We often get asked about the instruments we play, so here's a quick introduction.

The melodeon (or diatonic accordion to give it its posh name) is a relative of the more familiar piano accordion, and has been a workhorse of traditional music all over the world, from South African township jive to French-Canadian reels, for over 130 years. Like the piano accordion it has bellows, and there are keys on each end, those played with the right hand providing the melody notes, those played with the left the accompaniment. Where the piano accordion has piano-style keys, the melodeon has between one and three rows of buttons, usually with between 10 and 12 buttons in each row.

1 row melodeon
Castagnari 1-row melodeon

Each button plays two different notes - one as the bellows are closed and another (usually the next in the scale) as the bellows are opened. This makes for a compact size and a fast action as your hands don't need to move around as much as on a piano-style keyboard.

Each row plays the scale of only one major key, so an instrument with one row of buttons has only the notes for one major key and its related minors - which is why the instrument is called "diatonic". In the hands of a skilled player these apparent "limitations" become positive assets. The accompaniment buttons work in a similar way, and, grouped in pairs they provide a variety of bass notes and chords. This apparently simple and limited system is what gives the melodeon its speed, unique character and tremendous dynamics.

Larger melodeons have more rows, usually two or three in total. This makes more keys immediately available, and skilled players can do amazing things on such an apparently restrictive instrument.

The sound is actually made by steel tongues (called "reeds") that vibrate as the bellows move air through them. Most melodeons have two reeds for each note, tuned slightly apart to give the characteristic tremolo to the note. Some instruments have more reeds/note, often controlled by "stops" that switch banks of reeds in and out of use. The melodeon has a very different sound to the piano accordion, more vocal and resonant.

Tim plays 1-row 4-stop melodeons by Saltarelle (key of C) and Castagnari (key of D), 2-row melodeon (keys of D and G) by Hohner, and 3-row melodeon (keys of A, D and G) by Castagnari.

Jan plays tambourines made in South Wales by Marcus Music. These are traditional-style instruments with wooden frames, skin heads and large jingles, and make a very different sound to the cheap "school" tambourines or the skinless versions currently used for popular music. Jan plays in a traditional way, using the first finger-joint knuckles of her right hand against the skin top get a sound akin to a snare drum, rather than simply waving the tambourine in the air.

The cajon is a box you sit on. Invented in Peru by African slaves, it has a hole in the back, and an arrangement like a snare drum behind the wooden front. You hit it, basically.

Jan's triangle is made of spring steel, from a tine taken from an agricultural machine of some sort. It's a Louisiana-Cajun style one, large, heavy and loud, and we can't quite remember where it came from. She uses a length of 1/4"x3/8" steel bar as a beater.

Jan also plays more "conventional" percussion, such as the cambasa and claves. Her drum kit is an electronic one (made by Yamaha), which as well as taking up far less room than a conventional kit, is much lighter and takes much less time to set up. The electronics not only mean that she can choose different sounds as required, but that the drums can play as quietly as required!