The Sheng: Father of the Accordion?

ShengTime to brush up on your accordion history! The following piece was written by Yimeng Huang and appeared in a recent Washington Metropolitan Accordion Society newsletter.

I had a great time at the American Accordionists Association festival in August. Besides the great performances, the interesting workshops, the banquet, and other events, we had a little treat in one of the workshops: a short demonstration of the Chinese traditional music instrument, the sheng, and a short sheng/accordion duet. The accordionist was Chen Jun, vice president of the Chinese Accordionists Association, and his colleague played the sheng.

Up until that moment, I had never connected the accordion with the sheng, an instrument that I heard often in traditional Chinese folk music when I was growing up in Beijing, China.

When Chen said that the Sheng has 5,000 years of history and is the father of the accordion, it really intrigued me. The traditional sheng is a bunch of pipes — with holes in them — that are positioned vertically over a sort of cup. From the side of the cup comes a mouthpiece that you blow into (or suck out of — it works both ways like a harmonica).

The instrument sounds to me like something between a flute and a bagpipe. It can play chords, giving it a rich sound. Interestingly, it also uses reeds, and the reeds — like accordion reeds — are waxed onto the pipes. The reeds used to be made of bamboo and nowadays are made of steel.

As for the sheng being the father of the accordion, at first I had my doubts, but after some research, I found many sources that said in the early 1800s the sheng was brought to Europe and inspired the invention of the harmonica, accordion, and reed organ.

As young kids, we were taught to be proud of the four big inventions by the Chinese: the compass, gunpowder, paper-making, and printing. Now we have the accordion added to the list… or is that stretching it a little?

For more information, check out these links:

Thanks to Yimeng Huang and Mara Cherkasky of the Washington Metropolitan Accordion Society for allowing us to reprint this piece!

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