By Mary Winston Nicklin
I have a confession to make. I haven’t always loved the accordion. Sure, there was romance when my husband Pierre once played me an amateur tune in a Panama music shop, under the pretense of a purchase, when on touristy wanderings. Or when he met me at the Angers train station, after a transatlantic red-eye flight, with the instrument strung around his neck, surprising the morning commuters with quay-side songs. But during our two-year stint in Limoges, I lived in fear of the neighbors, possibly disgruntled, as Pierre eked out familiar folk songs on his diatonic accordion. They kindly hinted that he could take up lessons at the local music academy.
The accordion isn’t even a French instrument per se (its birthplace was Germany), but the accordion has long been a clichéd symbol of France. The classic postcard image: mustached, beret-clad gentlemen playing melodies on the bridges of Paris, the steps of Montmartre, or the city’s rumbling metro cars. Songs like Patrick Bruel’s rendition of Mon Amant de Saint Jean have become part of the country’s cultural lexicon.
Yet all of a sudden, in recent years, the Old World instrument has become decidedly cool—infiltrating pop and rock bands in France, like Têtes Raides and Sansévérino, and outside France as well: Beirut, Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, Green Day, the Gotan Project, the Counting Crows, to name a few. Like the food movement, the music world has witnessed a trend towards the local and traditional—celebrating roots. (Case in point: the popularity of the reality TV star and Breton singer, Nolwenn Leroy, who croons celtic ballads in her native dialect.) I also credit the blockbuster film Amélie for the accordion renaissance. When the film hit international movie theaters in 2001, the flick was a smashing success, and its accordion-dominated soundtrack by Yann Tiersen became a bestselling hit.
But my own awakening came later. One cloudless fall day in Limousin, I accompanied Pierre on a pilgrimage to Tulle, the unofficial accordion capital of France, for the annual “Nuits de Nacre” festival. We stopped to tour the famous Maugein accordion factory, home of the oldest brand in France and the only workshop where the entire accordion, except for the buttons, can be assembled in one place. Most of the pieces are crafted in France: the sculpted cover notes in Limousin, the porcelain pieces in Haute-Vienne, the tiny metal components in the Savoy. The process is long and painstakingly complicated: between 4,000 and 8,000 individual parts in a single accordion can require an assembly by hand of 200 hours. Only 600 accordions are produced each year, most customized for avid professional musicians. Witnessing these craftsmen at work, I realized that the accordion itself is a remarkable work of art.
That evening, festival crowds spilled into the streets. Stages popped up on street corners; impromptu performances took place on the footbridges spanning the river that traverses Tulle. And the concert halls were overflowing with fans. The theme was “Quand la femme porte les bretelles” (or “When the women wear the straps”) and I was awestruck by the gorgeous girls belting out the tunes, jamming on their accordions, single-handedly holding the crowd’s rapt attention. I witnessed a new wave of young musicians contributing to the accordion’s revival.“
Traditional music, like the accordion, mixes well with other instruments and new sounds. Today’s artists surf this wave, ride this trend; in a globalized world, there’s a need for roots as a benchmark,” says 27-year old Antoine Turpault, an award-winning accordionist from the Deux-Sèvres department who has played for 19 years.
This “new school” of accordion enthusiasts has resurrected the soulful, and very “Old School,” instrument...giving it new life.
Nuits de Nacre
The City of Tulle