One of the ideas we try to promote here is that the accordion isn’t just a polka instrument, or a Cajun instrument, or a Tex-Mex instrument: it’s all those things and much, much more. For well over a hundred years now, accordions have been an essential player in genres ranging from avant-garde jazz to zydeco, in countries from Albania to Zimbabwe.
This past weekend, I stumbled across a great video that captures this idea. “The Accordion Party” is a medley of songs showing how the accordion has been a key player in party music the world over since its invention in the 1800’s. It’s by no means complete, but it’s a fun survey of the accordion’s global reach.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Ray Charles, Johnny Cash… if they deserved their own biopics, then why not one for the accordion-playing king of song parodies, “Weird” Al Yankovic? Check out this wish-it-were-true trailer for Weird: The Al Yankovic Story, with appearances by Patton Oswalt and Mary Steenburgen (!?!). I love the scene where Al’s dad finds the “Modern Accordion” and “Accordion Player” magazines with Walter Ostanek on the cover.
If you want to see the real “Weird” Al, he’s just announced summer concert dates — check his website for dates.
As we learned while building our directory, accordion shops — particularly ones that only sell and repair accordions — are few and far between. So we were excited to run across this video promoting Main Squeeze, the colorful accordion shop on New York City’s Lower East Side.
Run by Walter Kuhr, the store offers new/used accordions, repairs and lessons, and is home base for the all-female Main Squeeze Accordion Orchestra. Main Squeeze even has its own line of accordions, most notably the Model 911 — a compact 72 bass accordion made from walnut wood. Seems to a popular model as I’ve seen photos of a few artists using it recently, including John Linnell of They Might Be Giants.
Move over ABBA; I have a new favorite Swedish band. Detektivbyrån is a folk/electronic Swedish trio with a penchant for whimsical arrangements and Amelie-inspired melodies. Like a music box gone wild, their instrumentals balance the sprightly tinkling of glockenspiel, bells, and toy piano with a boisterous accordion and occasional synthesizer. This video captures the band performing “Generation Celebration” from their latest album, Wermland.
On the Internet can you become a star overnight; just ask Ukranian accordionist Aleksandr Hrustevich. Late last week, this video of Hrustevich performing the third movement of “Summer” from Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” swept across the Internet faster than his fingers across his bayan (Russian chromatic button accordion). From NPR to Digg, viewers raved about his performance, mostly along the lines of “Wow, I never knew an accordion could sound like this!” Indeed it can.
Last month, the American Accordionists Association held its annual festival in Memphis, Tennessee. The gathering featured performances by Riders in the Sky (with Joey Miskulin), Jeff Lisenby and the NashVegas Jazz, Tony Lovello, Bruce Gassman, Joe Natoli and Mary Tokarski. In between the concerts, workshops and competitions, a small band of accordionists made their way over to the King’s house for a little rock and roll… accordion-style.