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A Short History of the Bal Musette
By Steve Tchamouroff

Musette music is immensely appealing, evoking as it does the romantic cafes, sidewalks and dance halls of Paris. It is instantly recognizable, with its minor keys that speak of an underlying sadness, coupled with jaunty melodies and playing styles that reveal the resilience of the human spirit.

Edith Piaf (1915-1963) began her career in the bal musettes, and she paid tribute to the form and musicians in one of her best known songs, L'Accordioniste.

The musette, also known as the cabrette, was a small goatskin bagpipe, one of the most popular instruments in the 19th century in the Auvergne, the great expanse of hills and meadows at the heart of the French Massif Central. The instrument was brought to Paris by the Auvergnat immigrants who poured into the capital to find work as laborers and then opened little bar/shops selling charcoal and wine, as well as the miniature dance halls knows as bal musettes. The first bal musettes featured Auvergnat bourrées, plus polkas, mazurkas and, above all, waltzes. (Waltzes dominated the bal musette repertoire to the extent that sometimes modern players use the word "musette" to refer to the waltzes from this tradition.)

In the 1900s the accordion appeared on the scene, brought by Italian immigrant workers. At first excluded from musette bands, the brash, sophisticated accordion eventually penetrated them, notably in the hands of the early star Charles Peguri in the Bal Bouscat of the cabrettaire Antoine Bouscatel. By the early 1900s, the bagpipe had been completely supplanted.

In the inter-war years, the bal musettes flourished, with foxtrots, paso dobles and javas augmenting the dance repertoire. The java especially, with its entwined, hands-on-partner's-bottom stance and underworld association with the swaggering young dudes known as apaches, came to typify the louche world of bal musettes such as Balajo around the Place de la Bastille, or the Bastoche in Paris' slang.

In the 1930s, two other elements were added to the mix. The first was jazz -- known as "swing" -- which, like the accordion, at first was strongly resisted; the mobile, acrobatic antics of swing dancers didn't fit at all among the close-clasped couples on a packed little bal musette dance floor.

Even though bal 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 were gigging one night in a swing ensemble and the next night playing for a bal musette. In time, pieces from the two repertoires began sneaking into each other's sets, and, by the 1940s, it was common to hear the two styles intermixed throughout the course of an evening.

The second element, linked to jazz improvisation, was Manouche, or gypsy, music played by musicians who began to join the musette bands as banjoists, then as guitarists. Django Reinhardt started his career in musette bands in Paris. (A new biography, "Django: The Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend" by Michael Dregni, tells this story.).

Right through the 1950s, musette accordion was the sound of popular France, and stars like Gus Viseur, Tony Murena and Jo Privat traveled to the USA and guested with bands of the stature of Glenn Miller's. Although from the 1960s onwards, rock, disco and newer dance music marginalized the musette accordion style, it has survived remarkably well. Dozens of little regional dance groups still feature accordion waltzes and javas among a cross-section of dance styles for everyone from teenagers to grandparents at rural summer balls and weddings across the country. At the other end of the spectrum, serious accordion virtuosi such as Richard Galliano, who accompanied the chanson star Barbara, continue to attract great critical respect in the jazz and new music world.

The 1980s and 1990s saw a resurgence of interest in the musette accordion by cutting-edge popular groups such as the Negresses Vertes, the Garçons Bouchers, the Têtes Raides and Paris Combo. A number of the old dance halls survive intact. In the final years of the bal musette's century, one of them, the Tango, began holding Friday and Saturday night dances for the gay crowd. At these events, which the Tango calls La Boîte à Frissons (The Trembling Box, an old slang term for an accordion), couples are rediscovering the pleasures of dancing in each other's arms to the swirling accordion.


To read about Italian musette music, click here.