It’s only rock and roll… but I like it. Mick Jagger was both host and musical guest on Saturday Night Live this past weekend and, for his first number, he performed the Rolling Stones classic “The Last Time” while backed by Arcade Fire. It isn’t everyday you see the lead singer of the Stones shimmying with an accordion player (in this case, Arcade Fire’s Régine Chassagne), so savor this image while you can.
We’re no strangers to accordion concerts, festivals, or even hootenannys. But a symposium? Indeed, the first-ever “Thinking Outside the Squeeze Box” Accordion Symposium will take place this September 23-25 in Cedar Rapids, IA.
The symposium will celebrate the way accordionists have been mixing traditional music with new approaches. There will be jam sessions, dance parties, and workshops on topics ranging from “Techniques of Rock Accordion” to “Stretching the Horizons of the Button Box”. Presenters and performers are coming from across the country and include Paul Rogers (of Those Darn Accordions), Maggie Martin, Renee de la Prade, Roxanne Oliva, Ron Borelli, and more.
Why Cedar Rapids? Cedar Rapids is home to the Czech and Slovak National Museum and Library and has a long tradition of accordion music. Leo Greco, who passed away this week, was one example — he played accordion for years and led his own band (Leo and the Pioneers) in the 50s and 60s.
Can’t make it to Iowa? If you still want to support the symposium, consider backing their Kickstarter campaign and help offset the cost of hosting the event.
Longtime readers won’t be surprised to hear it often takes us a while to write new posts for the site. Yet even when we’re quiet, the accordion world continues to spin — there’s always an article, a concert, or a great new band to share.
That’s why we’re now using Twitter and Facebook to post shorter, more frequent updates in between posts on the main site. Use the buttons below to “follow” us on Twitter or “like” us on Facebook and get a steady stream of squeezin’:
In the past week, people already following us on Twitter and Facebook have learned about the growing bandoneon crisis in Argentina, seen some cool vinyl accordion album covers, and received alerts about some excellent accordion concerts. (You can also see these posts in the sidebar of the main site.)
And, as always, if there’s a squeezebox gathering in your area, a hot new band to promote, or some wacky accordion link, let us know about it and we’ll help spread the word!
Today’s New York Times has an excellent article on Castelfidardo, the longtime center of the Italian accordion industry. From Paolo Soprani’s shop in 1863 to the peak of accordion production in 1953 — 200,000 instruments built by 10,000 full-time workers — Castelfidardo has been inextricably linked to the accordion. There are still about 27 companies building accordions and parts there and, rather than compete with cheap models from Eastern Europe or Asia, they’re focused on building fewer, but higher-quality instruments.
“‘Our accordions are like bespoke apparel,’ said Francesca Pigini, a top manager for the company her grandfather started in 1946. ‘For us, it’s a pleasure and an enrichment to work and collaborate with artists and people who make music a big part of their lives.’”
Pigini is the largest accordion maker in Castelfidardo, making professional-caliber accordions ranging in price from $3,000 to $43,000. While China has long since passed Italy as the largest producer of accordions, the folks in Castelfidardo are confident that the best players will eventually find their way to Castelfidardo’s exceptional, hand-crafted instruments.
“We’re not pessimistic about the future because some young Chinese players will become professionals, and once they’re looking for more important instruments where will they come? To Castelfidardo.”
If you’re planning a trip to Italy and want to visit Castelfidardo, be sure to check out the International Accordion Museum, which traces the accordion’s evolution from the 19th century to present day. There’s also (of course) a big accordion festival there every Fall.
With the iPad 2 coming out this week, it seemed like the perfect time to check out the latest iPad accordion apps. Believe it or not, this is actually a pretty active category — we found more than 25 apps for the iPad alone, and even more for the iPhone and iPod Touch.
While tapping your iPad is no substitute for playing a real accordion, it can be a handy learning tool. Imagine practicing a few scales while watching TV on the couch, or plugging in headphones and mastering a tune after the family has gone to bed. Plus, all of these apps are around $5 so (even after you factor in the cost of the iPad itself) they’re significantly cheaper than a real accordion. Here are a few we’ve tried:
Wait, that Hohner? Yes, the world’s largest accordion maker now has a line of iPad apps that mimic their Corona Classic diatonic accordions. You can show or hide the names of the notes on the keyboard, tap on the bellows to alternate between “push” and “pull” mode, and even switch between wet and dry tuning. The app is treble only — no bass/chord buttons (although this isn’t a big loss for most diatonic players I know). The app comes in five key combinations — GCF, FB♭E♭, EAD, ADG, and B♭E♭A♭ — and there’s also a “mini” version for iPhone/iPod touch.
We reviewed the first version of Accordéon last year when it was one of the only accordion apps available. It offers a piano accordion interface and even includes a handful of bass/chord buttons so you can get a fairly full sound going. My favorite feature, though, is the “Learning Center,” which helps you learn popular songs by following along with highlighted keys. “Jingle Bells” comes for free with the app and you can buy other tunes for 99 cents each.
The chromatic accordion has always intimidated me with its vast, imposing array of buttons. Accordio Pro has helped conquer that fear by simulating a full-featured chromatic accordion, complete with six-row Stradella bass. You can switch between C, G, and B-layouts, scroll and zoom along the keyboard, and even play along to songs in your music library. The developer also makes a version for piano accordion.
Have you played “pocket squeezebox” on your iPad or iPhone and have an app to recommend? Leave a comment and let us know!
Craigslist recently started producing a fun series of videos called Craigslist TV, which follows interesting posts from real Craigslist users and shows how their transactions unfold.
In this episode, Robin wants to give away an old accordion… but there’s a catch. Whoever claims it must first play the accordion at a dinner party for her family. When three prospective “buyers” show up — professional Gigi, underdog Michael, and quirky Renee — an “Accordion Idol” competition is held, complete with a panel of judges to decide who gets to keep the accordion. Tune in for the feel-good story of the year.
Twenty years ago, Jim Boggio and Clifton Buck-Kauffman had a crazy idea. What if they put on a music festival in the small Northern California town of Cotati? And what if it was centered around the accordion — which Boggio played — and incorporated a mix of musical styles like jazz, polka, Cajun, gypsy, etc. Would people be interested? Could they pull it off?
The answer is yes. Twenty times yes, in fact. This weekend, as they have for twenty years, accordion lovers from across the country and beyond will descend upon Cotati, CA, for the annual Cotati Accordion Festival. There will be two full days of accordion music, a tent dedicated to nonstop polka dancing, booths for accordion clubs and vendors, and, of course, the traditional Lady-of-Spain play-along accompanied by the release of white doves. Thousands attend every year and the non-profit festival raises important funds for local youth organizations.
Performers at this year’s festival include:
- Dick Contino
- Flaco Jimenez
- Los Texmaniacs
- The Alex Meixner Band
- Culann’s Hounds
- Tara Linda
- … and many more!
Anna and I have been attending for more than ten years and we’ll be there again this year. If you see us wandering around, be sure to say hi!
Known as “El Parche” because of his eye patch, Jordan started his career in conjunto in the 1960s, but soon began exploring and incorporating other musical styles into his work — blending rock, Latin jazz, blues, and salsa with traditional polkas and rancheras. He pushed the limits of the diatonic accordion and wasn’t afraid to experiment with new technology, using electronic devices like phase shifters and fuzzboxes to shape his sound.
“‘What Steve Jordan did was, he electrified the accordion,’ says Sunny Sauceda, a rising star on the squeezebox. ‘He used pedals, he brought in jazz influences to the accordion playing. He brought in the effects that had never been done on the accordion — to this day, nobody does it.’”
Definitely one of the all-time greats. Rest in peace, El Parche.
Jan Lewan was living the American dream. After emigrating from Poland in the mid-1970s, Lewan was a hotel worker by day, but a one-man show at night, singing and entertaining at church halls and Polish club functions. He settled down in Hazleton, PA, and started performing polka music, eventually forming his own band, the Jan Lewan Orchestra.
By the 1990s, Lewan was one of polka’s biggest stars, drawing thousands of polka fans to concerts and festivals on the East Coast and earning a Grammy nomination in 1995 for Best Polka Album. This video, from a performance at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, shows Lewan at the height of his popularity (and handkerchief-throwing powers):
And then it all unraveled. In January 2001, Lewan’s tour bus crashed on the way to Florida and two musicians — accordionist Tommy Karas and trombonist John Stabinsky — were killed. Lewan’s son Daniel was also seriously injured.
Lewan was also in hot water over dealings with his store in Hazleton where he sold Polish souvenirs. He sold unregistered promissory notes to investors in order to build his business, but the market soured and he failed to repay them. In 2004, he was sentenced to five years in federal prison for bilking investors out of millions of dollars. While in prison, he was nearly killed by an inmate who tried to slash his throat with a razor blade.
Now, a documentary called The Man Who Would Be Polka King tells the story of Jan Lewan’s rise and fall. Here’s the trailer; the film made the rounds at festivals last year, but you can watch the complete film online at Babelgum.
Lewan was released from prison last year and is currently mounting a comeback to rehabilitate his image and pay restitution to the (justifiably angry) investors whose money he lost. He’s also working on a polka-rap fusion with Vanilla Ice which sounds like it could be grounds for another criminal offense…
I’ll admit, I don’t watch a lot of TV these days unless it’s Sesame Street or baseball, so when a friend asked me if I watch Mad Men, I just shrugged and replied, “That’s the one with the guys in suits, right?” When his jaw dropped and he said, “YOU MEAN YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE ONE WITH THE ACCORDION?!?”, I figured I should probably catch up.
Indeed, in the third episode of season three — “My Old Kentucky Home” for anyone looking it up on DVD or iTunes — office manager Joan Holloway hosts a tense dinner party where, after prodding from her husband, she reluctantly pulls out her accordion and sings “C’est Magnifique.” (And does it quite well.)
It turns out that Christina Hendricks, the actress who plays Joan, is no newcomer to the accordion; she’s been playing for a few years. In an LA Times Magazine interview last month, she talked about how she got into the accordion:
“I started taking lessons four or five years ago. It is such a rich instrument for one person. You can get so much out of it, like a one-man band. I also think it’s a very romantic instrument, and it channels all the things I love—French culture, Tom Waits—and all the things I try to make my house look like. It’s something I’ve always been interested in.”
For an in-depth deconstruction of the Mad Men accordion scene, check out this essay from ethnomusicologist Meredith Aska McBride, who puts the performance into its 1960s context.