Chateau d’Ars (Mr. Ryall’s Saturday)

Featuring guest blogger Chris Ryall

Over on, Euro-oriented melodeonista Chris Ryall has been posting reports of his own experience at Chateau d’Ars. He has graciously allowed me to post them here.

Saturday  woke up to intermittent heavy rain and when that cleared there was a massive column of cloud (looked about 2 miles up) moving rapidly NE to the south of the chateau. Seemed the jet stream was still up there  :-

Basically it was like that all day, so I considered and rejected going back up to Brittany, and set about the salon d’instruments.  The first surprise was that stall #1 “Castagnari” had no members of the family at all*! Tried their stuff and (as last year) really liked the 2 voice 3 row 18 bass Matris and Mas. These are very close to being copies of Guillard’s saphir and are nearly as expensive!  Bertrand was around the corner, ably assisted by daughter Clara. Picking up his melodeons  8)  well it felt like the song’s old “49er” .. kissing the little sister .. quite forgetting his

Castagnari :P  It was palpably better, for only a bit more (+ the 3 year wait). They are quite “without fault” (as one might expect from a self-confessed perfectionist solo maker)?

      Casta have made an innovation! The Matris had an extra (fenestrated) “box” in front of the usual grill at right end. You then get a “plane” of thin wood to slide  in/out from below. It’s a muffler. To me it was reminiscent of the  big plastic muffler I had to put on the bonnet of my 2CV in winter, to reduce air cooling. I have to say this completely changes the tone which then sounds .. “muffled” ::)  I personally kept it out,  but no doubt some people will adore the sound!  Interested melodeonistas can easily enough make their own experiment with some stiff cardboard and Blu Tack …. 

I  couldn’t find Saltarelle at all  ??? but discovered Loffet and co in a corner. I’d promised to look at some middle range instruments and gave his, and the corresponding Casta’s a bit of hammer. As last year I felt you’d pay about 10% less for the same quality of sound and ease of play. Bernard’s tone was also nicer to my ear – but then he’s a “tuner and fettler of reeds”, so that isn’t too surprising.  I do prefer Loffet’s “Italian made to own design” boxes to the ones now being constructed in Brittany. There may be a learning curve in play here, and again, others might feel very differently.  You really do have to try before you buy ;)

Hurdy-Gurdy design is very much in flux at the moment  – a lot of innovation even amongst the traditionalists! Several luthiers offer all electric gurdys. I thought these were really clever. As a gurdy buzzes anyway – the tone sounds OK!  The ampification then permits all sort of new  technique, in particular pizzicato play. I expect some on stage delights in the near future … here’s what Gregory Jolivet can achieve (solo, improvised) with such kit  :D  One model even had a wheel that slid along the shaft – engage or disengage the strings at will!

BTW: met with Aberystwyth based Dylan Cairns-Howarth who is a fiddler, but was incredibly fluent on electric gurdy :o “self taught off youtube”! This is one young talent to watch out  for. The lad’s pauvre papa Andy is gonna expend a fortune kitting him out with instruments!

There was very little in the way of sessions going on, most of what was seemed to be groups/friends. I locked the box in the boot (blessing the NHS card that got my car onto the camp field!) and “carefully” climbed the muddy slope onto the big dance floor. Moussaka hale from Marne/Vosges in the east, but do quite the most energetic Breton I’ve ever heard. Flavien Di Cintio was superb on his 3-row .. all over the place .. try this suite plinn! Dolly May … bopped all night again  :|glug

Dols, scatting with two English bagpipers

* St Chartier “rules” have always been that a luthier gets a stall,
  and free festival for him, family and a musician. Saltarelle(importer) and
  Maison d’Accordeon (shop) don’t “make” – but the latter always had
  2 family members to hand in earlier years! Hohner-France took much
  flak last year, and weren’t there this time.   We’ll see ..

A Brief History of French Accordion

The information in this post comes from some disreputable sources (liner notes and websites), and from conversations with musicians during my trip to Alsace. Any comments, corrections, or questions are welcome. In fact, I’m very aware of the gaps in my knowledge. I would love to know more.
Cabrette et Vielle

Most people, when they imagine French accordion music — if they imagine it — think of Parisian cafés, Edith Piaf, expatriate artists, and the time between the wars. That isn’t the music that’s captured my heart — though the two are related. The accordion music of rural France (musique traditionelle du centre France), centered in Auvergne and the Massif Central, was originally played by a duo of bagpipe (cabrette) and hurdy-gurdy (vielle à roue). Around one hundred and seventy years ago, the accordion was invented and adopted by many musicians of central France.  

This led to consternation and conflict. Flyers were posted asking dance organizers to refrain from hiring accordionists, as the accordion was only barely a musical instrument. “Help us drive out the accordions that are overwhelming our region,” wrote one bagpiper. “[Accordions],” he continued, “are good for little more than accompanying a dancing bear and are absolutely unworthy of limbering the legs of our delightful Cantal girls.” 
Unfortunately, the hurdy-gurdy and the pipes could, apparently, not compare in sweetness to the newfangled squeezing instrument. The hurdy-gurdy and pipes also suffered in comparison because they are notoriously difficult to keep in tune. The accordion, having steel reeds, stays in tune for years. It almost seems unnatural.
Enter the accordion!

Thus the accordion entered France, an invasive species, like so much wheezing cheatgrass. Then, during the last half of the 19th century, a wave of migrants traveled from Auvergne to Paris seeking opportunity.  Like black musicians in the American south moving north to Chicago, the Auvergnat formed their own communities and brought their music with them. Some things changed.

The accordionists formed into large bands and added a rhythm section (often including, yes, a banjo). They adopted the fleeter, more harmonically flexible, chromatic accordion, as opposed to the more limited (but, if I may, far more charming) diatonic accordion. They played music more swiftly and with more ornaments than ever before. The rural music they’d brought with them became florid, smokey, and urban. Still beautiful, but in a completely different way. This music, bal musette, became the Next Big Thing in Paris, and, once Edith Piaf emerged, provided the soundtrack for fifty years of Parisian life, legend, and cliché.
Jean Blanchard’s recording

of solo accordéon diatonique

But the original kernel continued to exist. As with much ethnic music, it seemed in danger of dying out until, in the 1960s and ‘70s, the same folk music wave that brought blues to the fore in Britain and the United States inspired artists such as Jean Blanchard, La Chavannée, and others. They combined all of the instruments of French dance music — accordion, pipes, hurdy gurdy, recorder, and violin, as well as voice — into bands, and looked at the bourrées, mazurkas, and waltzes in their simpler forms. The results were sublime.