The accordion, or squeezebox, is a type of free-reed instrument that generates sound when air rushes past metal reeds affixed to blocks inside the machine. In some types of free-reed instruments, such as harmonicas, air is produced by the musician’s mouth. In concertinas, bandoneons, and accordions, air is pushed and pulled past reeds by means of a bellows.
While free-reed instruments had been popular in ancient China (the Cheng), Egypt, and Greece, as well as in Renaissance Europe, the accordion as we think of it today did not appear until the early 19th century. Some organologists ascribe the accordion’s invention to a Viennese instrument maker named Cyrillus Damian, who patented an “accordion” in 1829. Others, though, point to the work of a German named Christian Friedrich Buschmann, whose 1822 “hand-aeoline” had a bellows and keyboard, more closely resembling and functioning like an accordion than Damian’s device, regardless of its name.
One of the first instrument makers to devote himself to accordions was Paolo Soprani, who, in 1864, opened a workshop in Castelfidardo, Italy. By the end of the century, the factory employed some 400 people, one of whom was Elio Gabbanelli, who also worked for accordion makers Silvestrini and Crucianelli before making his own instruments in 1929. Gabbanelli brands included the Aquila in Italy and the Noble and Reno in the United States. In 1960, one of Elio’s son, Gianfranco “John” Gabbanelli, left Castelfidardo for Houston, Texas, where he established a U.S. branch of the family firm in 1961. Gianfranco wanted to give the instruments some color and flash, and he bet that the Tejano and Cajun musicians he came in contact with would embrace his wild sense of style, which they did.