Saturday, September 13, 2014

"Sha Ba Ba" - Sidney Brown

Sidney Brown was an accordion player and maker.   In the 1950s, he recorded with his band, Sidney Brown and the Traveler Playboys. He would eventually be recognized as the first person to build Cajun accordions after WWII in Louisiana. Eventually, other Cajun musicians would play Brown's accordions, including Jo-El Sonnier, Boozoo Chavis and Marc Savoy.

Recording Music

By the age of 13, he was playing house dances and fais do-dos. After moving from Church Point to Lake Charles in 1948, he formed the band, The Traveler Playboys. He became well known around Lake Charles for his rhythmic, old-timey accordion playing. They began recording for Mike Leadbitter and the Goldband Records label in the mid 1950s. Their record "Pestauche A Tante Nana" around 1957 would eventually become the third best-selling record in the history of Cajun music.   He would also continue to record for Goldband's subsidiary label, Folk-Star records with the song "Sha Ba Ba (Dear Baby)".  Given the English phonetic spelling of the Cajun phrase "chere bebe", it's about a someone convinced that his lover is going to regret leaving him as she walks away.

Ouais, catin, 'garde donc mais ça t'as fait,
Ouais, 't'après me quitter, mais ouais pour t'en aller.
Ouais, t'en aller rejoindre un autre que moi.
Ouais, vilaine manière, tu connais tu vas du regret.

Ouais jolie catin, rappelle toi les promesses, chère,
Et tu m'as fait, mais ouais y a pas longtemps.
Ouais, (z)aujourd'hui, c'est te voir après me quitter,
Ouais, chère bébé, moi je connais t'auras du regret.

Sidney Brown
"Catin" can be misunderstood since it directly translates to "whore" however, in Cajun french, the word has a more of a polite context of endearment, more closely translated to "little doll".  Folkstar was Eddie Shuler's attempt to capture more of the local music. Shuler was born in Wrightsboro, Texas, and moved to Lake Charles in 1942 to work in an oil refinery. He played guitar with The Hackberry Ramblers before forming his own band, The All-Star Reveliers, which performed on radio station KPLC in 1945. Shuler formed Goldband Records that year, originally to record his own group, but soon diversified into releasing records by other local bands. In 1948 he began releasing records by accordionist Iry LeJeune, on two subsidiary labels, Folk Star and TNT, becoming some of the first Cajun recordings released after the war.  Sidney Brown was another artist on his label.  

Yeah, little doll, just look at what you did
Yeah, after you left me, yeh, you went away
Yeah, you went with someone else 
Yeah, in an ugly way, you know you're going to regret this. 

Yeah pretty little doll, do you remember the promises, dear, 
And, that you made for me, but yeah, that's not too long ago. 
Yeah, today I see you leaving me
Yeah, dear baby, I know you'll regret this.

By the 1960s, after realizing he had an arthritic left hand early on, Sidney quit playing accordions and picked up building accordions, stating:
Oh well, no more fooling around with that anymore.
Jo-El Sonnier and Sidney Brown
Building Accordions

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 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. Companies such as C. Bruno and Sons of San Antonio and Bugleisen and Jacobson of New York were importing and selling these German accordions.  

With good new accordions in short supply, Brown began experimenting with accordion making, eventually producing high-quality, hand-made instruments. He started by making replacement parts and later used the German model to begin making whole accordions. He would cannibalize the German accordions for reeds, bellows and parts he couldn't make. He recalls his early start:

If the Germans can make an accordion, Sidney Brown can. The first accordion I ever made took over three months.  I learned the hard way.  I took an accordion apart and learned how it was put together. There are about 500 parts to each accordion. The fingerboard alone has 300 parts.4 

He not only was able to help meet the post-war demand for new Cajun accordions but also established a reputation as an accomplished repairman throughout southwestern Louisiana, keeping many old pre-war German-made "Monarchs" and "Sterlings" alive and playing in the hands of their owners. Marc Savoy describes playing an early Sidney Brown accordion:

After playing my first song on the Sidney Brown accordion, I was very very impressed, not just with the fact that it was handmade, but also with the way it handled. It had the response of my Hohner, but with a much smoother keyboard action. The tone was also a major improvement, but unfortunately it did not quite have the bass response that the old pre-wars had.
John J. Mrnustik

But before there was Sidney Brown accordions, there was a Czech-German immigrant who owned a music and furniture store near Houston, Texas around the Heights suburb.  His name was John J. Mrnustik and he began making accordions after WWII out of his furniture store.  Living in east Texas, he was familiar with the Hohner and Monarch accordions which the German polka musicians were playing around the area.  The polka music would be a fundamental influence in conjunto and tejano music of the area.  John would have been familiar with Cajun music since many were moving westward during the oil boom.   According to Accordion builder, Larry Miller:
He claimed 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 said that he made "over ten accordions." Sidney Brown, of Lake Charles, had been repairing accordions, and may have picked up the idea of making accordions from Mr. Mrnustik. 
 As Cajuns were looking for other sources of accordions, a few turned to Mrnustik to repair, and then eventually, build them. John spent his time repairing and learning the delicate workings of these small accordions.  His wife would later claim that he only built about 10 in total and therefore his influence on Cajun accordions was insignificant. Even though he did stamp his own corners and reeds, however, recently Miller doubts that Mrnustik ever made any accordions from scratch since none have ever surfaced. Allegedly, an unknown man in Cecilia also repaired accordions during the 1940s. 

However, it would be Sidney's accordions that would spawn other players to build their own and create a local industry of hand-made accordions in South Louisiana.  In 1963, Brown was forced to abandon performing due to a heart condition. He spent the remaining years of his life building and repairing accordions. He produced about 50 instruments a year, totaling about 1500, many of which are still in use.  In his later years, in a 1978 interview, he recalled:
I don't make them as fast as I used to.  I can only make about one every 10 days.   I sell everything I make. I can't put any on my shelf. 
It's funny to see French music is sticking. It's in Nashville right now. I don't have to work if I don't want to.  But this has kept me going.4

  3. The Accordion in the Americas: Klezmer, Polka, Tango, Zydeco, and More by Helena Simonett
  4. Interview by David Rice. Lake Charles American Press.  July 13, 1979
Cajun Dance Tunes Vol.1 (Goldband, 1988)
American French Music From The Bayous Of Louisiana (Goldband)
Bayou Two-Step - Cajun Hits From Louisiana 1929-1962 (Jasmine, 2015)

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