Inside the ‘Box of Thrills’: A Brief History of Musette

April 2010 / All About

Watch any old movie that’s set in Paris and the soundtrack is sure to be musette, the charming, accordion-fueled music so identified with the city’s romantic aura. But before it became clichéd Hollywood shorthand for a location change, it was the social music of Paris’ unsavory criminal underclass. Much like American jazz, blues and country, musette was born of a world of rough and shifty ne’er-do-wells, a volatile tableau of killers, prostitutes, pimps and gangsters. And the musicians themselves were frequently just as colorful, as ready to pull a knife as play a waltz.

The word musette was originally the name for a bagpipe-like instrument played in the courts of France’s upper classes during the 17th and 18th Centuries. Eventually it fell out of favor with the privileged population and was picked up by the country’s rural peoples, especially those in the central Auvergne region. When the Auvergnats moved to Paris in search of work in the early 1800s, they brought their folk music to town, many of them opening cafés that catered to factory workers and their families. It was in these cafés that Sunday dances, or bals musette as they came to be known, began to be held.

In the 1870s, another wave of immigrants began to pour into Paris, this time largely from Italy. The uprooted Italians settled into the same working-class neighborhoods as the Auvergnats, and brought their own musical instrument with them: the accordion. The instrument was at first vehemently rejected by the earlier inhabitants, but after a period of often violent resistance the Auvergnat musicians came to embrace the “box of thrills, and it eventually became the scene’s dominant instrument. Soon, the fare being played at the café dances began to reflect the city’s diverse culture, mixing the styles of the French countryside with Italian cantos, Manouche gypsy music and Polish and German waltzes, polkas and mazurkas. This galvanizing, cross-pollinating period is acknowledged as the birth of the true musette style.

As the 20th century unfurled, musette would take on newer influences such as Argentine tango, West Indian biguine and American jazz and swing. By this time, the cafés were open every day of the week and had begun to attract the underworld element. The Rue de Lappe, in the city’s Bastille district, became the rowdy crucible of this modern musette activity, a Parisian version of New Orleans’ infamous Storyville. Here, the accordionistes not only bumped elbows with criminal types and slumming suburbanites, but also jammed with jazz players like Django Reinhardt and Oscar Alemán and cabaret singers like Edith Piaf and Jean Sablon.

Today, live musette is very difficult to find in Paris. When one actually does come across an accordion player in the Metro or the heavily touristed Ile de la Cite` section, the repertoire most likely tends toward the recognizable classical or pop tunes instead of traditional musettes. And while Le Balajo (9 Rue de Lappe), the most famous musette hall in the world and the regular venue of legendary performer Jo Privat, does offer bals musette on Thursday and Sunday afternoons, the music is, sadly, pre-recorded.

Most of musette’s golden-age players are no longer with us, the genre seeming to have died with them. But a handful of current artists like San Francisco’s Baguette Quartette, Minneapolis’ Café Accordion Orchestra and France’s own Les Primitifs du Futur (featuring expatriate US cartoonist Robert Crumb) have each released several CDs of infectious, authentic musette, perhaps leading the way for a full-blown revival. There are several fine examples of classic and modern musette on CD. Here are a few of the best.

Various Artists Accordeon, Vol. 1 (1913-1941)
Various Artists Accordeon, Vol. 2 (1925-1942)
(2003, Fremeaux & Associes)

The motherlode. Together, this pair of French import two-disc sets adds up to the most thorough musette history lesson available. Packed with suave accordion swingers and heart-tugging waltzes by luminaries like Gus Viseur, Tony Murena, Jo Privat and Emile Prud’homme, these sets are the closest you’ll get to a night on the old Rue de Lappe. Exhaustive booklets accompany each.

Various Artists Café Parisien
(2000, Metro Music)

Not sure about springing for the pricey “Accordeon imports? No problem. This sharp, budget-priced U.S. disc compiles tracks from both sets. The perfect introduction for the neophyte.

Gus Viseur Compositions: 1934-1942
(1996, Fremeaux & Associes)

Known as musette’s first great jazz stylist, Viseur wrote and recorded numerous swing accordion and gypsy-waltz masterpieces, many of which are now considered classics. Fremeaux & Associes also offers discs by other major artists like Joseph Colombo and Charles Peguri, and there are at least two CDs of vintage live recordings by Viseur out on other labels.

Baguette Quartette Chez Moi
(2001, Indpendent) 

Led by accordionist Odile Lavault, this enchanting contemporary foursome has released four albums of faithful—but not overly so—musette sounds. An excellent group that plays largely original material, San Francisco is lucky to have them.

Various Artists Paris Musette Vol. 1, 2 & 3
(1990/1993/1998, Label le Lichere)

Similar to in concept but predating Buena Vista Social Club’s wildly successful coupling of veteran musicians with younger players, the Paris Musette series has been credited with breathing new life into the genre’s traditions. Centered on the guitar of Didi Duprat, the cast revisits several standards, infusing them with a modern jazz sensibility.

Marc Perrone Velverde
(1999, Le Chant du Monde Records)

The future of musette? Perrone’s heady mélange incorporates klezmer, Brazilian, Celtic, Indian and other worldly styles. Purists may decry this virtuoso’s pairing of his accordion with “outside instruments like harmonica or (Indian) tabla. But, then again, musette itself was born of a mixing of styles and instruments.