France has a long and proud relationship with accordion music covering many genres and time periods. You might be asking “what is French accordion music called”? Bal-musette is the catchall term for French accordion music. It is also a dance style that ruled most entertainment dance halls from the late 19th century until the mid 20th century. It was so popular that it attracted the bourgeoisie of France society to the poor people’s Bastille district of Paris.
Bal-musette means a dance hall where a band plays bagpipes instruments or accordions to French folks. The genre for this music style is Musette. The same name is used to refer to the main instrument of the genre and the dance used with it.
French musette style began to lose its popularity in the latter part of the 20th century but it is making a comeback in modern music with growing interest in free reed instruments as an accompaniment to other musical instruments.
What is a Musette in French Music?
The word comes from the old French word “muse”, an indication that it is related to French instruments of the bagpipe family.
A musette is an instrument of the bagpipe family made up of a drone (also called bourdon) and two pipes or reeds.
The drone is attached to a leather sack or reservoir where it gets air when the sack is squeezed. Musettes generally have a pedal bass delivering into a drone.
Accordion maker Felix Peguri and other bougnants started with diatonic accordions, which were then used with the cabarets. But the chromatic accordions later replaced the diatonic ones in performances.
Bal musette originated from the performances of these bougnants as indicated by Emile Vacher, a solo accordion player, who owns the credit for naming the style. He called it Bal des bougnants at first and then renamed it Bal-musette.
The dance styles to music produced with this instrument are also called musette. Musette dance is a fast tempo dance of 2/4, 6/4, or 6/8. Popular dances such as Tango-, paso-, and valse-musette, are forms of the musette dance style.
Musette or its various forms was at one point the main instrument of French instrumental music and dancing styles, especially in the early 20th century.
Famous contemporary musette songs from French accordionist stars include Paris musette orchestra’s “La java le Bleue” and Richard Galliano’s “Ruby my dear”. You can find and play the soundtrack of the song on Youtube.
French music has always incorporated a variety of music styles. But none impacted the perception of French music culture like < a href= "https://accordionistscentral.com/types-of-accordions/">accordion music to this day.
Today, the biggest music styles in French pop and folk music are called the cabaret and chanson music styles. However, the two genres of French music in which the accordion is the main instrument or of relevance are the following :
A typical musette is a musical piece of Waltz played in triple meter time on the accordion tune. As it plays on the treble side of the instrument, it has a bass-chord-chord to accompany it on the bass side.
In a waltz, you would hear one chord for every measure with an accompaniment of playing the chord root on the first beat, which is then followed by upper notes for the second and third beats.
Introduced into France by an immigrating accordion maker Felix Peguri and other Italians who were referred to by the locals as bougnants.
French accordion performances were mainly done on the street of rue de Lappe in the Bastille district. Musette performances are typically held in guinguettes parties and small taverns along the Paris’ Marne rivers areas.
French accordion performances were accompanied by cheap foods and drinks from bougnant cafes and bars.
By the 19th century, the original music instrument (musette) and dance halls styles of France had been influenced. Accordion part replaced the traditional musette feature, and popular music of the musette changed to accordions.
A similar influence happened with Waltz dance, as it was blended with musette dance until it wiped it out.
Bal-Musette Dance styles
Traditional musette dance and other dance styles of the same time evolved to make couples dance closely. This may have been caused by the nature of the earliest settings of musette performances around Paris: a small district cramped with viewers.
Musette style originated from dancers finding dances that won’t require a large hall but are easy, sensual, and involve quicker steps.
The waltz musette combination had a few changes to the typical waltz. Musette dancers not only kept dancing like the hall was narrow but also made complete left side rotations.
Variations to the musette include paso musette, tango musette , and valse musette.
A variation of musette dance features the la toupie, in which dancers stay close, make quick left side dances and turn around a lot.
Valse musette resulted in the creation of java, which is written in the same way but different in the fact that it is played with the triolets.
Like the Bal-musette, the music genre is referred to quite unfortunately as some ancient French music style, but it is still very much part of French’s social movement today.
Chanson realiste delivers French songs and poetic compositions surrounded by the realism of French culture, spirituality, social struggle, and love.
The Chanson réaliste accordion music style began with cafés-concerts and cabarets performances in the Montmartre district of Paris.
It was in the 1880s, the romantic era when entertainment in France was experiencing an ideological shift towards realism.
Montmartre was an influential district for the movement, having Le Chat Noir and the Moulin Range theatres as its landmarks.
The most notable early cabaret singer was Aristide Bruant, who was also the creator of the genre.
Female vocalists soon dominated the new musical genre, with only a few other males making it into the limelight.
Bruant’s lyrics and works were a < a href="https://vaudeville.sites.arizona.edu/content/94" > vaudeville comedy-inspired song mix, which narrated normal real-life events of the middle class and lower class.
Bruant made compositions using local language and slang the commoners understood best.
In the 20th century, Edith Piaf, nicknamed La Môme Piaf (The Little Sparrow), became the icon of Chanson and French instrumental sound.
She delivered songs with her powerful voice accompanied by the accordion tune. She was an excellent accordion player and a role model for accordionists worldwide.
Chanson Realiste Performances
Chanson realiste singers and the stage they perform on are dressed in a way characteristic of vaudeville comedy.
The stage background setup would be kept almost plain, and the singers wore expressive makeup to highlight their facial features.
Realist performances before world war II had a sad, remorseful, and dramatically melancholic theme as singers mainly performed songs of deprivation, loss, poverty, crime, and anguish.
Iconic singers of chanson like Frehel and Edith Piaf were themselves teenage girls, who suffered the common struggle of society.
They both had children as teenage parents and even lost their children to circumstances that could be averted with better living conditions.
Frehel, Edith Piaf, and Yvonne George all died early from causes that were typical of a wild and poverty-stricken society: Drugs, depression, alcoholism, untreated illness, etc., were common topics.
After the war, song performances became much more about motherly love, lust, pleasure, and even sensuality as most people grew in appreciation for realism in art.
A Brief History of Contemporary French Accordion Music
There is no arguing that the accordion in France is not what it used to be before the mid 19th century, but it does not mean that France has not produced some of the best accordion players of world music.
While a French song or dance style, in general, might not be as popular as those of the United States or Japan, the music industry in France is still the fifth largest in the world.
Contemporary French Accordion Artists and Musicians
While some French accordion players like Edith Piaf, Pierre Boulez, and Hector Berlioz have achieved legendary status by their play and mastery of the instrument, contemporary accordionists have experts accordionists as well.
Here is a brief biography of contemporary French accordionists contributing to the French song integrity globally:
Richard’s interaction with his first musical instrument started at four. Under his father, Luciano, an Italian composer, he learned to play melodies with the harmonica and trombone.
He later continued to learn at the Academy of Music in Nice, France. He then discovered Clifford Brown’s work and got interested in Jazz music and the accordion.
He began playing as an accordionist and became so good with the accordion that he won a global competition, the world accordion cap, two years in a roll, in 1966 and 1967.
Richard boasts about his relationship with the father of tango, Astor Piazolla, and he famously called him his second father.
After long years of studying and practicing classical music, Jean-Loius settled on jazz music. He got his breakthrough after collaborating, as an accordionist, with Michael Riessler, and made his way up from there.
Other famous musicians he collaborated with include Michael Godard, Loius Sclavis, etc.
Claudio was a child musical prodigy who partook in music competitions at six and began to make melody with a band at 16. He learned carpentry as a vocation but continued to pursue a career in music.
He took part in France version of The Voice but was eliminated early in the competition. However, his elimination did not mean he was not recognized and showered with public admiration, which continued for him after the show.
His performance on the show got the attention of Sebastien Saussez, and he took him into the Jo&Co record label. His debut blew up and stayed top of the charts across French-speaking countries like Belgium.
Dimitri was another child prodigy who already caught the attention of top concert performers while only 10 years. He performed with the likes of Peter Soave, Alexander Skliarov, Clement Thomain, etc.
Dimitri Bouclier learned from Alexander Skliarov, Viacheslav Semionov: called the father of the modern bayan, Grammy winner Jason Crabb, and more.
Dimitri learned under Thierry Bouclier, his father, who was the director of Annemasse Accordion School, so his experience with sound as an accordionist at a young age was outstanding.
He topped multiple international competitions like World Trophy, Castelfidardo, Klingenthal, etc. He won the senior category of the Klingenthal at just 19 years.
Nicknamed the Dame of accordion, Lydie left France to improve her English skills but soon began to work as an accompanist and a singer to the likes of Jürgen Slopianka and Klaus Hoffmann. Lydie later grouped backup singers to form the Auvrettes band.
Lydie Auvra is famous for her diverse accordion sound across various world genres.
Her works were hugely influenced at some point by her visit to Martinique and she released numerous albums including D’accord.
A Parisian by birth to two Italian immigrants, Giuseppe and Angelina. He was the younger brother to two sisters and older than two others. He learned the violin early like his other siblings.
At 11 years old he already mastered the accordion as a professional and began playing the French accordion after discovering the Pantin orchestra.
He later learned from Paul Saive, who also taught Jo Privat. But he soon abandoned the classes and followed Attilio Bonhommi, who he later learned and worked for at jazz concerts.
He continued to learn under famous artists in France and abroad while also playing at their concerts and song. By this time, he already mastered it.
Marcel later met Geo Daly, who became his friend, and introduced him to American jazz after he had mastered the French music styles and classical music.
Marcel went on to teach himself how to play several other instruments like the bandeleon, a form of the concertina.
He also later attained the rank of a Commander in Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, and taught students to make melody for 20years at Ecole de Musique d’Orsay.
Honorary mentions from the contemporary French accordionists and groups, Gary Chapin: the author of “Not That Guy Gavotte” and “Polka Piquee & Polka de l’Aveyron”; Yann Tiersen, Bark Cat Bark, Jason Webley, the fusion folk music accordionist that also plays the piano; and Igor Rasteriaev, the St. Petersburg born artist.
French Accordion Music and French Popular Music Today
Unlike the Norteno for Northern Mexico, a typical French song with an acccordion, piano, and a main theme of the Eiffel Tower is not what even people in France would consider popular music among other genres.
But France has the 5th largest music industry in the world today, with piano being its most popular instrument. France is crucial to modern music and music theory development, most notably the work of Jean Philippe Rameau.
Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville’s phonautograph, Lully’s common beat pattern, Georges Bizet’s Carmen, and spectral music of the 20th century are also influential music innovations from French people.
France is home to hundreds of world-renowned accordion musicians in the 19th century and much of the first half of the 20th century when the accordion first entered the country through Italian immigrants.
Although accordions were the main instrument of dance halls and popular dance venues during the “musette era”, today it is typically played in concerts to dances like polka and alongside other instruments like the guitar, piano, bagpipes, etc.
My introduction to accordion music was by way of Zydeco and Tex-Mex music. Once I got my hands on my very own squeezebox, I was hooked. Let me tell you, playing the accordion is every bit as fun as listening to it. Thanks for joining me in my exploration of the awesome world of accordions and all its amazing versions!