A Conversation with Sylvain Piron

Part One

Sylvain Piron
Sylvain Piron – diatonist, piper, nickelharpa-ist, dancer, and singer – has been a central figure in the traditional French music and dance scene of Alsace for years. He might deny that, but ask any of the dancers and musicians around the scene, and the level of their esteem will be clear. I met Sylvain in 1998, as recounted here, and it’s safe to say that, more than any other person, he is the reason I play this repertoire on this instrument. The lightness and feeling of his style – playing and singing together – is the bedrock of my aspirations (if something that light can, in fact, be a bedrock …). For this reason, my gratitude to Sylvain and his wife, Catherine Piron-Paira, is immeasurable.

Four of Piron's CDs -- Par coeur, Tranches de temps, Fleur de ciel, and Le plume et l’anche -- are available for free download here

The interview was conducted entirely in English.

Gary: Could you tell me when and how you got started playing?

Hohner 2915, Pokerwork
Sylvain: I started to play diatonique during the holidays of 1977 near Saint-Malo in Brittany. My [first] wife had been offered a Hohner 2915 few years before. It was sleeping in our flat, waiting to be played. My wife was a violinist and had learned two or three tunes on the 2915, not more. We took it with us, as I had the idea to take profit of holidays to give it a try. Within two days I was able to play 2 or 3 tunes, not very well but already danceable! I remember having started my playing with "En avant blonde," a famous waltz played on record by Marc Perronne at this time. Since that, even if I had some periods where I played less, I never really stopped playing.

What was the diatonic accordéon scene like in those days?

The traditional music movement (called musique folk), at this time was led by groups like Mélusine, la Bamboche and Malicorne -- all coming from the revival movement born after May 68. In Alsace there was Le folk de la rue des Dentelles, a famous group who started to reintroduce old forgotten tunes and dances. At this time there were two generations of diatonists, the elders being more than 60 years old, people who used to play in villages. They usually had big and heavy 3 row Hohners. The second generation was young, like me at this time, people of the revival movement. We did not have a lot of relationships with these old players as their style and repertoire were not really the same. Most of them (in my regions, Normandy and Alsace at least) played musette style or songs of the beginning of 20th century. We, the youngest, were much more interested by older  musics, collected in the 19th century for most of them. We were very few diatonists at this time, maybe less than 5 in Alsace and a few tens in France.
What was your repertoire at the time?

Sylvain, the blur in the middle, leads the dance
The first tunes I tried to play were from Centre France and Alsace. As I said before, it took me a short time to begin to play, but a long time to play correctly! That is a strong point of this instrument: you can get a result rather fast, faster than with violin or bagpipe or hurdy-gurdy. Even so, you have to work a lot to get a good feeling, a right tempo, a light bellow squeeze, a soft touch, in one word: a good sound! 

As my technique on accordion was improving I began to play with Heidi (my wife at this time) who is a good violinist. We began to play at friends' parties, and also in the pedestrian streets of Strasbourg, with Pascal, a friend violinist as well. I enjoyed a lot to play like that and to, sometimes, make people dance in the streets. We played mainly Massif Central, Alsace and Breton and Irish tunes but our choices were based on music and not on dance at this time.

Dance is central to what you do, now.  When did you start focusing on that?
Sylvain Piron and Charles Gonfalone, back in the day.
In the late 80s I began to play from time to time in small bals organized by the school of my children. But it remained a bit confidential and not really open to public. In the late 90s I founded a group with two friends, Raymond Frank and Charles Gonfalone, the group was named "les Abandonnés" in double reference to a Cajun song by Moïse Robin and to the fact that we were all alone, "abandonnés," without any girl friends around us at this time. My involvement in music for dancing increased a lot when I met Catherine, and when we started a dance workshop ten years ago. In fact, I started to lead the bal in a more official way at that time, rather late in my practice of accordion.

Sylvain with Raymond Frank, in Alsace
My attraction for traditional music and dances was in fact very old. When I was about 15, we founded in my village in Normandy, a group to do folkloric regional dances. It was for showing on stage, not for the bal. But that experience was very positive, and I discovered the richness of our heritage. That probably influenced me in the choices I made later.

You mentioned other players around at the time. Who were your primary influences?
Perlinpinpin Folk, with Marc Perrone.
When I started to play accordion Marc Perrone became rapidly a reference for me. He was at the origin of the diato revival and his style fascinated me: light, délicate, subtle, fits to the dance, not too fast, with a very sensitive touch. The result is a very expressive music which drives you in a delicious mood. Marc's play is transparent, and his personality is that of a very generous man and musician. Very few musicians have this generosity, a fundamental quality for a musician.

Marc often tells the funny story of having gone in the 70s to Paul Beuscher music shop in Paris (close to Place de la Bastille), and, having asked -- "What is this instrument on the top of the shelf?" -- he was told, "Accordéon diatonique, but nobody knows how it is played." Marc tried and immediately bought it and learned it within a few days.

I had a similar experience around eight years after in the same shop -- this would be the end of the 70s. I went there to buy my own accordion after having started on my wife's. Eight years later, diatonic was still not known ... The guy in the shop was surprised by my interest for that thing. There was only one choice: a Pier Maria in D/G. I was not aware of tonality differences at this time. I bought it, 2000 francs ($400). Back home I saw that its tonality was totally different than Heidi's one in C/F actually.  The Pier Maria stayed again for a while on shelf ... It is several years later, as I was more familiar with singing and playing, that I discovered that D/G tonality was very suitable for my voice.

Part Two is here! Part Three is here! To read more about my 2004 visit with Sylvain Piron and his family in Alsace, go here.


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