Regardless of the builder or the method, all homemade instruments are true labors of love, meant to be played and enjoyed. For many accordion builders, this is especially true.
The diatonic accordion was invented in 1828 in Vienna, and quickly became a popular folk instrument across the ocean, in large part due to its durability and versatility. Its loud bass chords made it the ultimate one-man band. By the late 1800s, German-Jewish retailers like Mervine Kahn’s in Rayne began selling early imported accordions. Those first squeeze boxes were complicated affairs with several rows of buttons, cheap tin reeds that were hard to keep in tune and bellows that tore easily.
Post-World War I, smaller, louder, less complicated accordions with a single row of buttons dominated the growing music scene. These instruments, Monarchs, Sterlings and Eagles, were greatly improved, but still hid their imperfections in black paint. Their sheer volume, bolstered by steel reeds and sturdier bellows, made them the feature of Cajun bands. Limited to twenty notes (10 each, pushing and pulling) on a simple scale with two pairs of bass chords, musicians were forced to simplify their melodies and arrangements.
With the onset of the Second World War, German factories switched from making musical instruments to war machinery. This shortage of instruments in South Louisiana coincided with a wave of social change and Americanization. Traditional bands and their dominant accordion gave way to western swing string bands, amplification and strictly English lyrics.
Returning GIs crowded the dancehalls, nostalgic for the sounds and songs of their homeland. Many a performer dusted off his accordion and stepped again onto the stage, but many others needed replacements. Post-war German accordions were of such inferior quality, they drove up the prices of the older neglected Monarchs, Sterlings and Eagles.
Regional accordion builders first surfaced in the 1940s in Cecilia and the 1950s in Lake Charles, as those who repaired the instruments began fabricating their own replacement parts and, subsequently, entirely new accordions built from scratch.
The first of these craftsmen, Sidney Brown of Lake Charles, made his instruments of cheap lumber and even Masonite painted black to copy those first German accordions. Another Lake Charles builder, Valentin Lopez, named his products “Starling” in open imitation of the German model.
The relationship between a musician and his instrument is heightened when he also knows how to build his instrument. The accordion is a frustratingly intricate and sensitive instrument that requires its builder to exercise patience, persistence and self-discipline.
The result, says builder Jude Moreau, is an instrument that will outlive its builder and its first owner. “They only get better,” agrees fellow builder Rusty Sanner. Joel Martin, of the third generation of accordion makers Martin Accordions in Scott, explains that even when built in batches, each accordion’s parts are made individually and by hand.
Marc Savoy, of Savoy Music Center in Eunice, began his building career by disassembling and rebuilding his own Sears & Roebuck Hohner, improving upon its design using imported bellows and reeds, plus “a few instruments such as Db meters, electronic tuners, a few pressure gauges and [his] mother’s vacuum cleaner.” He also eliminated the need to paint his accordions black, by using maple and other fine woods.
Randy Falcon makes “only 20 to 25” accordions each year, and in his four decades of building, has improved upon the design of the diatonic accordion. His patented dual-pitch melodeon allows the musician to play in two different keys on the same instrument and was inspired by watching Wayne Toups perform at a festival. “He kept having to switch between accordions” and Falcon figured there had to be a better way. What once was born of necessity has now become a thriving cottage industry of innovation and ever-higher standards.
Today, you can visit several of these workshops in the Acadiana area and witness the ingenuity, creativity and dedication that produce the specialized instruments of Cajun and Creole music. Many have followed Marc Savoy’s lead and experiment with various native hardwoods and shell inlays, making objects of true beauty and exquisite sound. Their trademarks proudly reflect the region and their roots: Acadian, Cajun, Creole, Evangeline, Teche, Magnolia, Mamou, Cajun Roots, La Prairie, as well as a slew of family names including Lejeune, Martin, Falcon, Leger, Michot, Hebert, and Richard.