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by: Sheri Mignano Crawford

French Soirée

A Twentieth Century history of the musette accordion and French musette dance music in Paris and the San Francisco Bay Area, and includes biographical sketches of accordionists whose repertoire included the dance music.
1. musette accordion
2. bal musette

Here is an audio example of musette accordion from Paris Musette 3CD series available here. Here is my friend François Parisi playing his composition “Annie Zette”

Another example from François Parisi playing his composition “Ballad du Paris” for the motion picture “Midnight in Paris” by Woody Allen

Table Of Content




The box has suffered and been maligned almost from the moment it breathed in its first breath. Here are just a few affectionate French  denigrations and nicknames:  La Boîte à Frissons (The Trembling Box); Le Piano du Pauvre (The Poor People’s Piano); Le Piano aux Bretelles  (The Piano with Suspenders).i Whatever you call it, it will respond and transport you to another time and place.

I have attempted to explore the French musette accordion in all its many faceted aspects and give it its proper place in our hearts. It has  survived to tell the stories of the Moulin Rouge, the back alleys of Belleville, and the cabaret stages in Pigalle. Its beautiful resonating reeds, its  graceful melodic lines, and its bellowing breaths make it a good partner for music and in life. Accordionists embrace it and breathe life into it. We adore the accordion but mostly we love the musette accordion!

One of the best stories about the affectionate relationship some accordionist have had with the musette tuning comes from Vince Cirelli, a local legend whose accordion repair studio, Cirelli Accordion Service, has been a Mecca for accordionists since it first opened in 1948.ii If you have  played an accordion in the San Francisco Bay Area during the past few decades, it has probably been repaired by him. He is the living legend  with stories that only he can tell.

Vince related how he had loaned a musette accordion to a professional accordionist who had been visiting San Francisco. He returned to report that “everybody on the boat enjoyed it.”iii When Vince found that out, he no longer wanted it. Apparently, the gentleman had taken it out on a  cruise in the San Francisco Bay. Salt air damaged the steel reeds and in time Vince knew he could not sell it. Ron Flynn, who had conducted the  interview with Vince, took it home anyway, and indeed, eventually the reeds rusted.

Accordions are delicate creatures! However, the abuse level depends on how little you play, more than how much you play. An accordion in its  box might as well be in a coffin. That’s why it is important to “faire le boeuf.” Or as the Zydeco accordionists like to say it: “Laissez les bon  temps rouler!” Find friends and jam.

Playing from sheet music is good; unfortunately, so much of the old music is in sad shape due to generations of copying, and the music itself,  short of flying to Paris, is next to impossible to find. That’s one reason for the compilation in the Dance Index. In addition, not all of us can carry hundreds of songs in our heads as the often illiterate accordionists did a hundred years ago. Learning to read music is absolutely essential for a  deeper appreciation and to achieve the music’s full potential. We can learn new songs and bring them along to a jam session and pull them out decades later to revisit—as old friends.

This eBook is meant for free distribution. But it comes with a caveat. Please don’t play the music in a vacuum. Understand its origins and you  will better appreciate those who have spent a lifetime keeping it alive and well. Thank you and I hope you enjoy this little adventure through “La Vie de la Musette!”

A Revolutionary Act?

I have been a Francophile since 6th grade when I was able to take my first French lessons. It was coupled by my beginning studies on accordion. They complemented well. Many of the  dances were in the musette waltz style (also known as Italian ballo liscio).4 Music would become my focus for my entire life as a result of my early education.

In college, my French minor helped me to work for the United States Information Agency. It  took me to Montréal, Québec in 1967 where I became a bilingual guide inside the United  States Pavilion. My French was never any good but my love of the culture flourished. In the  summer of 1989 I was able to fully enjoy being a Francophile at the French Bicentennial. I lived in the 7th arrondissement and spent most of my summer in revolutionary related  activities and fun, as well as in cafes, at the Paris Opera, museums, a tour of the sewers,  bars, cemeteries, and a trip to the nearly completed Bastille Opera. Paris was filled with all  types of entertainment on the streets and in the old haunts.

As I watched Philippe Petit walk on a wire across the Seine from the Trocadéro to the Eiffel  Tower, I was transformed into a French citizen. He read from “Les Droits des Hommes” as  the loudspeakers carried it to tens of thousands of listeners. Some were in tears, others simply intoxicated. The festival mood kept everyone busy and happy.

Shortly after returning to the Bay Area in 1998 from a short hiatus, I stumbled into Boaz  Accordions. It was just around the corner from where my sister (who also plays accordion) and lives on the Emeryville-Berkeley border.  Boaz Rubin and his wife Judith were definitely hoarders as well as deeply involved in their commitment to keep the accordion alive and well.  His repair shop was just a small part of how he and Judy worked to elevate the status  of the beleaguered accordion.5

One of his first apprentices was Skyler Fell who apparently first started working with him  somewhat as a volunteer. When she approached Boaz about learning the repair business, he was only too happy to educate someone from the younger generation.6 The transmission of this knowledge has included an apprenticeship with the Maestro himself, Vince Cirelli. It is crucial that the proper maintenance of the musette tuning be cared for by experts. No amateurs allowed.7 I have great respect for those who can operate on an accordion with the Skill and precision of a surgeon.

Boaz also apprenticed with Cirelli and from Gordon Piantanesi.8 In one of Boaz’s pamphlets  he stated a call to action: a paragraph from the prison diaries of Sir Irius Mashin.9 It was a cleverly written plea to accordion players to use a “…socialist musette tuning…” His theory  was that a musette switch is a proletariat act against the bourgeoisie. Rubin’s persona urged people to sing and dance out of tune and play with the dissonant musette switch so as to  bring about anarchy because “dissonance is threatening…and so playing with [a] musette switch is a revolutionary act.”

While there is no historical evidence of this ever occurring, it certainly has provided me with a  compelling introduction to my brief history of the musette.10

Musette 101

Bouscatel et sa cabrette
Bouscatel et sa cabrette bagpipe with bellows under right arm

The musette name itself also derives from an older small bagpipe-like instrument that was  played in the center of France, especially in Auvergne. Musette still refers to s small backpack  used by soldiers and people alike. Basically, the valse musette (triple-meter dance) is a blend  of folk music from Auvergne with a light Parisian style of dancing popular at the end of the  19th century.

Accordion switches allow the accordionist to achieve various timbre, thus producing an  evocative ambience. A Bassoon or Bandonéon switch is perfect for tangos. The clarinet or  oboe switch is usually heard with more delicate melodies. Accordions do not arrive with the  switch unless it is installed at the factory or a special request is made to modify the accordion so as to ‘borrow’ a switch, converting it into a musette. The piano accordion should always  be played with a musette switch on if in the performance of bal musette dancing.

Many accordionists request and prefer the Italian musette tuning, rather than the French  tuning, since it is not quite as discordant. The musette switch sounds as though it is slightly  out of tune in its “wet” vibrato resonance. One reed is tuned sharp and the other tuned flat  to create a quavering due to the vibrating frequencies. These reeds become even more out  of tune with the other reeds.

French and Italian musette is heard, more often than not, with a specific dance genre, the  triple metered waltz.11 The music itself is written with certain common melodic and  harmonic techniques including the following characteristics: Melodic embellishments are often  used with arpeggios, especially triplet figures, and ornamentations or grace notes precede a  new melodic phrase; glissandos are often heard at the dramatic conclusion in a tango-musette genre. Rhythmic juxtapositions of three against two are also popular and eighth note triplets as well as eighth notes in duple meter.

Will it matter if I don’t have a musette switch? Will I be unable to play the dances? Of course  not. If played with expression, joyous exuberance, sensitivity, and grace, the musette waltzes will sound great. But there is a caveat: once you have played a beautifully tuned accordion with a musette switch, you may never return to the dry-tuned, concert accordion.

A Brief History of the Musette Music and the Bal Musette

The musette-tuned accordion music is immensely appealing, evoking the romantic cafes,  sidewalks and dance halls of Paris. It contrasts major and minor in its structure, often using parallel major-minor relationships (rather than harmonic minors). If one plays in A minor in  the “A” section; then, it will often be followed by A major in the “B” section. The “B” section is  usually the ‘spinning” or triplet part, sometimes called la toupie.

If there is a trio section (“C” section) it will generally be played in the original minor key or a  closely related key; it is a more relaxed section where the dancers can come closer together.  The basic form is similar to a mazurka: A BB A C A. This structural form is instantly recognizable, with its minor keys that shift the emotional response to a sad, nostalgic  ambience, often coupled with jaunty triplets, and embracing melodies in the major section.

Most often the harmonic structure supports the melody; it also can provide a counterpoint  melody. “Le Petit Valse” exhibits this tendency. Occasionally, in the musette-manouche music,  it can display fleeting chromatic dissonances.  In particular, the energetic French javas (somewhat like the energetic Mexican jotas) use parallel keys and sound better when played  in “one” rather than a fast triple meter. These one-step dances and fast waltzes reveal the  resilience of the human heart as it faces perennial heartache and disappointment in the final  minor section (which is almost always the return to the first section of the piece).

In the 1880s and the arrival of actual leisure time in society, the French guinguettes (public  dancehalls) became the popular outdoor drinking establishments. It took a few decades before the accordion arrived in Paris and its environs. These venues provided musette bands  to entertain and draw a crowd. Afternoon and early evening soirées enabled mixed social  classes to mingle, lubricated by alcohol consumption (often absinthe or grenadine mixed with  something stronger) while breaking through the social and economic barriers.

Most public dance halls did not charge admission; instead, men purchased tokens minted by  each of the bals (dance halls). Five sous was the price of a dance so one purchased only as many as might be needed. These worthless tokens were made out of cheap metals but you  could buy a dance (and maybe have a little fun on the side).12

In Paris and its suburbs, these en plein air venues provided artists like Renoir and the other  Impressionists with the reflection of light from nearby rivers and the fluidity of the dancers. Not all public dance halls were illuminated: some were in stark contrast. The rough areas of  Paris, like Mémilmontant, Belleville, and Pigalle which might only have gas lit dancehalls and  open for business only at night. The dark world of the Moulin Rouge and its class of women  (the demimonde) offered acrobatic entertainment, jugglers, exhibition dancing, skits, and  special secret hideaways for a clandestine rendezvous. The guests and entertainers all  roamed on the fringes of society and talked about visiting “Paname” a pseudonym for the  darker side of Paris. Within the Pigalle arrondissement (also known as the Red Light District)  some catered more to the “mulots”13 the ‘mice’ or regular crowd than to the more upscale  cabaret crowd or the musette society.

Still the musette was heard in all these various venues and on the streets of Paris that led to  the guinguettes. The birthplace of the bal musette is generally accepted as the Bastille district  also called the 12th arrondissement. Dancehalls saturated both the 11th and 12th districts.  But the accordion would have to travel far from its original home in Vienna, its birthplace. It was there that the accordion would begin its journey. Paris would become its home while the  dancehalls became its permanent address.

Vienna had long been well established as the waltz capital of the world by Johann Strauss.  Victorians found it pleasant but by 1900, the Gay Nineties had kicked up its heels. The fin de  siècle ignited a new sense of liberation as personal and sensual expression culminated with  the unleashing of the Freudian Id and the First World War. Waltzes were no longer just in long, flowing gowns.

The Viennese Waltz King and the painter Gustav Klimt created the swirling rhythms and  patterns of this intoxicating period but it would not last long. Maurice Ravel, Stravinsky, and others were the first to break ranks and abandon the lilting waltzes of the dance halls to  concentrate on the erotic impulse in their concert hall. Still, the dance halls were heavily  populated and dance bands brought in the ‘vulgar’ instruments, so to speak. Banjos,  banjolins, mandolins, guitars, violins, and accordions fueled faster dancing and excited the  dancers in new ways.

It was Viennese citizen Cyrillus Damian who may have come up with the prototype of the  accordion in 1829. These small portable button boxes made little progress and few  improvements until late in the century. They were amusing little boxes for those who could not afford a real piano but that would change with technological improvements and a couple  of Italian brothers who debuted the piano accordion in San Francisco.

It was 1910 when Pietro and Guido Deiro, (often cited as the two brothers who elevated it in the United States) introduced it on the West Coast. It had been invented in a little town called Salto Canavese outside of Turino. Whereas the diatonic and chromatic easily portable button  box (especially concertinas) lacked volume for the most part and were not that versatile, the piano accordion was be built larger, with stronger steel reeds and bellows, and it proved to be more capable of providing a versatile rhythm with its melody.

Once the piano accordion debuted in the dance halls of San Francisco, it was not long before  dance bands put it front and center here as well as in Paris. As the Italian accordion  manufacturers began to populate North Beach, every home had an accordion. This Italian community pulled together to survive the 1906 earthquake and to open music studios where the new wave of immigrants learned to play a new instrument as well as the old concertina.

Ragtime and vaudeville may have competed in the fun and entertainment field but the  accordion was everyone’s favorite instrument at summer picnics and dance halls.14 Music  catalogs were saturated with arrangements, marches, and polkas but they also expanded  the dancehall’s favorite couples’ dances: the one-step, fox trot, mazurka, waltz, and java. The Latin dances would have to wait until the 1920s to establish themselves but they  sneaked into the bal musette as pasos dobles with musicians such as Django Reinhardt.

How The Musette Got Its Groove

disque old musetteItalians were arriving with their luggage and their button boxes. Italian immigrants in the  south of France, particularly Marseilles, brought their talents and banked on their abilities to give them reliable employment. Naturally, this invasion of Italians was frowned upon by many Parisians. Antiimmigration attitudes prevailed as Italians tried to assimilate during the first decade. The accordion battle was to take place against one of the most respected, beloved  folk instruments to arrive in high society, the cabrette (bagpipe). It descended from the  musette de cour and had a long history in the dance genre.

Alas, the Darwinian forces worked against the cabrette. It had not evolved or technically been improved since its inception. On the other hand, the musette- tuned accordion evolved and vied for dominance; ultimately, it would win. By the 1910, it had displaced the cabrette  almost entirely. Here’s how it happened:

In that first decade, a fortuitous encounter with a  world class cabrettaire (Antoine Bouscatel 1867-1945) and a family of Italian immigrant  musicians, the Péguri family, produced a dynasty through the marriage of Bouscatel’s daughter who married one of Félix Péguri’s sons.

Félix had opened an accordion factory and sold accordions in Paris starting in the early  1890s. He sold all types including diatonic and chromatic button accordions. Péguri’s three  sons Charles, Michel, and Louis went on to compose, front bands, and perform.  They  catapulted the accordion into the bal musette bands.15 Two sons became bandleaders in the manouche period.

Above Cabrettaire with cabrette bagpipe

The Italians had to work hard at being accepted. At first, fierce resistance brought about a  racialist attitude. That “despicable accordion” was brought over by those “Ritals” (meaning  Italians). The denigration subsided when Cabrettists reconciled, some learning to play the new musette. They had reason to be fearful. The accordion was bigger, louder, and starting  to technically evolve. The cabrette had not improved in hundreds of years.

By the time the descendents of these immigrants from various provinces and countries  settled in Paris, dancehalls were already beginning to enjoy the sounds of the musette  accordion players:  Émile “Mimile” Vacher (d. 1969), Joseph Colombo, Marceau Vershuren, and Émil Prudhomme were some names that brought about that positive change in attitude.16

Originally, the musette sound was associated with the cabrette, a small goatskin bagpipe; it  was one of the most popular folkdance instruments in the 19th century. The comparison of  bagpipe to accordion is puzzling. These two instruments seem to share only one thing in  common: bellows. That shared characteristic puts them in the wind instrument category but  one would be hard-pressed to call the bagpipe an actual forerunner of the accordion; nevertheless, the concept of pushing air in and out of the bellows is hard to ignore and the  musette resonance is unmistakably similar.

Auvergnat immigrants from central France brought the ‘bagpipe’ musette with them when  they abandoned the agricultural life for a chance at being middle class shop owners in the urbanized cities. Some even operated the dance halls which featured the country dances: bourrées, polkas, mazurkas, and, above all, fast waltzes or what the French call javas. There are several etymologies for this word.

The Java dance got its name from a dancehall in Pigalle, Le Rat Mort. Musette accordion  pieces are often written as a java, a fast dance. Lou Casalnuovo, fellow Sicilian accordionist, gave me a manuscript titled “Sogno di Java.”17 Java does not refer to an island, nor is it  coffee. Evidently, according to one source, it is dialect or a corruption of the French “Ça va?”  or “How’s it going?” “Ça” is pronounced “Cha” in Auvergnat, and that might have sounded more like “Jaw.” Thus, this fast, somewhat vulgar waltz may have been dubbed Java. It may  have derived some chassé steps from the Italian mazurka as well.

In the 1900s just as the musette accordion appeared in urban centers, brought by Italian  immigrant workers, the Java dances were epidemic. One of the most famous Italian  immigrants from Marseilles arrived in Paris in time to take advantage of the musette dance craze as well. Vincent Scotto (1876- 1952) went on to write some of the most memorable  bal musette songs including “La Java Bleue.” The American singer Josephine Baker and  Parisian Edith Piaf debuted, sang and danced to his music.

Finally, it seemed that the discrimination against Italians would subside. With so many Italian composers, musicians, accordion manufacturers excelling at what they did, the French music  circles had to acknowledge their prodigious contributions to the musette repertoire.

When the variety of dances expanded between the two World Wars with the java and the  apache18 (pronounced ah- PAHSH), the dance halls became a melting pot of desire fueled by laissezfaire attitudes so prevalent during the Roaring Twenties. These types of ‘dirty dancing’  included simulated violence to women in the form of slaps and punches, as well as the  sexually charged, intertwining, hands-on one’s partner’s derrière. It was de rigueur.

bal musette pigalleThe Young Turks who replaced the Victorian dandies would swagger onto the dance floor to  the delight of the ladies of the evening. This quasiunderworld with its coded signals and gestures came to typify the sleazy demimonde of the public bal musettes.  The association  and history of dancing, midnight pleasure, and crime dates back to at least the time of the  French Revolution in the Bastille district.19

With the 1930s, a world wide depression introduced greater use of legal drugs such as  marijuana, cocaine, and other intoxicants. Jazz musicians used these to enhance  improvisation skills. If you were reading a basic chart, you could experiment with the motifs, straying from the basic line but keeping up with the unpredictable ad-libbing.

Once jazz infiltrated the musette dance halls, the lively swing style and the graceful vals  musette coalesced. If you prefer, they clashed and created an eclectic challenge for musicians and for dancers alike.

In the late 1930s, the fusion of Swing and Jazz produced an exotic influence known as  Manouche. This word derived from the Romany culture, the roaming, homeless gypsies who  lived outside society’s laws and customs. Violins usually took the lead, incorporating jazz improvisation. Manouche or a gypsy style playing melded with Swing and musette. In the  triple meter this often meant that the ‘up beat’ would be the strong beat, rather than the  “down beat.”

It featured a rhythmic strumming associated with the banjo and provided an accompaniment  to the many nonwritten melodies. Django Reinhardt (1910-1953) and Stéphane Grapelli (1908-1997) started their careers buskering and in musette bands in Paris before they  ‘invented’ the more chromatic, bluesy style of jazz manouche.20

Unfortunately, the musette accordion couldn’t bend the notes in the same way as a guitar so the accordion disappeared from many jazz manouche bands, staying in the back alleys until Edith Piaf discovered it and legitimized it on stage during her cabaret shows. If there is an official musical instrument of France, it probably became the accordion during this period.  Finally, the accordion got the respect it deserved when Edith began to feature extremely  talented accordionists such as Michel Emer and Tony Murena.

Michel Emer and Edith Piaf
Michel Emer and Edith Piaf

Edith Piaf (1915-1963) began her career on the streets of Paris and singing in the bal  musettes. It is often said that her ‘voice was rinsed in the gutters of Paris.” She was  fortunate to be discovered, worshipped, and adored by a Parisian impresario Louis Lepleé  who could afford to hire the finest for her concerts.21 She paid tribute to her low origins and  to its hard-working musicians and accordionists on stage.

One of her signature javas was L’Accordéoniste composed by accordionist Michel Emer  (1906-1984). He became one of Piaf’s favorite accompanists.  She enlisted and acquired  more musicians as she broadened her repertoire. Marguerite Monnot, Charles Dumont, and  Norbert Glanzberg were Piaf’s stable of composers and pianists. They all carried on the  tradition of bal musette even as the style morphed with Swing and Jazz but she never forgot the musette feeling. Angel Cabral’s “La Foule” is an example of a dizzyingly fast java.

The musette accordion was perfectly suited for the waltz, even more so than piano.   Accordion wizards like Gus Viseur, Tony Murena and Jo Privat took to the road to promote it  outside of Paris.  Viseur was one of the most prolific performers who stayed true to the original musette concert. Others traveled to the United States and sat in with the Big Bands.  Americans fell in love with the music, the musicians, and the optimistic energy. They could not get enough of the happy-go-lucky Parisian lifestyle. The songs arrived on the Hit Parade,  Jukeboxes, and the weekly radio and television shows. Right through the 1950s, the  accordion was the most popular instrument.

Above Gus Viseur 1915 1974

The virtuosity of these button box and piano accordionists can be fully appreciated in the  gathering of France’s finest accordionists in the photograph below which was taken at a  popular club in Paris. It is no wonder that the Lawrence Welk show on American television  placed the accordion in the center of its weekly music variety show. The Squeeze Box was  sexy! But it was male-dominated as the photograph only shows one female accordionist,  probably Yvette Horner.

Famous musette accordionists
Aimable Pluchard Jo Privat Edouard Duleu<br >Back Row Yvette Horner

Although from the 1960s onwards, rock, disco and newer dance music marginalized the  musette accordion, its style survived remarkably well. Charles Aznavour and others have  kept it in their chanson repertoire. The musette button box went on to infiltrate and adapt  itself to Louisiana’s Cajun, Zydeco, and even French Rockin’ Boogie dance music. It remains a  preferred keyboard choice in Italian ballo liscio performances and recordings, too.22

The future of bal musette depends upon open-minded, informed teachers and performers  who can demonstrate its beauty, grace, and virtuosity. The legacy will be that a younger  generation can learn how to take the bal musette style of music across several platforms  and still maintain the integrity of its origins. The global connectivity provides educators will  access to it as well.

With the advantage of World Wide Web, it is possible to be entertained  24/7 with non-stop musette songs.23 With so many influences, it remains firmly rooted in  the classical waltz, infinitely suited for jazz, and endearingly appropriate as dance music for all  festive occasions.

San Francisco Bay Area’s Bal Musette Scene

While the Italian communities cultivated the comparable ballo liscio (smooth dancing) music  to an art form in the San Francisco Bay Area, the French immigrants had not been quite as successful. For several decades, North Beach sprouted dozens of dance halls where the  couples dancing music could be heard but French venues were few and far between.

Even though the Alliance Française had opened its doors in 1889 for French classes, the  French community had always been relatively small when compared to the en masse  immigrations from other European countries.24 Still, it has helped to promote social events where musicians and dancers can enjoy the legacy of bal musette.

Traditionally, it has been cafés and restaurants that have provided what little French music is  heard but rarely were the venues for public dancing. One of the most memorable venues was Le Montmartre on Broadway, in San Francisco’s North Beach. Françoise Allemand opened it  after the war and it ran successfully for more than three decades. In 1979 accordionists Mike Corino and Tom Cordoni produced a live recording that included several musette dances.25

In the North Bay, the wine culture produced a home for French and Italians alike. In 1904 Al  Rossi, an Italian Swiss immigrant opened Little Switzerland in Sonoma County. Its waltz- polka calendar is full and the tri-lingual Alpine communities still arrive on weekends to enjoy the traditional dances.26 In Paris, the Tyrolean bal musettes included multi-instrumentalists who would also perform basic circus acts and clown around as well. The “Lil Swiss” does not  provide that type of entertainment but it is certainly a venue based on the Parisian musette  prototype.

The co-mingling of polkas and waltzes has enabled the new owners to thrive and serve a  more modern, diverse crowd. What isn’t surprising is that quite a few Italian composers  crossed over easily to the bal musette style. The mandolinist-guitarist Pete Tarzia (1908- 1981) composed in the bal musette fashion using the idioms so essential to the style. His  “Echoes of Paris” is still played at Caffè Trieste. Michele “Mike” Corino (b. 1918) an Italian- born accordionist whose prolific compositions include musette waltzes, has contributed to its  vitality and played them around the world. He fronted his own bands, taught accordion  students, and operated the Corino School of Music on Columbus Avenue in North Beach.27 His “Una Notte a Parigi” is representative of a valzer musette genre.28

Baguette quartet
The Baguette Quartette c 1998

A younger generation of accordionists arrived to carry the torch. Since the 1990s the  Berkeley based group “Baguette Quartette”29 has captured the attention of everyone. With its versatile repertoire and brilliant performance by Odile Lavault on her 4 row chromatic  button box, bal musette will not suffer any demise any time soon. Her ensemble has excelled at recreating Rive Gauche and Pigalle’s Parisian café scene. They strive to provide a theatrical  verisimilitude to complement the music. Her mise-enscene presentations often involve a realistic background to give her audience an even greater authenticity. Whether she is  performing in front of a Silent Screen classic in the Castro, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in  Albany, or Rancho Nicasio in Marin, her virtuosic technique is flawlessly impassioned with  panache at each touch of the buttons. She has almost single-handedly preserved the  musette tradition.

More recently there have been memorable Hollywood and European celluloid contributions.  These much loved musette waltzes and javas are given new life in an old context. French film has helped in that regard starting in the 1930s with “La Belle Equipe.” Some music scores and composers are stretching the tradition to fit a more contemporary audience. For example, the big summer film hit of 2001 was Amélie. Brittany-born composer Guillaume Yann Tiersen  (born 1970) has sustained the musette flair in some of his pieces, including the title hit “La  Valse d’Amélie.” In 2007 “Ratatouille” featured jazz accordionist Frank Marocco’s jazz  manouche-musette renditions while Chef Linguini worked in the kitchen with the assistance of a culinary rat.

In the North Bay, a recent transplant is the gravelly voiced, talented Michel Saga whose  French Barrel Organ makes the rounds at the local farmers markets, French wineries, and  summer picnics. He’s produced a couple of CDs with bal musette at the center of his  repertoire.30  Michel has also renewed the jazz –gypsy manouche fusion in his band “Rue Manouche.” Based in Sonoma, they present the old Django feel while keeping the bal musette tradition alive.

Another local addition to the bal musette scene has been the talented accordionist Robert  Lunceford and his trio “Un, Deux, Trois” with Lisa Iskin, guitar and vocals, and Josh  Fossgreen, guitar. Currently, they perform in local Santa Rosa café venues and accordion clubs.

Logo for Un Deux Trois

Chanson and musette accordion team is comprised of Dave Miotke (accordion) and  chanteuse Hélène Attia.32 Both musicians have recreated the Parisian cabaret ambience with a basic script and songs. They draw from Marguerite Monnot, Vincent Scotto, Jacques Brel,  among others. In 2008, they brought the French Café to life in one evening at the Marin  Theatre Company where the staged soirée played to a packed audience.33

Quatorze de Juillet, 2009 Michael and Sheri
Quatorze de Juillet 2009 Michael and Sheri

Even more recently, Due Zighi Baci (Two Little Gypsy Kisses) has been producing its own  multimedia cabaret shows to sold-out crowds. When tenor Michael Van Why completed his  music degree at Sonoma State University, his recital concentrated on the French classical  repertoire. Soon after joining Zighi Baci (my ever-evolving now fourpiece dance band) in early 2008, Michael became a distinguished tenore lirico singing Neapolitan classics in the
bel canto tradition of Beniamino Gigli and Claudio Villa. Soon he and I began to augment the repertoire with French chanson to complement the Neapolitan and Italian canzone.

The French repertoire includes all of most memorable songs from Piaf’s best composers,  Armenian born French vocalist/composer Charles Azanavour, Claude-Michel Schonberg,  Jacques Brel, and classic standards from Cole Porter and Jerome Kern. The interdisciplinary shows introduce the audience to the meaning behind the French and Italian songs and  educate the listeners so that a greater appreciation is gained through the use of a narration,  art slides, and images that explain the text.

The broadening collection of European Café songs has blended well and provided even more  opportunities to perform in concert settings.34 Due Zighi Baci also has integrated repertoire  in its much loved “A Panini on a Croissant” which ran for several months at the French  Garden, Sebastopol. “Vive La France”, “Gypsy Serenade” and “Cafe Bohème” have been well  attended Fourteenth of July events. The Romance language mix challenges both musician and vocalist in new ways. This decision to develop more of the French dance repertoire and  incorporate French chanson has enabled us to explore a much broader repertoire.

Due Zighi Baci continues to shape the evolution of bal musette by including pre-show dances  with accordionist Xavier de la Prade. Just as Piaf brought her snappy javas and mournful  songs to the streets of Paris, Due Zighi Baci has been bringing these songs to a younger audience who may have never heard of these songs. We showcase Piaf’s stable of  composers such as Charles Trenet, Marguerite Monnot, Charles Dumont, and Vincent Scotto  whose numerous songs were adopted by so many Parisian chanteuses including Josephine  Baker.

Two Gypsy Kisses

Due Zighi Baci is a duo of simplicity and with vocal and accordion complexities. The diversity  in its repertoire has renewed the dance traditions in France’s popular late 19th century guinguettes. Whether it’s a waltz from a Jean Renoir film (“Complainte de la Butte”) or an  intoxicating java from Michel Emer, Due Zighi Baci and so many others continue to provide a  great service by sustaining the vitality of French café music that for so long was languishing.35 Together, the bay area is well served by so many great musicians who strive  to recreate the charming, energetic bal musette style.

Vive La France !


i Mary Blume, A French Affair, pp.128-130.  Written in 1984, her anecdotal chapter provides some insight in the use/abuse of the accordion.
ii Flynn, Davison, Chavez. The Golden Age of the Accordion. p. 74. Vince’s successor, technician Skyler Fell, opened her shop in San Francisco c.2006.
iii Ibid, p. 142.
4 See pp. 3031. The Italian equivalent is ballo liscio (smooth dancing) or couples dancing
waltzes, mazurkas, polkas etc.
5 https://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Yes-Accordions-The-squeeze-box-is-making-a-2885490.php
6 www.accordionapocalypse.com For more details about the encounter with Vince Cirelli, Pietro Deiro, and Mike Corino.
7 John Reuther. Accordion Repairs Made Easy.  O.Pagani & Bros. 1956. Reprint Ernest Deffner Publications, Meneola, NY. The Chapter on Reeds begins on page 49
8 Personal interview, July 19, 2008. Penngrove, CA.
9 Boaz Rubin. Accordion to Boaz: The Hot Air Collection. Berkeley, CA. November 2001. It was first published in the monthly newsletter of the Accordion circle of the East Bay. A caveat appeared on the first page from the Editor, Boaz’ wife, Judy Rubin: Please don’t take any of it seriously, but do enjoy it.
10 Rubin wanted a law requiring accordionists who play block chords to register with the federal government. (Not a bad idea at all if you ask me).
11 Henri Ducharme, an accordion teacher at Boaz Accordions, in the late 1990s taught wonderful classes that introduced students to specific techniques and styles. www.henriducharme.com
12 Michael Dregni. Django: the Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend. Oxford University Press: 2004. (The opening chapters are especially relevant.)
13 AKA “guinches” or the low-lifes; also refers to seedy places to dance.
14 Flynn, Davison, & Chavez, Golden Age of the Accordion. Flynn Publications: Schertz, TX. 1992. This book provides a series of biographical sketches, background, and firsthand accounts of the pioneering decades of the accordion in San Francisco.
15 Michael Dregni. Django: The Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend, chapters 2-3.
16 A fairly complete Index of names by the decade can be found in the Appendix along with the dance halls.
17 “Dream of Java” This dance is included in the sheet music collection. Lou passed away in 2010.
18 Apaches (AKA julots) also refers to Belleville’s gangsters and low-lifes.
19 Claude Dubois. La Bastoche: Bal-Musette, plaisir et crime 1750-1939. Editions du Felin, 1997.
20 Michael Dregni. Django: The Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend, chapters 2-3.
21 I strongly suggest that one read Piaf’s halfsister’s book, Piaf. Simone Berteau presents a raw, unvarnished truth about the struggle to survive. he sanitized version of this book ws the basis for the film titled Piaf. The biogrpahy is remarkable for its audacity, honest portrayal and it is gritty to the core.
22 My mandolin ensemble’s repertoire remains rooted this genre. See pp. 3031.
23 http://delicast.com/radio/France/La_Yaute_Valse_Musette
24 Claudine Chalmers. French San Francisco. Arcadia Publishing: 2001. Mainly photographic but with a good overview.
25 “Live at Le Montmartre”, San Francisco 1979. Author’s copy. Some bal musette songs on the CD include Petit Fleur, Domino, Le Gamin de Paris, River Seine. Corino used a Cordavox without the musette switch. A complete list of his compositions is in the Corino biographical sketch chapter.
26 www.lilswiss.com 19080 Riverside, Sonoma-El Verano, CA
27 Please see my other book, Mandolins, Like Salami, for a more complete biography and music catalogs. The ballo liscio dances are discussed at length. www.zighibaci.com.
28 A complete list of his compositions is located in the Corino biographical sketch.
29 http://www.baguettequartette.org/
30 Michel Saga sings Songs of Paris, Vol I. Volume 2 has been recently released.
31 No photos were available at time of printing.
32 http://heleneattia.com/
33 Crayon drawing by Janet Baer.
34 www.eurocafemusic.com
35 France has exported some edgy groups like Negresses Vertes, the Garçon Bouchers, The Tête Raides and Paris Combo. Listen to “Café Parisien” for a fine musette collection (a lot of Gus Viseur) and a little history behind it all.

What about in Canada? Especially since Quebec is a French Province?

Well there is a very important Accordion Festival in Montmagny many know about here.

Accordion Festival

And they give an important part to musette accordion with French players regularly invited.

There is also Mario Bruneau.

The accordionist Mario Bruneau

Mario is the author of THE ACCORDION GUIDE. He also specialize in musette accordion and history.

You can listen to his style on his YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/c/mariobruneau



  1. This a brilliant article. Thanks so much.
    During a recent trip to Northern France I bought more than 300 old 78 records from a junk dealer. (I own a wind up gramophone)
    Some of them go back to the early 1900s….most are from the 1930s and 40s.
    A lot are accordion players including Charles Peguri. I knew nothing about musette until I started researching based on the records I have. Thanks once again.
    bob walker

    • Thanks Bob,

      It would be interesting to investigate further in your 78 records collection.

      I am interested.

      Maybe we can post some of them here.

      best regards

      PS contacted you via private email