Friday, December 9, 2016

John Mrnustik

Before World War II, Cajun accordionists favored German accordions, especially those made by the "Monarch and "Sterling" companies. With the advent of the war, German instruments were no longer available in the United States. Both the "Monarch" and "Sterling" factories were destroyed in the conflict, and after the war, many of Germany’s remaining accordion makers were isolated behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany. 

The brands that the Cajuns favored were made by a company called "International Accordion" in Leipzig, Saxony, Germany.  The company started in 1871 making all sorts of accordion types, including other brands such as "Mezon", "Globe", "International" and "Dienst".  Companies such as C. Bruno and Sons of San Antonio and Bugleisen and Jacobson of New York were importing and selling these German accordions.   The person in charge of the factory was Eduard Dienst.   They produced the models most favored by Cajuns such as, "Monarch", "Sterling" and "Eagle Brand".  According to accordion collector John Orr:
The company and founder was a man named Ernest Deinest and that company was the International Accordion Company.  They made many different names for many different firms, including their own brand International accordion, Globe accordion, Monarch accordion, and Sterling.  They might have also made the Eagle Brand accordion but I think that was made in another factory and as of today they would be known as Weltmeister accordions.  In Australia they made the Mazon accordion.4

They also produced many other musical instruments until 1934, when the company closed.   After WWII, it was always assumed the production plants were bombed.   Accordion maker Larry Miller however, attributes it to Stalin closing off East Germany products to the West.    The only new accordions available to Cajun musicians in the post-war period were generally inferior instruments, not particularly well-made and not loud enough to be heard over the electric guitar, steel guitar and drums of a full band.   Musicians in the United States, specifically in east Texas and southern Louisiana were out of luck. 

By the 1940s, a Czech-German immigrant named John Joseph Mrnustik settled among the German and Mexican immigrants in east Texas where you could find them playing accordion-led polka and conjunto music.  Born February 4, 1904 in east Texas, he would have been exposed to the large German communities of Texas and the music emanating from their dances and events.  Being an accordion player himself, John opened up a music store in the Heights suburb area of Houson, TX  The store was partly connected to his home, which contained a workshop in the back.   He began taking apart the accordions and finding ways to repair them, including brands such as "Hohner" and "Monarch". He would become the first known repairman to fix Cajun accordions.  

One of his repairs helped usher in one of the greatest Cajun recording artists during the late 1940s.  In 1948, Clobule and Ernest Thibodeaux asked Nathan Abshire to join the Pine Grove Boys, house-band of the Pine Grove Club, in Jennings, Louisiana.  One day, the club owner, Telesfar Eshte, asked Thibodeaux to find an accordion player for the group.  Abshire said he’d love to start playing music again, but unfortunately he didn’t have an accordion, and he couldn’t afford to buy one. The Pine Grove Boys went into their own pockets and bought a broken single row Sterling accordion for $75. No one locally could repair it, so they drove to Houston where the repairs cost them another $150.1

During his repairs, he'd make pieces of the accordion from scratch, sometimes stamping his name or a symbol on the replaced part.  Rumor has it that he actually made completed accordions in his lifetime.  According to his widow's conversations with accordion builder Larry Miller:
He would only make them when he had an order for five or more, and he sold them locally and to Cajuns in Southwest Louisiana. His widow told Mr. Miller that he made "over ten accordions."
However, most believe he only made repairs.   His grand-daughter, Glenna, confirms this as well.
He had a shop in his store.  No, I don't remember him making accordions.   I only remember him making repairs.  I remember many of the polka and Spanish people coming to his shop.  
Towards the 1950s, most speculate that Sidney Brown, the more well known builder, was inspired by what Mrnustik was doing and created his accordions; first by using other older accordion parts, and then completely hand-crafting over the years. 

Living in Houston, he joined the Slavonic Benevolent Order Of The State Of Texas and even created their first Czech Convert Orchestra.3  By the 1960s, John's son-in-law, Henry Gerhart began repairing accordions in the shop, taking over the family business.   John Mrnustik passed away September 15th, 1965.

  2. Discussions with the Mrnustik family
  3. Vestnik magazine. 1976 12 08
  4. Discussions with John Orr

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

"Acadiana" by Leland Colligan

Accordion: "Acadiana"
Builder: Leland Colligan
Years: 1983-2016

Leland Colligan sold the first accordion he made with his own hands for a two-month supply of beef.

“I was going to scrap it, but I had a friend of mine that raised cattle to sell for slaughter,” Colligan recalled. “He said, ‘I am going to give you a calf for that accordion.’ I told him that it didn’t look all that good, but he said it didn’t matter because ‘it sounded good.’ So we did the deal.

“We had meat for a long time, man. We had a little freezer, and we filled it up.”

In the three-plus decades since that trade, Colligan has handcrafted and sold hundreds of his trademarked Acadiana Triple Hearts accordions.

Everyone from his cousin Chuck Estilette to Grammy-winning musician Jo-El Sonnier has bought one of Colligan’s squeeze boxes.

Colligan grew up around Cajun French music as he was raised in the family’s small wooden frame house with a tin roof in Carencro. It was here that Colligan was taught how to first play the harmonica, and later accordion, by his parents Joseph and Rena and his grandfather Gilbert.

“I was 7 years old when I started playing a little German accordion,” Colligan said. “Mommy and daddy put me aside more than one time because I was making a lot of noise with it.”

As he grew up, Colligan pursued music, playing in numerous bands around Acadiana. For years, he would wake up early in the morning to go work at Evangeline Maid Bread company. After a long work day, he would stay out late playing music with his friends at bars and dance halls.

But by 1983, Colligan needed a break.

“I was tired,” Colligan said. “But I didn’t want to leave the music all at one time, you know? So I started making accordions in my little shop. It kept me involved with the music.”

Back then, Colligan was one of a handful of accordion makers in the state.

“We didn’t have as many builders in Louisiana like we do now,” Colligan said. “When I started in ’83, we only had a handful of people building them. Now, there might be a 100 guys making them. Plus a lot of them are now being mass produced in Japan and China.”

As for the name of his accordion brand, that inspiration came simply from the area where he was born and raised.

“When I first started, I thought about the name,” Colligan said. “Mark Savoy’s accordions were called Acadian so I told him that I was thinking of going with Acadiana since we live here in Acadiana and he said ‘that was okay.’ ”

As for the three hearts that accompanies the name, Colligan said that represents “my wife, my kids and me.”

Colligan has made his accordions from all types of different woods over the years, but he prefers to use walnut. Everything in his accordions are handcrafted except the knobs and metal-plate corners.

What is the most difficult part of the building process? According to Colligan, it is making sure the placement of the finger board is just right.

“If you do it wrong, you will know it,” said Colligan, whose father would test out each accordion for his son.

Colligan makes sure not to rush the process, either.

“It doesn’t take that long to cut it out, but it is the finishing that takes time.” Colligan said. “One day you may wake up, and the humidity is high. You can’t put lacquer on there because it would turn as white as that cabinet up there.”

After three decades of crafting instruments, Colligan is beginning to phase himself out of the accordion business. He currently is wrapping up an order for a friend and no longer has a large stock of his accordions, as he has sold most of them in recent months. Colligan does still have three on display in his shop: a German accordion that is his own and two that he has made for his granddaughter and grandson.

“It is just too expensive for me to put them on the shelf anymore,” Colligan said. “My first accordions I sold for about six or seven years went for about $700 or $750. Now, they run anywhere between two to three thousand dollars. You know, years ago, people would buy them for back porch parties and stuff like that. People can’t afford to do that anymore.”

That doesn’t mean though that Colligan is stepping away from the music he loves.

Colligan has developed a new passion for the fiddle, but just don’t expect him to turn that into another side business.

“They tell me its rough to make them,” he said. “I am just too old to be taking that on, but I will play it all night.”

Leland Colligan
P.O. Box 451 
Carencro, La. 70520 
Article by Raymond Partsch III
Photos by Brad Bowie

Friday, February 12, 2016

"Choupique" by Jessie Brown

Accordion: "Choupique"
Builder: Jessie Brown

According to Jesse:

I was born and raised on a small rice farm outside of Eunice, LA, where Cajun and Zydeco music was so common, it wasn't really noticed as being anything special.  My grandfather, Eddie Brown, played the accordion for me and all of the grandchildren.  Eddie's accordion was special - it was built by "Nonc Sid" Sidney Brown.  Eddie's uncle had built the accordion years ago and it was still the front porch favorite all this time later. 

I remember honestly believing that as humans grew older their hair would gray, their eyes would go bad, and they would forget English and start speaking French.  C'est vrai!  I left home at 18 to work in the oil patch in northern Alaska.  It was my first real experience from home, and I was completely shocked. 

There was a small group of "coonies" (as we were called) that seemed to stick together.  It was the first time that I realized how different we were from the rest of America.  I was so homesick, I vowed that when I made it back to the bayou country, I would buy an accordion, and Paw Paw was going to teach me.

Later, I would take tape recorders and microphones to his home and record him and some of the old tunes to go back and learn.  On my way to a degree in Mechanical Engineering at LSU, I drove my college room mates crazy with my little Hohner.  I had no musical training at the time, and I basically just tried to play what I'd heard all of those old guys doing all of those years.

It didn't take me long to realize that I was outgrowing my instrument.  The Hohner was a good student level model, but it did have limitations.  I ordered a hand built model from a friend and excellent musician, Mr. Kenneth Thibodeaux.  The difference in quality was amazing.  I understood that even the tiniest differences in quality in an instrument could make a huge difference in sound and playability not to mention the aesthetics.

I played with my beautiful wife for many years in a band called Choupique.  We still play today for local dances, festivals, weddings, and fais do dos.

I called Larry Miller of Bon Cajun Accordions to discuss an apprenticeship.  He took me on, and I spent quite a bit of time in his shop learning the trade of accordion building.  I have since opened "Choupique Accordions LLC" and now build my own high quality, custom built, 10 button Cajun accordions.  Nonc Sid would be fier.

Being a professional player myself, I have a full appreciation for the seemingly insignificant details that can separate a good accordion from an exceptional accordion.  I have also dedicated quite a bit of time to the art of tuning.  I call it an art because it's more than just numbers and electronic tuners.  I tune all of my boxes by ear.  It's the only way to get more than a stale sound from your reed banks and give the overall sound that extra bite!

Choupique Accordions is a small business located in Louisiana that manufactures custom 10 button "cajun" accordions.

Jesse B. Brown
1707 Lansdown Ave
Port Allen, LA 70767

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

"Martin" by Clarence Martin Jr.

Accordion: "Martin"
Builder: Clarence "Junior" Martin
Years: 1982 - Present

He got started making accordions after his wife bought him one, which he promptly dismantled in search of the sound. He had been playing music since he was 13. He is now 50.

After he realized he needed to build accordions, he went to the master, Marc Savoy of Eunice.

"I asked him what it took to make an accordion," he relates, letting the accordion rest on his lap like a loving child. "He told me you got to make a lot of them.

"And he told me one thing else. He said if anybody ever asked me how I got started, I should say that Marc Savoy told me how to begin."

This was an important thing to Martin. Many musicians and makers of musical instruments are secretive, jealous, downright hostile at times. Martin is proud of his mentor.

Now hear what Savoy had to say:

"I told him more than that," Savoy said in a telephone interview. "I said anytime anybody wants to know something about making accordions, you help him all you can.

"That’s the only way to keep this thing (culture) going. What would have happened if everybody kept their secrets? There’d be no libraries, no books, no songs. We’d be lost in the dark ages. Sharing is the only way.

"Teach the other person. Don’t guard the secret."

One secret that Savoy did not hold was how he managed the brilliant colors on the panels of his accordions.

"I asked him, ‘How’d you do that?,’ He winked at me and said ‘food coloring.’"

The brilliant greens, blues, even purples are simply lacquered food coloring. This is a family operation. His daughter, Penny Huval, 26, does the food-color dying. Wife Patsy claims her function is to complain, like a good Cajun wife.

The wood that Martin uses for the panels comes from all over the world. Some of it is so exotic a Cajun palate can’t pronounce it.

But he uses it and the sound from that diatonic (called here the French accordion as opposed to the piano accordion in less learned circles) is beautiful.

Often, the Martins will get telephone calls from such places as Haiti, Jamaica and Europe.

It takes 10 months to make an accordion, but he works on literally hundreds at a time.

"When I start cutting wood, I cut. I don’t fool around."

One of the popular items on his instruments is a crawfish in the bellows, growing and shrinking as the music blares.

Basically, Martin is a technician. But he is not unmindful of the magic of music. When asked if he believed music was magic he replied:

"You saw that smile on my face when I was playing? Man, when I cranked up that first one I made, you should have seen my smile then!"

Junior and his family custom craft fine Diatonic Accordions used by Professional and Amateur Musicians around the World.

2143 W. Willow St. Extension,
Scott, LA 70583.
 (337) 232-4001


Tuesday, September 15, 2015

"L'anse Grise" by Bryan Lafleur

Accordion: "L'anse Grise"
Builder: Bryan Lafleur
Years: 2007-present

According to Bryan:

I was born and raised in the little community of L'anse Grise, just north of Mamou, La, in the northwestern edge of the French part of Louisiana called Acadiana.  It was an area that, not too long ago, was totally French in language and custom. I am now living and raising a family about 75 miles east of Dallas.

At 18, I left home for the Marine Corps, then moved to the Dallas, TX. area after my discharge.  Though I was always intensely interested in Cajun music and culture, after I left home, I put it in the back of my mind while I experienced all that the "outside world" had to offer.  Somewhere around 2000, my dad sent me 2 cassettes for my birthday, one of Iry Lejeune, and one of the Balfa Brothers. Those cassettes woke up what had been a sleeping interest in the Cajun culture and music with a vengeance.

My first goal was to learn the language well enough to understand the lyrics to the music, then I thought it would be cool if I learned the language well enough to have a conversation with my parents in Cajun French, their first language.  With their help I accomplished those goals to a decent degree.

My next thought was to learn to play the accordion I loved so much.  I had never played any instrument and had no music knowledge whatsoever.  While debating whether it was worth the expense of buying an accordion in the off chance I could learn it well enough to play with my dad, a family friend, out of the blue, asked if I was interested in an old Hohner 114 accordion that had been sitting in her closet for many years.

That poor little accordion not only saw me through my clumsy early months, but also became the subject of many experimental modifications.  As I do with all things, I looked at it wondering if I could build one.  After talking to Larry Miller, an accomplished accordion builder and cultural ambassador from Iota, La.,  who first tried to talk me into giving up the idea and going fishing, I became more determined to give it a shot.  I bought enough parts for my first box from Larry, who was also very generous in offering pointers once he saw I was too hard headed to give up the idea.  I then visited with a friend in Orange, Tx, Jude Moreau, who very generously showed me many things I would have taken many years to figure out.

Then, being as sentimental as hard headed, I scoured my grandfather's old barn in L'anse Grise for an old piece of wood suitable for a first accordion.  I found one piece of very old red cypress, exactly big enough for one accordion with none to spare.  Then began a journey in challenge and frustration, but about 4 months later I had a playable accordion.

My goal isn't just to make accordions, it is to make good accordions.  I'm enjoying experimenting with custom touches and with what affects the sound coming out of these contraptions.  I enjoy working with a customer in coming up with custom touches that would make the accordion more dear to that person.

In building my accordions, I wanted to remain traditional in form, but incorporate my own touches.  I turn my own stops, and use custom made corner hardware.  I enjoy making accordions to a customer's special wishes.  I feel it makes it more special to a person if the accordion they had built has unique touches.

881 VZ CR 4210
Athens, Tx 75752

Monday, September 14, 2015

"Mouton" by Greg Mouton

Accordion: "Mouton"
Builder: Greg Mouton
Years: 1990-present

Mouton's hand crafted Cajun accordions offer quality and craftsmanship that extends more than 40 years through our Louisiana Acadian traditions. In the years leading up to 1960 "Shine Mouton" repaired and serviced accordions and late that year produced the first of the Mouton Series Accordions. Honed by time and technology, nephew Greg Mouton still builds timeless (and priceless) renditions of Cajun accordions. 

We handle factory instruments from Hohner and Goodlin for the beginner or special instruments for traditional Cajun and zydeco bands.

Mr. Greg Mouton was born in Crowley, in 1966. His main occupation is building accordions. He learned to build accordions from his uncle, Lawrence "Shine" Mouton, one of Louisiana's best known accordion makers.

Greg began building accordions in late 1990. At that time, his uncle's health was failing and Lawrence Mouton could not stand at the saw very long to work. Greg started building the accordions and his uncle would help. Greg says, "He helps me in some areas and I help him with some things."

Mr. Mouton has a shop, Mouton Accordions, where each individual accordion is hand crafted very little work is done with the saw. Greg and Mr. Mouton use hand tools, various hardwoods, metal, leather, skins, and waxes to construct the accordions.

Greg also repairs fiddles and guitars, and says, "It is mostly cosmetic, using the techniques I use in making accordions."

Mr. Mouton has presented his crafts at the Louisiana Folklife Festival in Monroe, Louisiana, the New Orleans Jazz Festival, and various schools and festivals across the southern part of the state of Louisiana.

According to Mouton:

Mouton's is one of the oldest running Cajun accordion shops offering Cajun, Zydeco and Tex- Mex accordions.We also offer accessories such as leather straps, cases ,and microphones. In addition we offer lessons and instrument repair. Today we're proud to provide quality products direct to your doorstep through an experience you'll enjoy. And most of all, we hope you'll enjoy the products as much as we do.

23466 Crowley Eunice Hwy, 
Crowley, LA 70526
Toll Free 1-877-715-2768



Saturday, September 12, 2015

"Bon Tee Cajun" by Larry Miller

Accordion: "Bon Tee Cajun"
Builder: Larry Miller
Years: 1980-present

Larry was born of predominately Acadian ancestry (Leger, LeJeune, Cormier and etc.) and reared in Acadia Parish near Iota in the heart of the Prairie Cajun region. He grew up speaking only Cajun French, like most of his age group in the late 30's and 40's, and had to learn English upon entering school. His father Abraham played accordion well while his older brother James Calvin played guitar and later accordion with Larry on the triangle and spoons. Later, after spending 22 years in the Acadia Parish School system as a science & math teacher and eventually principal, retired to enter business, then retired from business to devote full time to preservation of Cajun Culture. Among his endeavors in this area as a charter member of the Cajun French Music Association he worked for 10 years as various officers to become the National Gov. Body President for 1989-91.

In addition he plays in a Cajun Band and has helped to organize several ongoing jam sessions where new comers are helped along.

Before Larry retired from the school system he began to build accordions as a hobby just because the thought of his people producing these machines by hand was intriguing. Later he learned to build triangles because his father built them, then added the Cajun style spoons in a handle and the vest type scrubboard (frattoir) to his line of instruments. With some part-time help he also has a complete line of accordion parts to service other builders.

Bon Tee Cajun Accordions are custom made with the best handmade reeds that Italian factories can offer (nobody manufactures reeds and bellows in USA to speak of) as well as premium Italian bellows. For 18 years Larry has worked on his building skills and the design of the fingerboard and bass boxes to develop optimum comfort and response.

All accordions are sanded very smoothly, two coats of vinyl sealer, resanded very fine and then four coats of catalyzed semi-satin lacquer. All screws are stainless steel and all other materials are of the best quality. Leather straps are made of top grain cowhide in the Bon Tee Cajun shop. These instruments are keyed like harmonicas and can come in any key desired. The most popular keys in order of preference to date are, Keys of C, D, Bb, A, F, & G. 

For a new Bon Tee Cajun Accordion, Larry offers a free tuning after about 100 hours of playing when the breaking-in period of the new reeds has occurred. Like most accordion builders he also repairs and tunes other accordions.

886 McMillian
Iota, Louisiana, 70543
Phone: +1 (337) 779-2456
Fax: +1 (337) 779-3080