Ses attaques donnent de la nervosité au sein d’une formation musicale. C’est un instrument très souple.

Q: J’ai remarqué que vous jouez beaucoup sur les accordéons Castagnari, en particuluer des accordéons à deux rangées. Pouvez-vous me dire pourquoi Castagnari et pourquoi pas les accordéons à trois rangées ou à deux rangées et demie? En d’autres termes: Comment choisissez-vous vos accordéons?

Musique en Bourbonnais.
Au centre Frédéric Paris.

A: J’ai essayé plusieurs sortes d’accordéons : 1 rang, 2 rangs, 3 rangs. Le modèle que je préfère, c’est le “2 rangs 8 basses”. J’aime son côté intuitif, nerveux, léger. Ses limites obligent à chercher des solutions pour diversifier son jeu. La marque Castagnari est très fiable, ce sont des instruments de bonne qualité et je travaille avec un revendeur-accordeur très professionnel (Jean-Pierre Leray à Rennes). Que demander de plus ? J’utilise 3 diatos: un en sol-do (G-C), un en do-fa (C-F) et un autre en ré-sol (D-G), tous en “2 rangs 8 basses”. Avec ces trois accordéons, j’ai à peu près toutes les tonalités dont j’ai besoin.

Q: Aux Etats-Unis, Carnet de Bal est un ouvrage de référence pour les accordéonistes. J’ai acheté une cassette de Carnet de Bal en 1999 et je l’ai passée jusqu’à ne plus pouvoir la lire. C’est une belle et claire démonstration de ce que l’accordéon peut être. Pouvez-vous nous parler de ce disque? Y at-il une chance de voir un jour une réédition sur CD? 

A: Certains airs enregistrés sur Carnet de Bal sont devenus des “standards” pour les joueurs d’accordéon diatonique et j’en suis très heureux. A l’époque – 1984 – j’ai adapté du répertoire pour clarinette, cornet à pistons, vielle-à-roue et des chansons inédites recueillies en Bourbonnais (département de l’Allier). J’ai ajouté un accompagnement de clarinette dont je jouais depuis peu de temps, un peu de voix et la vielle de Patrick Bouffard. La réédition sur CD est demandée depuis longtemps, il faudrait que je m’en occupe sérieusement…

Q: Voici une question très précise: Que faites-vous avec votre main gauche sur les bourrées, 2 temps et 3 temps? C’est une question très importante pour nous accordéonistes aux États-Unis! Comment faut-il jouer les basses et les accords pour les bourrées?

A: Pour les bourrées à 2 temps, je préfère jouer des notes longues à la main gauche, en alternant les accords (sans tierces) et les basses, un peu comme des bourdons. Je m’inspire de l’harmonium dont je joue depuis l’adolescence. Sinon, les bourrées ressemblent à des polkas et c’est dommage. Je trouve important de préserver la spécificité des bourrées à 2 temps, les mélodies ont un aspect “horizontal”, il faut les laisser se déployer comme des chansons a capella, sans les hacher à la main gauche. Par contre, le jeu à la main droite est à la fois lié et avec des ornements très rapides, comme sur la vielle-à-roue. Pour les bourrées à 3 temps, la main gauche accompagne de façon plus classique “basse – accord – accord”, mais de temps en temps, je brise cette régularité par des combinaisons rythmiques faussement impaires. C’est un peu compliqué à expliquer, ce serait plus facile avec un accordéon ! J’utilise aussi parfois l’effet “bourdon” comme dans les bourrées à 2 temps.


Q: Chaque disque de La Chavanée est très différente, comment décidez-vous ce qui sera fait pour chaque disque?

A: Depuis de nombreuses années, je choisis des thèmes pour les enregistrements : la rivière, la danse, Noël… Cela me donne des idées différentes pour les arrangements. Je me laisse porter par les textes des chansons (le répertoire traditionnel est composé en grande partie de musique vocale). Chaque chant raconte une histoire dont je m’imprègne. Pour le reste, je travaille avec des musiciens que je connais depuis longtemps. C’est important.

Q: Enfin, y at-il une chance que vous et La Chavanée viennent visiter l’Amérique dans le futur?

A: Pourquoi pas? Nous sommes ouverts à toute proposition!

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Last Night in Alsace (Part Five)

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four

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. Sadly, we were having such a good time on this last night that no photos were taken!


UPDATE: Just after posting this, Sylvain let me know that Catherine’s uncle, Jacques, had taken pictures and sent them along to me. This was the first I knew of them. Amazing.

L’Auberge des 3 Frères



There is a fairy tale element to every vacation – just the exemption from work is a granted wish – but Alsace, accordions, wine, friends and dance has been especially fantastic. The transition from magic to mundane was long. The morning after the last great night. A five hour drive in a rented car, culminating with the particularly hideous Charles de Gaulle airport. The crankiness we felt. The trip back home through the wardrobe is always grayer than the trip out. The night before we’d said our tearful goodbyes to Sylvain, Catherine, and their children. We’d left the Auberge with the dancers still going.

The night before. The last night of our stay. The Salterelle has become very comfortable under my fingers. I play it almost exclusively, and am pleased that it seems happy with me. The tunes feel more natural, my playing more relaxed and commanding. The effortlessness of its touch has built up for me over the week, an accumulating ease. The effects of the wine, similarly, have accumulated over the week, and although I’m not complaining, I know that a monster of a hangover is somewhere in my future.

Food, dance, drink, family at the Auberge.

Sylvain arranged this gig for us at a Marmoutier eatery, L’Auberge des Trois Frères. According to Sylvain, it was a new concept for the area: a restaurant built in a converted barn, with long tables and rustic decorations hanging on the walls. The owner is worried about the success of the venture and is very happy to have us there. He shows his gratitude throughout the night by providing a wide range of drinking options.

Our party includes Sylvain, Catherine, the five kids, Bethany and myself, Catherine’s father, uncle, and aunt. François, the fiddler, soon joins us along with a student of his, Daniel. They rosin their bows and tune as we give the orders for the main course.

“What shall we play, Gary?” asks Sylvain.

What shall we play, Gary?

I begin Bourrée des Gars, one of the first three-beat bourrées I’d ever learned. Very simple and very major-key. Not a lot of mystery, but a lot of drive. Easy. I’m nervous and hedging my bets and smart to do so. The flop sweat comes in buckets. This happens to me in every performance. The first ten minutes are murder, but I’ve come to learn that the adrenaline surge passes quickly. The twitching dread is replaced by a lovely, arrogant fatalism. It’s a risk, I know, but it’s my idea of a good time.

And the crowd’s, too! They’re flying!

“The bourrée is a crazy dance,” said Daniel Thonon. It’s as old as the Renaissance, and probably older, and was a form used by baroque composers in their dance suites. For centuries, then, the bourrée has been whipping otherwise respectable folks into a frenzy. Thus at the Auberge.

Sylvain and François.

The dancers are up and moving. Somewhere, amid the tables, serving staff, wooden pillars, musicians, and patrons, they find the space to do the facing, turning, and kicking required. After the bourrée we do a waltze, a fast one I wrote some years ago. Sylvain puts down his accordion and dances with Catherine. This is unimaginably charming and fills me with a warmth that won’t disappear until we get to Charles de Gaulle.

Many of the people there are friends of Sylvain and Catherine, but most are not. Sylvain sings a number of Alsatian songs. The crowd sings along affectionately and unselfconsciously. It was as if an American crowd were singing “Home on the Range,” and genuinely getting behind the sentiment of the song. It seems foreign to me, and desirable, though I’m probably romanticizing. I hear them expressing their home in the music. They are at home in the music, and they are inviting Bethany and me into their home. She dances. I play. Wine is placed before us, and then more exotic intoxicants. Is it absynth? Sylvain talks, between tunes, about how we’d come all the way from Maine in the United States to play Alsatian music. The Alsatians are very please, almost flattered.

We play for hours. The room gets happier and happier.

Everyone dances!

A short, fat guy gets up to dance. He is a caricature of joyous energy, something out of a Peter Mayle book – or the BBC adaptation of one. Yes, he’s drunk, but he dances through the night, asking one woman after another. They all agree. He asks Bethany. Bethany agrees. When he runs out of women to ask, he asks a bearded gentleman. They waltz until it’s time to do the spin. They can’t decide who will “be the girl!” Brilliant! I start a polka, Polka de l’Averyron, and immediately – within three notes – someone begins pounding the table in rhythm. Holy cow! They drive me on. Sylvain and François join in, and Daniel, and we circle the room. Everyone who is dancing dances. Bethany dances. The short, fat guy. The bearded gentleman. Catherine. Marie. A woman in a wheelchair shouts – I kid you not – “Vive l’Americain!”

This, two days after the other great moment of my life, is one of the great moments of my life.