Accordions on the Move
As people migrate, they take their music with them. The sound of the accordion, a traditional European instrument, has traveled the world and been incorporated as a staple into many genres of music.
At the 2017 Folklife Festival, a special session brought together accordionists from the Cajun group BeauSoleil and the conjunto Los Texmaniacs. Both groups of musicians, as well as the music they play, are the direct result of immigration and cultural mixing.
“I’m originally from Albuquerque, New Mexico, and originally that area of the United States was all Mexico,” Josh Baca of Los Texmaniacs explained. “There are a lot of different types of Mexican American music with the button accordion or the accordion that have migrated all over the U.S.”
Los Texmaniacs play a type of music commonly referred to as Tex-Mex. The name itself points to its mixed roots. While conjunto is considered a Mexican genre, it was born across the border in southern Texas, according to Max Baca, Josh’s uncle.
“My father was an accordion player,” Max said. “The Germans migrated over and brought the accordion, and the guys from Texas influenced the guys from New Mexico, like my father, and my father influenced some of the Native Indians playing it as well. It was a big migration to different parts of the Southwest.”
“Music on the Texas side of the border—Tex-Mex music—was influenced by the Germans and Czechs who settled in Texas,” Max continued. “They picked up the accordion, and what they did is accompany it with the bajo sexto, which is a twelve-string guitar.”
Cajun music shares a similar history. Michael Doucet, founder of BeauSoleil and a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellow, explained the history of the Acadian people in France and eastern Canada who would later give life to Cajun culture.
“We migrated a long way,” he said. “We migrated from France to the New World in 1604. In 1755 we got deported—around ten thousand Acadians were deported from what is now Nova Scotia. About 12,000 made it to Louisiana. It was a part of Louisiana that no one wanted to live in, but that was what they were looking for—it was freedom.”
The music arose as a direct reflection of this community.
“The Acadians were fine speaking French under Spanish control, so for some 150 years the language was basically untouched,” he continued. “This music was meant for that community—just as I’m sure conjunto music was [for Texas Mexicans]—it was just meant for that community of French-speaking people in Southwest Louisiana.”
Musical genres, like people, do not exist in stasis, but rather travel and grow over time. Both Michael and his brother David Doucet described their personal experiences with the evolution of Cajun music.
“We grew up in the old world, pre-television, just with music, speaking French, and were thrust into this new space age,” Michael said. “The people who had given us this solidity and the wisdom were the elders—in fact, that’s what they used to call this music. We never, ever called this music Cajun music. We called it old people’s music.”
David accompanies his brother’s accordion on guitar. He plays everything by ear, without any formal music training, learning the songs of this accordion and fiddle-based tradition from the elders of his community.
“The old people didn’t speak much English, and I didn’t speak much French,” he admitted. “You had to play with them to get it. And when you got it right, they would smile.”