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The accordion : a musical instrument that knows no borders

There was a need in the ear­ly 19th cen­tu­ry to invent a new musi­cal ins­tru­ment that imi­ta­ted the human voice. The wea­ke­ning of the nobi­li­ty in Europe and the emer­gence of a power­ful bour­geoi­sie in the middle of the Roman­tic per­iod influen­ced both the arts and music.

Ins­tru­ment makers and scien­tists all over Europe star­ted trying to make this new and revo­lu­tio­na­ry musi­cal ins­tru­ment, first­ly using strings and reeds made sim­ply from reeds, before dou­bling them and even­tual­ly trying pipes like those used in organs, but nothing see­med close enough to the voice.

Chi­nese ins­tru­ments that pro­du­ced music using a “free metal reed” then sprang to mind.

These had been dis­co­ve­red by two Jesuits, the first in his Trai­té d’harmonie Uni­ver­selle [Trea­ty of Uni­ver­sal Har­mo­ny] (1636), and in par­ti­cu­lar by Père Amiot, who had set out to evan­ge­lise “savages” in Chi­na and fal­len under the spell of the ancient culture of the Middle Empire. He publi­shed a book, Mémoires sur la musique des chi­nois tant anciens que modernes [Memoirs of Chi­nese Music Ancient and Modern] (1779) and sent two exqui­si­te­ly made shengs, mouth organs, to his French patron.


Laos also has its own varie­ty of “mouth organ”, the khen.

Bou­seung Syna­none Lao­tian khen

This was remem­be­red 150 years later amid a real rush to make an expres­sive ins­tru­ment. A great many musi­cal inven­tions came into being and dozens of patents were filed. The most suc­cess­ful was that of a Vien­nese pia­no maker ori­gi­nal­ly from Arme­nia, who filed a patent for an “accor­dion” in 1829.

The long-awai­ted ins­tru­ment had final­ly arri­ved ! It was to be in Paris – under the defi­ni­tive name accor­dion – that this ins­tru­ment took off, with its so-cal­led roman­tic ver­sion in the hands of a great “pries­tess”, Louise Reis­ner, who, until the 1870s, played her accor­dion in salons across the French capi­tal at the height of Roman­ti­cism and even at the ope­ra house, cau­sing young men to faint on hea­ring such a celes­tial voice.

While in France the accor­dion was deligh­ting bour­geois Paris salons, Pao­lo Sopra­ni and Mathias Hoh­ner – in Ita­ly and Ger­ma­ny res­pec­ti­ve­ly – per­fec­ted the ins­tru­ment and intro­du­ced, Hoh­ner, in par­ti­cu­lar, for­mi­dable dis­tri­bu­tion struc­tures and “mar­ke­ting”, with which they would achieve asto­ni­shing success.

Without rea­li­sing it at the time, they were pre­pa­ring to conquer popu­lar music across the world.

Few coun­tries would escape this new ins­tru­ment, with the excep­tion per­haps of black Afri­ca, which, at the turn of the 19th and 20th cen­tu­ries saw a vogue for the har­mo­ni­ca, also manu­fac­tu­red and dis­tri­bu­ted by the Hoh­ner firm.

Cou­sins cal­led the concer­ti­na and ban­do­neon were intro­du­ced into popu­lar tra­di­tions left untou­ched by the accordion.

The lat­ter became dia­to­nic then chro­ma­tic, with but­ton key­boards or pia­no keys. Within just a few years, the music of people all over the world would be sung using the free reeds – “anches libres” in French – of a new musi­cal instrument.

This article is a par­tial over­view of some of the tra­di­tions that I hope will pro­vide ins­pi­ra­tion for dis­co­ve­ring others.

Music has always been a won­der­ful vehicle for dis­co­ve­ring other cultures and the accor­dion is cer­tain­ly one of the most sur­pri­sing, both in terms of the path it has taken and its spon­ta­neous inte­gra­tion into the great concert of music played by people from all over the world.


The accor­dion is heard in few places in sub-Saha­ran Afri­ca, but in South Afri­ca the concer­ti­na – inven­ted in 1829 by the English­man Charles Wheats­tone under the name of the Ita­lian manu­fac­tu­rer Bas­ta­ri – became very popu­lar in Zulu com­mu­ni­ties. The tribes consi­de­red it a “means of trans­port”! As John­ny Clegg des­cri­bed it in Octo­ber 1980 when tal­king about his the­sis at Rhodes Uni­ver­si­ty, “The music of Zulu immi­grant wor­kers in Johan­nes­burg : A focus on the concer­ti­na and gui­tar”, concer­ti­na players set the mar­ching pace with their music and cadence to allow columns of men from each vil­lage to reach the mines seve­ral kilo­metres away.

Zulu concer­ti­na


Mada­gas­car is unques­tio­na­bly a coun­try of accor­dions of all kinds : chro­ma­tic but­ton keys, dia­to­nics, pia­no keys (the pia­no key accor­dion was inven­ted in 1842 by Mon­sieur Bou­ton ! [But­ton]) and even concer­ti­nas. Thou­sands of musi­cians draw sounds from their reeds. The ins­tru­ment arri­ved in the late 19th cen­tu­ry cour­te­sy of Mala­ga­sy sai­lors who had tra­vel­led all over the world.

Today, the country’s pover­ty means that its ins­tru­ments tend to be in very poor condi­tion, but local­ly acqui­red skills allow musi­cians to play ins­tru­ments pat­ched up by incre­dible repairers.

In France, this music from Mada­gas­car was dis­co­ve­red thanks to the won­der­ful Régis Gisa­vo, whose style and rhythms brought fresh blood to the accor­dion in Europe.




We should also remem­ber two musi­cians who pas­sed away at too young an age : the radiant Jean-Don­né Rama­na­ne­ri­soa, who was part of the Ny Mala­ga­sy Orkes­tra, and the magni­ficent left-han­der Jean-Maryse Rabe­sia­ka, known as Médicis.


On the Grande Île tens of thou­sands play this bel­lows ins­tru­ment, which repla­ced the tra­di­tio­nal vali­ha, for dan­cing, wed­dings and burials.


The accor­dion often becomes the sym­bol of a dis­pla­ced com­mu­ni­ty. As boas­ted by Mathias Hohner’s adver­ti­sing at the start of the 20th cen­tu­ry to high­light the qua­li­ties of the accor­dion : “Not hea­vy, not expen­sive and always right”. Mexi­can immi­grants to the Uni­ted States, main­ly in Texas, qui­ck­ly adap­ted it to their tra­di­tio­nal music by crea­ting a new hybrid style : Tex-Mex. The Jimé­nez fami­ly, of which Fla­co is the star, play on their Hoh­ner 3‑row diatonics.

Fla­co Jiménez


In Loui­sia­na, accor­dion models vary and are known as melo­deons : they have only one row on the right hand and two basses on the left. Ear­lier musi­cians such as Nathan Abshire or the fan­tas­tic Bee Fon­te­not made it the musi­cal ins­tru­ment of “America’s French”. On his chro­ma­tic pia­no key model, Clif­ton Ché­nier inven­ted the Creole ver­sion of Cajun music : Zyde­co. “Let the good times roll”, he said and the accor­dion is their symbol.







The accor­dion ins­til­led its rhythms across the Carib­bean and South Ame­ri­ca : in Colom­bia with the val­le­na­to and in San­to Domin­go with the merengue, which has its own ver­sion of Yvette Hor­ner in the colour­ful Féfi­ta la Grande.

Féfi­ta la Grande




The north of Argen­ti­na has the cha­ma­mé, brought to France by Raul Bar­bo­za among others. In the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry, Argen­ti­na would see the birth of a new popu­lar urban music : tan­go, to the sound of the ban­do­neon, also from Germany.

Argen­tine bandoneon


Meanw­hile, for­ged by the mee­ting bet­ween two waves of immi­gra­tion (one inter­nal – from the Auvergne – and the other from the south – Ita­ly), the musette and the java were born in Paris, codi­fied (some would say inven­ted) by a man from Tours of uncer­tain paren­tage : Émile Vacher.


Even on Rodrigues Island, just 18 km by 8 km, cast away in the Indian Ocean almost 600 km east of Mau­ri­tius, on this Cin­de­rel­la of the Mas­ca­renes, there are a few dozen accor­dio­nists who have been pro­vi­ding the sound for kwa­drils, lavals and segas for more than a century.


Dia­to­nic players from Fin­land, Ita­ly, the Basque coun­try and Ire­land make up Samu­raï, a sur­pri­sing and contem­po­ra­ry band ins­pi­red by so-cal­led tra­di­tio­nal music.



In France, Fixi (Fran­çois-Xavier Bos­sard), after playing “rock musette” with his bro­ther in the group Java, now blends his key­board, reeds and bel­lows with the reg­gae of Wins­ton McAnuf.



For my part, I keep a spe­cial place in my heart for the men and women of Azer­bai­jan who play, with Eas­tern accents, the gar­mon, yet ano­ther suc­cess­ful muta­tion of the bel­lows instrument.


Stay curious, keep your ears open, and this small roman­tic musi­cal ins­tru­ment with five keys, inven­ted in the ear­ly 19th cen­tu­ry, has plen­ty of other sur­prises in store.

Philippe Krümm
Philippe Krümm was born in Paris 12th.
It's the disappointment of not being able, at 15, to become a racing motorcycle racer who will push him towards music! From then on, it will be of all the adventures of what will be called in France the folk, the traditional musics then the musics of the world.
After marketing studies, he devoted himself to the ethnomusicology of France in Nanterre, then to organology at the Paris Conservatory of Music and musical acoustics at Jussieu. He will be responsible for traditional music at the Ministry of Culture, the Directorate of Music (1982 -1989).
Founder of the Silex and Cinq Planètes labels, he was director of the "Rencontres Internationales Luthiers et Maîtres Sonneurs" of Saint-Chartier.
Editor-in-chief and founder of Trad'Magazine, Accordion & Accordionist magazines, columnist for France Musique, author of numerous books and articles on popular music and instruments with metal free reeds.
Journalist since the late 1970s he travels to meet people, their music and their instruments.
He participates in many expertises and exhibitions for different museums around the world. He had the pleasure and the privilege to assist Alain Vian (brother of the "other", historical and passionate antique dealer in musical instruments in Paris) on auctions. He also hosts numerous conferences and lectures on the history and organology of popular music instruments. Artistic director of the accordion and violin salons in Paris at la Bellevilloise. He is knighted arts and letters (2007).

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