Sunday, April 3, 2011

My Trip to Alsace (Part Three)

Part One

In 2004, my wife, Bethany, and I were given the gift of a trip to Alsace, France, to visit my accordion teacher, Sylvain Piron, his wife, storyteller Catherine Piron-Paira, and their family. I wrote the following shortly after the trip. It appeared some time later in Wolf Moon Journal, a local Maine literary magazine. I present it here in installments over the next few months.


Sylvain Piron, J'ai un noveau chapeau, MP3




(This tune plays a part in the story a few paragraphs down, but I thought I'd include it here because it's just that good.)


Accordion besotted simpleton (me).
Charlie playing stage left.  Bethany
in cantaloupe sweater in back.

Sylvain and Catherine threw a party for us on the third night of our trip. Not just a small gathering, but a grand fête held in the community center of Steinbourg. After the birthday parties of our youth, very few of us have the experience of having a party thrown in our honor. Not that this crowd really needed an excuse to party, but when we walked into the hall and saw the vast banner with the words, “Welcome to Gary and Bethanie,” stretching across the entire length of the stage, we were speechless. Would it be possible to feel more welcome?
“We’re in Alsace, about to play Alsatian music with Alsatian friends.” The happy mantra of an accordion-besotted simpleton. Sylvain seemed nervous, not knowing how many people would show up. Throwing parties is an anxious business on any continent. Folk dancers and musicians are notoriously tardy people. It was Tuesday, a workday. Sylvain wasn’t sure how well he had publicized the event amongst the music community. Yes, the meal was a potluck, but how much beer and wine should he buy?
A good amount, it seems. Throw a party, they will come. And they will bring wonderful food, and they will be prepared to dance and drink. They will also be thrilled to try out their English on you, and--in the age of Bush and the Iraq war--discuss politics and art. Many came from Sylvain and Catherine’s monthly dance group. They knew the tunes and dances in a way that few American crowds--even contra-dance aficionados--would have. After eating, a group of five or so musicians drifted to the far corner. Gilles, the guitarist, tuned up. Marie, Sylvain’s daughter, assembled her flute. The accordionists noodled. We don’t need to tune. 
An agglomeration of accordionists, with François and
Dani on fiddles
In came Charlie, an accordionist, still dressed for work. Then François, a lanky and excellent fiddler arrived. Cedric, a charismatic accordionist who’d learned from Sylvain, came and shook the hand of every musician in the room. This was the first time I’d participated in this particularly French gesture which, to me, says, “We’re in this together.” Danielle, another accordionist, was introduced to me as an English teacher. I had one of those moments in my mind and blurted our, “You’re kidding!” Not because I didn’t believe her, but because it occurred to me that an English teacher in Alsace is a very different thing from an English teacher in the States. Yes, I know it’s obvious, but the fact of that difference delighted me.
After two hours, the crowd achieved its number. Sixty to eighty people. Twenty musicians, ten of them accordionists. It made me wonder: if sheep come in herds, ravens in murders, and Mongols in hordes, what do accordionists come in? Are we merely a “band”? (We few, we happy few ...) What is our unit of agglomeration?
Even though I’d spent years learning tunes from Sylvain, I found I didn’t know half of what was being played. Of course, this means that I did know half of what was being played, and that fact was a comforting gem of amazement. Sylvain regularly turned to me, asking me to start a tune. It struck me that, even playing tunes that I’d known for years, my fingers were being guided by the musicians around me. Very subtle issues of tempo or touch--which I had struggled with back home--were settled merely by my being in a room with the accordionists who belonged to these tunes. French accordion music was not an obscure passion for them. It belonged to them, and they to it. They were at home, and standing next to them, I learned, musically how to get home.
An English country dance in France
Photo by Martine Lutz
At various points through the evening I found myself fixating on my wife. Bethany had been a bit anxious about dancing, not cowardly as I was, but nervous. The week had been filled with dance of the most charming sort. Catherine took Bethany under her wing, teaching Bethany to waltz and mazurka while Sylvain and I played. Catherine was an excellent teacher, intuitive and kind. Bethany was an excellent student, grateful and willing. The two of them were a delight to watch. Bethany shimmered as if she were the object of a love song. She looked beautiful, happy, and fluid. Through the Breton circle dances, the an dro and hanter dro and the English country dances, mazurkas, scottishes, and waltzes, I was proud of her in a very lusty way.

Sylvain Piron, J'ai un noveau chapeau, MP3



"J'ai un noveau chapeau ..."
Photo by Martine Lutz
Later in the evening I started a tune. “J’ai un noveau chapeau” was written by Sylvain, and it was well loved. As soon as they heard the first notes, the crowd flew into action. The size of the dance circle doubled, musicians, who had been milling about, ran over to get their instruments to get a a piece of the action. Sylvain walked over to the circle, beckoning us in. Charlie, Cedric, François, and I followed. The circle opened, and we stepped into the middle. It was an embrace, the dancers and the musicians. Sylvain sang the first line, “J’ai un noveau chapeau ...” and the entire room took up the song. Fifty people, it must have been, singing together, with Sylvain at the center. Catherine led the dance, but no one needed to be led, really. The very simple Breton rhythm, the simple steps, Sylvain’s funny lyric, his voice, his tune, his accordion. It wasn’t louder than the ten other accordions playing, but it was certainly more central.
I looked at Sylvain. I looked at Catherine, his fiancé. Cedric,his student. The dancers. Their friends. Their children. Bethany dancing! And myself -- was everyone happy?
Everyone.


(Sylvain Piron's CDs are available for FREE DOWNLOAD at his website, Tradfrance.)

2 comments:

  1. How fabulous, a memory to cherish.

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  2. Gary, great story! I really enjoyed reading it - loved the photos, too. The images of the dance really capture the combined clamor and excitement of dancers and musicians.

    I think an agglomeration of melodeonists playing sweet French waltzes lends itself to being called a charm, like a charm of so many finches... contrast with a gaggle of Hohner one-rows honking away like noisy geese!

    Chris

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