A History of the Musette

All across the country bellows are squeezing out countless dance tunes from Cajun and Zydeco to Tex-Mex and Rock’n'Roll. With its return to favor, the accordion has turned people on to types of music they have never heard before. Perhaps the most obscure of these musical styles is the French “Musette.” It is largely overlooked, even among accordion players and enthusiasts. Most people don’t know about Musette, at least by name. Some think of it as a delicate but dusty collection of waltzes that has all but disappeared outside the soundtracks of moody, black and white art films. This couldn’t be further from the truth.  The Musette originated at the turn of the 20 th century in the blue-collar bars and dance halls of Paris. It was the music of the working class. Musette thrived through the 1940s and has lately experienced a revival at home as well as around the world. Today it remains a vital and living style that inspires dancers and lovers alike.

Simply stated, the Musette is a descendent of folkdance melodies from the Auvergne, in the south of France. In Paris it blended with German influence (the accordion), Italian classical and popular song, Tzigane or Manouche (Gypsy) scales and string instruments, and American Jazz and swing rhythms. These elements shape not only the waltzes, but also the tangos, paso dobles (2-steps), fox-trots, polkas, marches and swing numbers. All were essential in the repertoire of every Musette orchestra of the 20s through the 40s. If the term had been in use in the early half of the century, Musette would certainly have been known as “world-beat” music.

The word Musette comes from the Augvergnian instrument of choice which was the cabrette, or cornemusette, a type of bagpipe that had a clear, loud, reedy tone. When German and Italian accordionists first began arriving in Paris, where the Auvergnian immigrant community was settled, their squeeze-boxes were thought of as a threat to the beauty of this traditional music.  Report has it that some Augvergnian cafes, where the “bals-musette” or dance parties regularly occurred, posted notices prohibiting the playing of accordions. But by 1905 when Bouscatel, the king of cabrette players, had hired accordionist Charles Peguri as a regular part of his band, the new tradition had begun.

The early accordion-oriented Musette band often consisted of one or two accordions (chromatic button-boxes) with accompaniment of piano, violin and/or clarinet or saxophone, and banjo. The banjo was the contribution of the Manouche, or Gypsy people who lived on the outskirts of society, but worked in the heart of the city. This instrument of African origin was first used in the dance-halls by a Gypsy named Matteo Garcia, who accompanied the “Father of Musette”, accordionist Emile Vascher. As another example of this, the now famous guitarist Django Reinhardt first performed and recorded as a banjo accompanist to an accordioniste named Guerino.

In the 1920s recordings of American Jazz and Swing became increasingly available in Europe. Attracted to the rhythmic style, banjoists soon began trading their instruments for guitars. Thus, the Manouche became donors of three elements of the Musette: first the banjo, then the guitar, and also the odd, eastern sounding scales that give the swing-era musette its trademark exotic sound. Though Musette and Jazz were not originally thought to be an appropriate mix by dancers and club-owners, it turned out that many of the finest players in Paris had a different idea. They would gig one night in aswing ensemble, and the next night play for a bal-musette.  In time, the repertoires of Jazz and Musette bands began to cross over and by the 1940s it was common to hear the two styles intermixed throughout the course of an evening. With the barrier between the styles removed, the fan base expanded prompting the phrase, “Jazz and Java* should be friends”.

The Tango was already part of the Musette repertoire by the early 1930s. In fact, it was the French who brought this Argentine music to the attention of the world. Paris was the center of fashion and culture in the western world, and anything that was cool in Paris was cool everywhere else as well. One style of Tango that gained great popularity was the paso-doble, or two step. This dance seemed to be the specialty of Italian musicians in Paris, although paso dobles are recognizable for their distinctively Spanish sound.  So the groundwork was already in place for the introduction of other Latin styles that occurred after World War II.

The popularity of Latin-American performers like Xavier Cougat and Carmen Miranda was noticed by Musette orchestra leaders. By the 1950s the bolero, beguine and rhumba had become essential elements of their repertoire. French music began to sound almost more Latin than French. One example of this Latin French style is an LP recording titled “Very Frenchy” by Jo Courtin, on King International Records.

The 50s also brought Rock’n’Roll to France, and Musette orchestras tried hard to keep up with the times by “modernizing” their sound. In doing so, much of what originally gave the music its charm was obscured by added reverb, electronics, and other unfortunate attempts to update the sound. Many recordings from this period now sound very dated, or “schmaltzy” by today’s standards. The musicianship is good, the tunes are fine, but the production and arrangement sound more like Muzak rather than Musette.

As far as the delicate and dusty nature associated with Musette, one needs only to look at its cultural context to dispel this notion. The cafes where the bals-musette originated were frequented by scrap dealers, sailors, down-on-their-luck transients and immigrants, gypsies, factory workers and people who lived at the low end of Parisian society. People gathered at the cafes for much the same reason as they gather at local watering holes today, to talk, drink, and forget about their troubles. The exotic blend of sounds from around the world that made up the Musette were perfect for evoking images of far away places, or memories of home.

Foremost, the Musette was music for dancing. It was well-crafted and played, but was also loud and raucous. The combination of bagpipes, accordions, banjo, saxophone and piano evolved specifically for the purpose of volume. This was macho, lively music and dance, and the best recorded examples readily convey this feeling.    Many early photos of the musicians leave one with the impression that they also were sailors, thugs or hard laborers. They looked tough, cool, and as ready with a bottle, fist, or switchblade as with a waltz or two-step.

The Musette clubs were rough-and-tumble places where polite people did not venture. It is reported that fights broke out at the dances quite frequently. Men were routinely frisked for weapons at the door. Women were pardoned this embarrassment, and the slyer male patrons would sneak in their switchblades, blackjacks, and pistols under the garments of a lady accomplice. Men paid for dances with the women, and singled them out for a spin around the floor by whistling at them from across the room. The performers were protected from the rabble by climbing a ladder to a platform above the head-level of the crowd. But once they reached their perch, the ladder was removed, and bands often had to play all night without a break or any refreshment. This was not an idyllic situation for either performer or dancer. But once the Musette became so popular it could not be ignored, wealthy Parisian suburbanites started “dressing down” and “slumming” at the dance halls. Some club owners, eager to satisfy their wealthy patrons need to have a cultural experience, would douse the lights and have “hired thugs” fire pistols with blanks in the darkened room.

So where does one find this music today? Until recently, it has been difficult to find. But thanks largely to the efforts of a few devoted people in France, old recordings are being preserved and re-released and new ones are coming out regularly. A list of my personal favorites, and recordings I believe to be essential are available on this web site. On the Accordion World page, click on “Musette: An Essential Discography”, and enjoy some of the best accordion music you’ll ever hear!

*Java is the name of a particular type of waltz step and rhythm within the Musette genre that became extremely popular in the early 1930s.