In a region renowned for its rich cultural soundtrack, the ways musicians acquire their instruments is rarely, if ever, discussed. Yet without those instruments—many of them specialized for the musical world of South Louisiana—the music would not exist.
Today, it might be easy enough for a working musician in the area to head to a local music shop, put their money down, and walk out with a fiddle or accordion, even a rubboard or triangle. But that was not always the case. Before the rise of mass production, mail order catalogs and general merchandise stores in the late nineteenth century, musicians relied on local resources. Early instrument builders developed their craft using available materials, ingenuity and dedication.
Several generations later, many South Louisiana instrument makers are internationally known and respected for their high standards, technique and above all, artistry. Some of them started out in the old fashioned way—they were self-taught and relied upon nearby materials. Others created, refined and then perfected the instruments so necessary for the music’s distinctive sound.
Whether it’s a bright pink Savoy accordion or a stately violin built by Lionel Leleux (pictured below), a carefully turned Montoucet triangle or a rubboard fabricated by second-generation maker Tee Don Landry, these craftsmen’s dedication to building instruments runs as deep as the culture they’re connected to. What’s more, the instrument builders directly contribute to the preservation, enhancement and proliferation of Louisiana’s indigenous musical genres.
South Louisiana’s musical landscape stretches from fiddle and accordion-driven Cajun tunes to the rubboard and accordion-propelled zydeco, but it also includes the rock and roll, rhythm and blues-influenced grooves of swamp pop and homegrown forms of rock, country, and hip-hop. The origins of this musical diversity resulted from centuries-long cultural intermingling in the area.
These roots stretch back to the colonial period of Louisiana’s history, when French Creoles and Acadians with a shared knowledge of the folk songs of western France, Native Americans with their progressive, wailing singing style and Black Creoles with their African and Caribbean-influenced rhythms and song forms, lived side-by-side and influenced one another’s music. The instruments they played would have ranged from gourd shakers and flutes to animal skin drums and the stringed instruments the Europeans arrived with. Spanish settlers brought their guitar, but the popular French violin dominated the early Louisiana music scene until German-Jewish immigrants began importing diatonic accordions.
The western French musical tradition had used brass instruments like the cornet, reeds like the bonbarde, variants of the bagpipe family like the biniou and the cabrette, and stringed instruments like the violin. Early settlers in the Attakapas District (present-day south-central Louisiana) probably didn’t travel with delicate instruments, nor is it likely that Acadian exiles arrived in 1765 with fiddles in their hands. True to their reputation, there is documentation that they danced to music made by voice alone, and by the 1780s mentions of instruments in official documents include the violin and clarinet.
According to Freddi Williams Evans, author of Congo Square: African Roots in New Orleans, enslaved African American musicians made their own instruments out of “materials from nature,” and they based their creations on those they or their ancestors had known in Africa. The main instruments were drums of all shapes, sizes and tones, but they often were supplemented with string and wind instruments. The human body played a role, as well, as performers would clap hands, stamp feet, pat their chests and thighs and, of course, vocalize melodies.
Although we know a lot less about the musical instruments of the early Native Americans who encountered the Europeans and their African slaves, we can say that music played a large role in their ceremonial lives. Antoine-Simon le Page du Pratz, in his 1758 L’Histoire de la Louisiane, noted that during one of the annual Natchez feast days, “A man places himself on the ground with a pot covered with a deer-skin, in the manner of a drum, to beat time to the dances.” Beyond drums, Native Americans likely would have used other percussive instruments such as rattles and flutes made out of wood, or possibly bone, and the oldest instrument of all, the human voice.
Thus three musical streams converged in South Louisiana during the colonial era—one from Europe, one from Africa and one already in America. The cultural interactions of Europeans, Africans and Native Americans continued well beyond the Louisiana Purchase, and in many ways are still evident today. As that continued, however, the instruments of South Louisiana music consolidated around certain string, wind, and percussive instruments in the aftermath of the Purchase, and especially after the Civil War. And while some of these instruments might have been purchased in a shop of some sort, as they were played at house dances and other social gatherings, they would fall into disrepair, and as they needed repairs, their nuances were revealed and early builders began to make their own primitive copies.
Research by folklorists Barry Ancelet and Mathé Allain uncovered evidence of early South Louisiana builders making instruments in the 1800s. One, a blind craftsman from the Marais Bouleur area of St. Landry Parish (near present-day Bosco), was known for building triangular-shaped stringed instruments modeled from a sixteenth-century Italian cello style. This design pre-dates the universally accepted Stradivari design of stringed instruments that present-day violin builders study and strive to accomplish in their own work. Emar Andrepont on Prairie Ronde was the earliest known “orchestra-quality” violin maker. A landowner of comfortable means, he built over 60 violins but refused to sell a single one, instead giving them to family members who have treasured the heirlooms and kept the collection intact within the family.
Several older musicians remember sneaking off to play a family member’s instrument and how hard they worked to purchase their own first accordion, fiddle, or guitar. Historically, instruments were rare and treasured—difficult to come by and own. However, if someone showed an early interest or proclivity toward a particular instrument, usually a fiddle or violin in South Louisiana, the community would sometimes work together to put an instrument in the young person’s hand—a reflection of the culture’s communal cooperative ethic.
Some early Cajun and Creole musicians obtained their instruments through mail order catalogs or general stores, like Mervine Kahn’s in Rayne. Once these first few instruments circulated, homemade versions began surfacing. Such imitations were crude, but they were based on centuries-old designs and craftsmanship. They also reflected the ongoing cultural interactions of peoples in South Louisiana—as new groups moved in, people of German ancestry for instance, their new neighbors adopted their instruments. Well-known accordion builder Randy Falcon points out that the accordions popular in the region are more properly identified as melodeons, “based off a little black accordion that came from Germany in the late 1800s.”
From these humble beginnings of homemade instruments developed a thriving industry in South Louisiana. Over generations of refinement and experimentation, instrument building has turned into a thriving profession that allows those engaged in it to not only earn an income but also to support South Louisiana’s indigenous music scene. Along with these master craftsmen who build sophisticated accordions, violins and finely tuned triangles, there are many native Louisianans who, like their forebears, make music with bones, cigar boxes, wooden planks, washboards, rake tines, foot tubs, spoons, and a passionate attachment to tradition.