Accordions, Concertinas and Harmonicas
Accordions, concertinas and harmonicas all belong to a genre known commonly as 'free-reed' instruments. The concept can be understood by remembering when as children, we took a blade of grass, held it between our thumbs, cupped our hands to create a resonating chamber, and blew air past the delicate membrane. The air caused the blade of grass to vibrate and gave a somewhat harsh but none the less musical sound. Early forms of free-reed instruments date back thousands of years in Chinese history, but it wasn't until the early 19th century that Western Europeans invented the aforementioned, bellows-driven instruments. Steel reeds are installed on wooden reed plates, each with its own small chamber to resonate, and exterior buttons activate levers which open the chamber to the air supplied by inward or outward movement of the bellows.
The most popular type of free-reed instruments are diatonic. As the name implies, each button operates two tones, one on the press and other on the draw motion of the bellows. Perhaps their popularity is explained by the fact that changing the direction of the bellows produces a natural rhythmical, percussive effect which is perfectly suited to lively dance music.
Accordions typically have four reed 'banks', one in the lower octave, two in the middle range and one in the high range. Exterior levers or buttons allow the player to choose the sound desired, using only one, or up to four of the reed banks. The melody notes are arranged in a row, or rows, on one side of the instrument, and in addition, several bass notes or chords are located on the other side, allowing for accompaniment. The banks of reeds can be tuned at exactly the same pitch, creating a pure clear note, or at slightly different pitches resulting in a tremolo effect ('dry' & 'wet' tunings).
The single-row melodeon is currently most popular in Québec and Cajun musics, it's single major scale thoroughly exploited by their talented musicians. Early 78 recordings by legendary Irish players such as John Kimmel, the Flannagan Brothers and P.J. Conlan featured the single row accordion, as do those of Québecois master, Philippe Bruneau.
Most modern Irish players use the more versatile 2-row chromatic accordions, pitched at B-C (Joe Burke, Paddy O'Brien, Billy McComiskey etc.), C#-D (Jackie Daly) D-C# (Joe Derrane) or even D#-D (Joe Cooley). These boxes give the player all the tones and semi-tones found on a piano and thus allow the practitioner to play in virtually any key they desire, and using different patterns of press and draw across the two rows of buttons.
The concertina or 'sailor's accordion' as it's known around here, can be found in a variety of sizes, as concertina orchestras were popular earlier in the past century. Occasionally they served as surrogate organs in some small churches, and as a friend to lonesome seamen in days past. Today, folk and traditional players are the main exponents of the concertina and, as Mary MacNamara so ably demonstrates, make it seem as if Irish music belongs on it. She plays the 'anglo' or diatonic press-draw type generally preferred by Irish musicians. The hexagonal end plates have 15 or more buttons on each side, the lower tones on the left side and the higher ones on the right. An Englishman, Wheatstone, subsequently designed an alternative system whose melody notes alternate from side to side and sound the same note regardless which direction the bellows are moving, as do the keys of the piano keyboard type of accordion by the way.
Over the years Cape Breton fiddlers have incorporated repertoire from 78s and LPs of Scottish and Irish accordion players. This trend continues unabated today with the availability of CDs, source books and of course international cultural exchanges such as Cape Breton's own Celtic Colours Annual Festival.
The sometimes overlooked harmonica is perhaps the one instrument of this family which has most been a part of the Cape Breton traditions over this past century, and Tommy Basker's The Tin Sandwich is certainly the best recorded example to date. There seems to be a natural affinity between the free-reed sound of the accordion family of instruments and that of the ever-versatile violin, which ensures a healthy complicity in the future.
David Papazian papazianviolins @ yahoo.ca
Silver Apple News
Cranford Pub Search Engine
last upddate 11/14/99