If you’re a big fan of Cajun music, you probably have wondered how they were able to make sure melodies with the typical off the shelf accordion.
Well, the short answer is they don’t.
If you want to make that distinct Southern Louisiana sound yourself, you need to get a specially manufactured unit or look into how to build a cajun accordion.
South Louisiana is famous worldwide for its Cajun music. Cajun music involves making mostly French songs with accordion and fiddle.
People credit the Cajun French settlers for inventing their unique music style. But it developed from a blend of different cultures that lived in Louisiana.
Cajun music had influences from African music, Acadians, and other people of Louisiana.
In this piece, you will learn how to start building accordions yourself. It will also guide you in contrast with how the factory manufacturing process goes.
Most accordions in Louisiana are homemade from people’s backyards on a small scale. Even Clarence Martin, the famous accordion maker of Lafayette, makes handmade accordions at home.
The small-scale production is because accordion makers work on-demand or after pre-orders.
Characteristics of Cajun Diatonic Accordions
A Cajun accordion is recognizable by its unique single diatonic accordion features.
Cajun accordions have four knobs controlling the number of reeds sound when played. Each button also connects to many reeds.
Accordions used for Polka, musette, and other music styles have many rows instead of one.
The standard number of buttons on the treble side is ten. On the left-hand side, it has two buttons: one for the chord and the other for the bass.
This left-hand side also has a keyboard, like a handgrip, and an air button. The air button on the left compartment of the accordion is to control the flow of air in and outside the bellow.
Cajun accordions have four stops on the treble side. These stops make the four banks of reeds tune in octaves with each other.
Dry tuning is the perfect octave method of Cajun accordions. The Cajuns call how the major chord and the tonic note of a key play when a player squeezes bellows single action.
The major chord and dominant note play when the player expands the accordion.
For instance, as a player pulls the key of C, the C and G major play.
When playing the Cajun accordion, the C and D are the most common tuning used. The D key is less often used compared to the C key.
It is also possible to find some accordions made in the B flat key.
Factory Construction of Cajun Accordions
In the making of an accordion, makers combine separate smaller parts.
Poplar wood is common for outer design because it is lightweight and sturdy. Other materials used in making a Cajun accordion are metal, plastic, and leather.
Bellows are typically made from folded and pleated Manila cardboard .
Inner corners have leather gussets, and outer corners have metal protectors.
Treble grills have a metal covering. Many other small internal pieces are either made of metal or use metal protectors.
Reeds, for example, have tempered steel that is the special watch-spring type.
Metal rods connect bass buttons to pallets and register slides controlling reed blocks.
Leather parts are generally used for large straps. In smaller areas, leathers serve as padding to prevent air leaks. Keys, switches, and many buttons are usually plastic.
A Plastic or leather material help prevent air leaks when used to cover the reed plate made of Aluminum.
The Manufacturing Process
Accordions are built without complete process automation in the factory. Most processes require you to work manually, especially when assembling smaller components.
An overview is that each component is separately assembled. The separate parts are then put together as a single musical instrument. Decoration and packaging then follow in the final stage.
Depending on the accordion maker, parts of an accordion do not have to be made completely in-house.
The automated process usually helps manage time-consuming activities and those requiring effort or high precision. For instance, wood cutting requires energy and precision, which machines can help achieve efficiently.
An electric circular saw is advisable for the woodworking to cut quickly and with accuracy.
Injection mold is an automated process for making keys and buttons from plastic.
Plastic material goes into a large hopper. It then melts into a viscous liquid that forms into a mold when injected with force. The injected viscous material solidifies upon cooling to the desired structure.
When building accordions, you process metal materials in molten form.
Metals used in the formation of the reed undergo tempering. This process makes reed metals tough and ductile. The formed reed is then screwed to the Aluminum reed plate.
Use plastic or leather to cover the two slots of the reed plate to prevent air leaks.
You then attach arranged reed plates to a wooden reed block and put them into the treble or bass side. Depending on the model in use, there are three or four blocks.
Depending also on the model of the accordion, the treble side keyboard links to the reed block while the buttons and keys are on the bass side.
Although most handmade accordion manufacturers use supplied bellows, they can also make it in-house. They make bellows by folding and pleating strong cardboard.
Steel strips and leather are then added to the bellow to support its weight. The final coupling is complete with wax sealing of the accordion casing. The seal is also to prevent leaks.
The final work is complete with the finishing touches of decoration on the accordion. Branding and other extra accessories like the treble grill are then attached.
In the factory, quality control starts as the materials arrive from suppliers. Manufacturers that make plastic components themselves, checking resin.
When the resin meets certain specifications, it passes for use. These specifications may include its physical state, molecular weight, and melting point.
Line inspectors then review product quality before passing for sale.
How to Build Cajun Accordions Yourself
You can build diatonic accordions yourself with a guides on any DIY network.
It does not matter if it is accordions or guitars, banjos, or even a hammered dulcimer.
There is a lot to learn in the process to save you effort and money in the long run.
Apart from the feeling of accomplishment, you customize your accordion to your taste.
For instance, it can be hard to buy suitable musical instruments for a left-hand person. These musical instruments have general unavailability and can be costly even when available.
There are many ways to start building your own Cajun accordion. But the method described here is practicable for anyone to make an accordion.
The aim is to build an accordion of the D key, and the reference model for this DIY guide is a red Cajun accordion.
The accordion is in the C key from Danny Dyson from Big Lake in LA. A beautiful instrument for comfort and powerful delivery.
Buy a ready-made frame or build one yourself. The one in this guide is a blue D box type, like the C box type of the reference Cajun accordion.
The frame is maple stained blue, and the faceplate is also maple stained but yellow.
You may also get reed blocks of different dimensions at the hobby shop. Typically you will get a dimension from 3 by 32 inches to 1 by 8 inches.
Buy other parts such as buttons and flappers from hobby shops. You may also use parts of an old unused instrument like leather straps.
Making reeds and bellows yourself is a fascinating experience. But this guide used factory-manufactured bellows.
There are waxed reeds and installed blocks with the stop system inside. The stop system slides between bank reeds and sound holes.
You will also see that the bass boxes have three parts: one for chord, one for bass, and then air. Internal flappers glued to leather serve as hinges held by springs.
Find suitable rods, and use makeshift jigs to bend each flapper rod by hand. The melting point of reed wax is low, so you may control it by using a water bath.
Ensure the waxing process goes well, and then put the wax on the reeds.
Cajun VS Creole Accordions
These words are different common names for South Louisiana people. The origin of those people formed the basis for their differences.
Cajuns are the people of South Louisiana coming from rural origins. They have a characteristic private life and engage in communal conflicts. The same people from urban origins are the Creoles.
In South Louisiana, only Cajun French people are of Acadian descent. They are French people who settled in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. They settled in these places after the English ousted them from Canada in 1755.
On reaching Louisiana, the settlers met with other local Americans and formed the ethnic Cajuns.
The Cajun people and Creoles have key differences in the music they make. The Cajuns have more jazz and blues influence, as opposed to Creole. West African music and the Caribbean region influenced Creole music.
What is Zydeco?
According to Folklore, the word is a shortened form of a song titled Les haricots sont pas sale to Les Haricot. The ‘Les’ creates the beginning z sound impression. Bean Jean Ancelet, a folklorist, would spell it as “zarico” to emphasize the origin.
Creole music, like Cajun music, is social music. Picnics, dances, and events like the trail ride all feature this type of music.
The trail ride is a unique social ritual that consists of a group horseback ride through the countryside followed by eating and dancing.
The accordion and violin combo culture remained in Cajun music, but it is outdated in Zydeco.
New musicians are increasingly adopting the Creole fiddle style. But doubts remain on what will become of this music style in the coming years.
From the 1930s and 1940s, Creole music was called lala or picnic. Many older Creole musicians dislike the term Zydeco when describing the music they perform.
The late 1940s to early 1950s was the time of Zydeco’s emergence as a new style.
Clifton Chenier and Boozoo Chavis were musicians that pioneered Zydeco by producing faster music with rhythm and blues to it.
The new style has themes of rhythm and blues including instruments like the saxophone.
The frottoir took the place of the triangle. Chenier changed to piano-key accordion from diatonic accordion.
As late as 1966, Clifton Chenier recorded on violin alongside his uncle Elmore Nixon.
Following John Delafose’s heart attack, his doctor advised him to abandon heavy instruments. He did as advised and changed to the violin in the early 1990s.
In the late 1970s, Zydeco music became a sensation. Zydeco’s success was in part fueled by general Americans listening to it.
Band dynasties also helped propagate and sustain Zydeco. Older musicians retire and pass over the band to their children, who go on to transfer to theirs.
A popular example is the Band dynasty of Carlton Frank. He passed the band to his son, Preston Frank, who then passed it to Keith Frank.
Apart from musical band dynasties, other Zydeco musicians started to make waves.
Examples include Nathan William, Queen Ida, and Beau Jocque. Beau Jocque was the famous Rounder CD boogie hit song artist
Beau Jocque’s music forms the basis for most performances in contemporary Cajun music.
History of Cajun Music and the Cajun Accordion
The first sets of accordions brought into the United States were cheap, heavy, and hard to play. These brands include Bruno, Pine Tree, and Lester.
Americans began to use the accordion in the key of C and D in the 20th century. New York’s Buegeleisen & Jacobson delivered Monarch and Sterling brands from Rudolph Kalbes.
These special accordions got assembled in Klingenthal. They were the best in the world then.
Both Monarch and Sterling brand names belong to the same product. The Eagle family owned the factory, then the family transferred it to the Sterling family. The factory was eventually lost in the damages of World War II.
Joe Falcon and Cléoma Breaux made the first documented recording of the Cajun song. It was titled “Allons à Lafayette” in 1928.
Standard versions of songs began to emerge with the increased availability of phonographs.
Alan Lomax, a prominent American folklorist made some early recordings of the music style. His recording in Louisiana was mostly around the late 1920s.
Oil discovery was one of the two major influences on the musical style of the Cajun people. The other was World War II.
These two key events exposed Cajuns to the English-speaking Americans and their culture. Western swing also had an enormous influence on Cajun music.
Cajuns performers dropped the accordion. In its place, they began to use swing tunes and adopt string band instrumentation.
Performers then go beyond playing to Cajun French folks to reach English audiences too. They also assimilated popular country music and swing music.
During the 1930s, electric amplification and drums got into Cajun music. The Hackberry Ramblers were the first band to use these innovations. They kept playing music for many years later.
In 1946, Harry Choates made “Jolie Blonde”, which became the first hit song. It was popular in music playing house dances and Louisiana folklife festival gatherings.
Other famous musicians of the time include Rhythm Boys and the Hackberry Ramblers.
Joates’ “Jolie Blonde” was influential in making a lot of the public show more interest in the music style.
This opened more opportunities for new musicians like Dough Kershaw and Rufus Thibodeaux.
Cajun music continued to grow through the mid-1960s. Performances like Deway Balfa’s in 1964 further boosted public interest.
The Cajun French music association made efforts to popularize the style worldwide. The organization even started an annual festival called Festiva Acadiens, where music from several ongoing jam sessions play.
Contemporary Cajun music is made possible by several band performances. Examples include the Balfa brothers, Hector Duhon, Octa Clark, etc.
Cajun culture and music continue to adopt newer styles like blues, rock, and R&B throughout the 1980s.
Cajun music got worldwide attention in the 1990s. The Cajun band, Beausoleil band, won Grammy awards for their performances.
They served as an inspiration to many hit songs afterward. Today there are hundreds of variations of Cajun music as it continues to evolve.
The Recording Academy announced a new Zydeco Grammy Award category. It will be awarded to the best Cajun or Zydeco music Album for musicians in the folk music field in 2007.
Famous contemporary Cajun musicians include Christine Balfa and The Lost Bayou Ramblers.
Popular Cajun Accordion Makers
Sidney Brown was a resident of Lake Charles. He was the first person in Louisiana to begin making his accordion.
He made accordions from reed mounts, bellows, and leather straps of famous brands. Examples of such brands include the Hohner accordion.
Marc Savoy, Savoy Music Center, followed his work and began making his.
Today, there are people all over Louisiana making accordions from home as hobbies.
Here is a list of some renowned accordion makers in Louisiana:
Made by the famous Marc Savoy, who began after Lake Charles. His Acadian brand is today the best standard for most accordion builders.
He started his accordion building career in his father’s outdoor kitchen. His father, Abraham, is an accordionist, so he had an early experience with the instrument.
Marc Savoy made his first accordion trying to replicate the premium Sterling accordions.
He made a small accordion called little Hohner and made more instruments like fingerboard and bass boxes.
Soon, word began to get out into the street of his accomplishments as a musician and instrument maker.
Later he sold accordion designs at his Savoy Music Center. The designs are beautiful and produce a rich tone compared to many others.
It has a variety of tunings. Acadian accordions come from the best handmade reeds available from Italian factories.
Marc Savoy worked with top musicians like Michael Doucet and Dennis McGee. He may have built accordions for these top musicians as well.
Marc Savoy founded the Savoy Family band and currently lives in Eunice, LA.
Bon Tee Cajun accordions
Larry Miller makes the Bon tee Cajun accordion brand. He is a regular at the folk art area of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
He was born of predominately Acadian ancestry and grew up in the Prairie Cajun region.
He then worked as a teacher for 22 years in the Acadia Parish school system. Larry Miller taught science and math as a teacher.
Larry Miller’s accordions production is in low volume. He makes them based on demand in his Bon tee Cajun shop in Iota, LA.
Bon tee Cajun accordions are top-quality handmade accordions. Larry Miller also provides free tuning and repair of accordions.
After retiring as an instrument maker, he began to promote the Cajun Culture and taught people how to play accordion.
Cajun and Doucet brand
John Elton Doucet makes the Cajun and Doucet accordion brand. He is a reputable accordion player and maker with over 30 years of experience.
Doucet makes the reeds and other necessary accordion parts himself.
His business is at Charlene Hwy., Church Point, LA, and it is especially a hotspot for accordion builders who want premium Italian bellows.
The Final Word on How to Build Cajun Accordions
Interest in the music style has grown in recent decades and Cajun musicians and fans live worldwide.
Southwestern Louisiana remains the historical and cultural center of accordion players worldwide.
Cajun music influenced Western swing, rock ‘n’ roll, and country music. But it tends to add elements of rhythm, blues, and recently, hip hop and rap.
Many Cajun diatonic accordion makers practice their accordion building hobby at home.