Paris Cafe Music

Like tango in Buenos Aires or rebetika in Athens, Parisian bal musette is an urban musical style born in the early twentieth century from a melting pot of cultures. At the time, café-charbons of the Bastille area were owned by people from the Auvergne, a mountainous region in central France. There, in courtyards, people danced the emblematic bourrée to the sound of the cabrette (also called musette), the Auvergnat small-pipe. The Gare de Lyon train station, leading to Italy, was not far away, and many migrants from the other side of the Alps settled in the area, bringing with them their accordions. They started playing alongside small-pipe players, eventually replacing them. A new music was born, which kept the name musette or bal musette. The rest is history: the accordion soon became the symbol of Paris!

The first musette accordionists of the 1920s and early 1930s made people dance in the shady dance halls of the Bastille area. They imposed a new repertoire: the valse musette (waltz), the java (derived from the mazurka) and the foxtrot amongst other styles. Alongside the accordion, a typical bal musette orchestra often included the banjo (sometimes played by a Gypsy musician) and the jâze (drums, from the American word ‘jazz’). Big names of this era include Emile Vacher (1883–1969), often credited as the real inventor of the musette style, the Péguri brothers (Charles Péguri was one of the first accordionists to play alongside a cabrette player, who happened to be his own father-in-law, Antoine Bouscatel) and Henri Momboisse (1889–1960).

In the late 1930s, some younger accordionists enjoyed American jazz so much that they created the swing musette, mixing both styles. This new music became especially popular during the German occupation (1940–1944), because the dance halls were closed and people turned to jazz concerts instead. Swing accordionists like Gus Viseur (1915–1974) or Tony Muréna (1916–1971) became household names.

After World War II, the musette style was popular all over France, and big names of the chanson scene, like Edith Piaf, were often accompanied by an accordionist. Then the instrument grew out of fashion. The musette scene did not manage to renew itself – a new generation, born in the 1940s, turned to rock music (often, they hated the accordion!). Almost all bals musette on the rue de Lappe closed.

In the late 1980s, though, there was an unexpected revival. Young rock bands like Les Garçons Bouchers adopted the instrument and rock musette was born! And now you can hear the accordion in jazz or contemporary music again, thanks to pioneers like Richard Galliano. The French are no longer ashamed of their national instrument … although it must be said that the golden age of the 1920s and 1930s is not well-known at all. Few people outside of specialist circles know about Emile Vacher or Tony Muréna, who were huge stars in their own time. 

The first edition of The Rough Guide To Paris Café Music told the story of the Parisian accordion, mixing historical recordings from the golden age of bal musette with modern recordings featuring the instrument played in a different context (jazz, rock, chanson…). It was released in the early 2000s and gave a broad overview of this typically French sound. A decade later, this second edition allows us to discover young musicians who have risen to fame during recent years. It also presents big names of the golden age (1920s and 1930s) that could not be included to the first edition.

Further Information

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