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