Accordions at the 2014 Grammys

Ever since the Polka and Cajun/Zydeco categories were eliminated from the Grammys, it’s been tougher for accordion-toting artists to bring home Grammy hardware. But that didn’t stop some of our favorites from breaking through at this year’s event.

Los Angeles’s La Santa Cecilia has been building a national following over the past couple years and won Best Latin Rock/Urban/Alternative Album last night for their major label debut, Treinta Días. If you haven’t heard their unique and lively fusion of rock, jazz, and latin rhythms—and the incredible voice of Marisol Hernandez—check out their NPR Tiny Desk Concert.

Louisiana’s Terrance Simien & The Zydeco Experience won Best Regional Roots Music Album for their Dockside Sessions. Not only is Simien a fantastic musician, he was a key figure in the creation of the short-lived Best Cajun/Zydeco Album Grammy back in 2008 (which he later won).

Zydeco legend Clifton Chenier was also honored posthumously with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. If you watched the prime-time show last night, you may have noticed that The Beatles received the same award. Pretty good company for the King of Zydeco, eh?

Follow Us on Twitter & Facebook

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':

(If the buttons aren’t working for you, visit twitter.com/letspolka or facebook.com/letspolka instead.)

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!

Catching Up with Castelfidardo

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.

Tap to Squeeze: Accordions on the iPad

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:

Hohner Squeezebox

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.

Michael Eskin, who developed the app for Hohner, has a number of other accordion-related apps available, including one-row Cajun/Zydeco accordion, two-row Melodeon, and Anglo Concertina.

Hohner Squeezebox

Accordéon

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.

Accordio Pro

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!

Esteban “Steve” Jordan Dies

Steve JordanIt’s a sad day for accordion and Tejano music fans; legendary accordionist Esteban “Steve” Jordan died last night of complications from liver cancer. He was 71 years old.

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.

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Play Accordion On Your iPad

Picking up an iPad this weekend? Fortunately, time spent with your shiny new toy doesn’t have to mean time spent away from the accordion. Alex Komarov has developed a new app called Accordéon which allows you to simulate playing an accordion on your iPad. At $3.99 — plus at least $499 for an iPad — it’s cheaper than a Roland FR-7, but probably not as fun to play.

Accordeon on iPad

See also: Play Accordion On Your iPhone

MP3 Monday: 2010 Grammy Winners

Last night’s Grammy Awards weren’t just about Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, and the wonders of Auto-Tune. At the pre-telecast awards ceremony, a handful of accordionists picked up awards, too. Let’s review the big winners:

Best Cajun or Zydeco Album: Buckwheat Zydeco

The Cajun/Zydeco category has only been around for three years, but it’s already produced three different winners. Buckwheat Zydeco played organ for the legendary Clifton Chenier’s band before picking up the accordion and, since Chenier’s death in 1987, has become zydeco’s best-known (and most mainstream) artist. Lay My Burden Down is probably his most mature album to date, mixing his party-time zydeco with inspired covers (including “When the Levee Breaks”).

Best Tejano Album: Los Texmaniacs

We reviewed this album last summer and were excited to see it recognized last night. Both Texmaniacs leader Max Baca and accordionist David Farias have shared in other Grammy wins, but this was the first for their group that combines blues and rock with traditional conjunto. On Borders y Bailes, released on Smithsonian Folkways, they breathe new life into the century-old music of the Texas Rio Grande Valley.

Best Norteño Album: Los Tigres Del Norte

With more than 32 million records sold in their 40-year history, Los Tigres have long been the kings (or “Los Jefes de Jefes”) of norteño music, so their victory was no surprise. What’s surprising, though, is that Tu Noche Con… is their first live album. Los Tigres take their role as spokesmen of the people very seriously, and the album contains a great mix of the politically and socially-charged corridos, rancheras, ballads and cumbias that have built them a loyal following.

And finally, for those wondering how 18-time Grammy winner Jimmy Sturr would fair after the polka Grammy’s demise last year — he lost to Loudon Wainright III for Best Traditional Folk Album. There’s always next year.

Grammy Nominees Announced

The Best Polka Album award may be gone, but there are still plenty of accordions among the nominees announced yesterday for the 52nd annual Grammy Awards. The Best Cajun/Zydeco Album category is full of them:

The accordion is apparently mandatory in the Best Norteño Album category, too:

There are also a handful of accordionists scattered through other categories. Los Texmaniacs and Sunny Sauceda are both vying for Best Tejano Album, Weird Al Yankovic is up for Best Comedy Album, and David Hidalgo’s accordion was a key ingredient in Bob Dylan’s Together Through Life, nominated for Best Americana Album.

And finally, many thought that the demise of the polka award would spell the end of 18-time winner Jimmy Sturr’s Grammy run. Not so fast — Jimmy and his orchestra garnered yet another Grammy nomination; this time, for Best Traditional Folk Album. The competition will be stiffer but, after all these years, I know better than to bet against Jimmy Sturr.

The (Controversial?) International Accordion Festival

This weekend, accordion lovers will flock to San Antonio for the 9th annual International Accordion Festival. This free, two-day outdoor festival always features a stellar lineup of concerts and workshops featuring accordionists from around the world in a variety of genres — from Balkan to Basque, Acadian to Arabic, and beyond. Performers at this year’s festival include Buckwheat Zydeco, Guy Klucevsek, Ivan Milev, the George Lammam Ensemble, and many others. There’s also a pre-festival concert on Friday night featuring conjunto/Tejano greats like Mingo Saldivar and Joel Guzman.

So where’s the controversy? Some conservatives have singled out the $25,000 grant given to the festival by the National Endowment of the Arts as an example of misguided government spending during the economic downturn. The SA Current has a good rebuttal from festival organizers, as well as local restaurant and shop owners who benefit greatly from the tourists that the festival draws to downtown San Antonio. Clearly anyone who doesn’t think an accordion festival will help stimulate the economy — or at least stimulate the people attending — has never been to an accordion festival.

Minding the Accordion Store

Forget the recession; running an accordion shop is a challenging business even in the best of times. Last week, the Chicago Tribune had a great profile of the Italo-American Accordion Company in Oak Lawn, Illinois, which has been in business for nearly 95 years. Joe Romagnoli took over the business in 1948 and made a name for himself by selling meticulously hand-crafted instruments. Today, his wife Anne runs the business, but it’s a far cry from the accordion company’s heyday. According to John Castiglione, who runs Castiglione Accordions in Warren, Michigan:

“The market is more scattered than it was in the ’50s, when the accordion was the No. 1 instrument and everyone took lessons and there were schools… People still buy, but for all intents and purposes, you don’t find stores selling just accordions.”

At Italo-American, they’re lucky to sell a handful of instruments a month; most of their business comes through repairs. But Anne, who’s now 83 years old, refuses to retire and makes a spirited accordion sales pitch to anyone who walks through her door.

“If you have an old accordion, put life into it. The accordion is a happy thing. There is no other instrument this self-sufficient. You play guitar, you need people. But you can take an accordion to a picnic. You can’t take a trumpet to a picnic!”

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