Polka Documentary: It’s Happiness

What is polka? According to the dozens of people interviewed for an upcoming polka music documentary, the answer is easy: It’s Happiness. That’s the title of the film that Craig DiBiase and Timm Gable have been working on for the past year, which has taken them all over the country to meet musicians, dancers, and enthusiasts who just can’t get enough of polka. According to DiBiase, the director:

“I wanted to make a film that informed mainstream America what polka is really about; the family atmosphere, one’s heritage and the amount of fun at these festivals, but at the same time still please the polka community with musical performances from their favorite bands. The main point of the film is to show the eccentric personalities of the polka world and prove there’s a younger generation out there polka dancing.”

The film grew out of a conversation with John Pinter, president of the Wisconsin Polka Boosters, after he’d seen the duo’s work on a Pabst Blue Ribbon commercial incorporating polka dancers. The filmmakers showed the trailer at Pulaski Polka Days last week (after filming there last year) and are busy entering film festivals and looking for a distributor. Until “It’s Happiness” arrives at your local multiplex, you can watch the trailer on the official site:

Rocky Mountain Accordion Celebration

How often do you get to see bands with names like the Smilin’ Scandinavians and the Awesome Polka Babes? Not often enough, if you ask me. Luckily, you’ll be able to catch both at the 10th annual Rocky Mountain Accordion Celebration next weekend, August 4th-6th, in Philipsburg, Montana. And if those bands aren’t enough to excite you, the website bills the event as “a rousing weekend of dancing and listening to music, steak barbeques and outdoor pancake breakfasts, concerts in the 1892 Opera House and a parade of homemade pies.” Accordions, pancake breakfasts, AND a pie parade? I don’t know about you, but that pretty much sounds like heaven to me.

Seriously, though, if you’re in the area, it sounds like a fun weekend of accordion revelry. In addition to the aforementioned colorfully-named performers, you can also hear Lidia Kaminska and The King Bees of The Bayou, or take part in accordion technique workshops led by Mike and Margie Aman. Just remember to make time for pie.

Interview with Big Lou

Big Lou (aka Linda Seekins) is a Bay Area accordion legend. She’s played in Polkacide, founded Those Darn Accordions, and now leads Big Lou’s Polka Casserole, whose new album (“Doctors of Polka-Ology”) is due out next month. She also plays in a French cabaret trio, Salut Matelot, hosts an online polka radio show, and curates the San Francisco Style Polka Hall of Fame. Big Lou was kind enough to sit down with us for Let’s Polka’s first exclusive interview.

Let’s start with the question we’re all asked when people find out that we play the accordion: Why?

Well, I used to live in Texas and I was walking through the park one day and there was a guy sitting under a tree playing the accordion. I started chatting with him and he said, “Oh, you play piano, you could probably just play this, too.” He handed it to me and I tried it out. So I’m playing with it, having a good time, and he says, “You know, that’s for sale.” It was cheap, so I bought it and just learned.

Cool! I think a lot of people, when they start playing, don’t realize how difficult it is to play the accordion — especially coordinating the right and left hands. Were there any tricks or tips you picked up when you were first learning?

Well, first off, you don’t have to do that if you play in a band — you don’t have to use your left hand. I wanted to learn it because I wanted to play solo. And what I did was get those round, different-colored dots, put them on a few key buttons and I practiced in front of the mirror. And that helped a lot. On the right hand, I took some nail polish and put little marks on the C’s — because I was used to playing the piano, where you can just see everything. Then when I took my accordion in to get it tuned, this old German lady was just irate. She spent an hour trying to get the nail polish off and when I told her I had put it there myself, she just exploded!

This One Time… At Camp AccordionLand…

Remember going to summer camp and coming back with nothing but a sunburn, mosquito bites, and a birdcage made out of popsicle sticks? This year, go to a camp where you’ll actually learn something useful — accordion camp! Camp AccordionLand 2006 takes place at Crown Point State Park in Alameda on August 12th and 13th. The camp features workshops led by local accordion teachers (including tango, jazz, and klezmer workshops), two accordion orchestra performances, and even an accordion sand sculpture contest. Depending on your schedule, you can choose to attend both days, just one day, or even for just one workshop. Anna and I are planning to be there on Sunday (the 13th), so come up and say ‘hi’ if you’re there!

Defending the Squeezebox

An open letter to Irene Haskins of the Columbia (MO) Daily Tribune:

Dear Irene,

As an avid accordionist, I read your recent piece, “Accordion out of tune with popular tastes”, with great interest. However, there are a couple small things I’d like to clear up:

First, you say that the accordion “was not designed to rest on the chest of any girl with more than a 34A bust,” and describe the only female accordion player you know as so flat-chested “she and her husband often go to one of those topless beaches and pass themselves off as brothers.” You may be surprised to learn that there are, in fact, many, many, many women (including my wife) who manage to reconcile their passion for accordion playing with their ample bosoms. There’s even an entire band of them!

Second, you pine nostalgically for Lawrence Welk (“the last of a dying breed”) by saying he “gave the accordion what it had never had — respectability.” Now I’m a bigger Welk fan than anyone my age, but even I admit his music played a large role in cementing the accordion’s “uncool” reputation in the minds of many Americans. Do you really think more “champagne music” would draw young people to the accordion?

And finally, we get to the heart of your piece:

“I?m worried, especially after hearing that even the Polka Belt?s supply of accordionists is dwindling; the veterans are dying out and not being replaced. We should all be worried… where are the accordion players of tomorrow coming from?”

I’ll admit, Irene, when I see photos of accordion gatherings where the average age of attendees is somewhere north of 70, I get a little worried too. But then I turn on the radio and hear the vibrant sounds of tejano and conjunto music from nearly every other station on the dial. Or I’ll take in the gypsy cool of Devotchka, dance to the creole/zydeco of Keith Frank, or raise a glass to the way the accordion drives the rowdy drinking songs of Flogging Molly. Or I’ll go to a local Punk Accordion Workshop and hear thirty people squeezing their way through a Ramones song. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg — I’m constantly amazed at the vibrant and diverse accordion sounds emanating from all over the world.

Now don’t get me wrong, there still a long way to go before our nation’s accordion teachers are overrun with kids clamoring for lessons. (Then again, I’ve seen small children go nuts for the accordion player in the Wiggles, so maybe we’re not that far off.) But the accordion is a resilient instrument, and despite all the flack it’s gotten over the past forty years, the tide is starting to turn. And the best, I think, is yet to come.

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Sympathy for the Accordion Student

Humorist Brian Unger did a fun piece on NPR this week where he followed Pam Griffis, a middle-aged accordion student, to one of her lessons. Pam has just started playing, but has already set an admirable goal: to play for her parents at the German-American Social Club of Cape Coral, FL. Her teacher, Dave Caballero, has been an accordion instructor for 43 years and tries to reassure her that her struggles aren’t unusual among budding accordionists:

“Just figure how many things you’re doing — you’re playing the basses, you’re playing the right hand, you’re reading, you’re counting, and you’re pushing and pumping the bellows. That’s only five things [at once].”

You can listen to the whole segment on the NPR website:

Galla-Rini Accordion Camp

Few people have done more to promote the accordion than Anthony Galla-Rini. Born into a musical family, Galla-Rini started playing accordion when he was seven and, after years on the vaudeville circuit, opened his own accordion studio in San Francisco. Devoted to the serious and classical study of the accordion, he wrote hundreds of arrangements, published his own method books, and in 1941, composed his first accordion concerto which he performed with the Oklahoma Symphony Orchestra. A recognized virtuoso, Galla-Rini toured the world, giving concerts and solo recitals, and played on numerous movie soundtracks (High Noon, Laura).

Since 1990, Galla-Rini has held an annual summer accordion camp where he leads workshops and conducts ensemble pieces. Nearly fifty musicians from around the world have registered for this year’s camp, which will be held at the Dominican University in San Rafael starting on Sunday, July 23rd. The maestro is still going strong at 102 (!!!), but won’t be attending this year; instead, Bay Area teacher/accordionist Joe Smiell will direct the camp.

Galla-Rini’s solo recordings are hard to find, but here’s a track that was included on the 1995 compilation, Legends of the Accordion:

Flickr Find: 1950s Accordion Boy

Nice Accordion
uploaded by
This Year’s Love
I came across this photo — probably from the late 1950s/early 1960s — and couldn’t help but wonder if this boy kept playing into adulthood, or if he was forced to take lessons, quit a short time later, and this is the only known photo of him smiling and holding the accordion at the same time. Either way, he’s got the right idea with the bow tie — regular ties always get caught in the bellows.

Gogol Bordello, Gypsy Punks

Gogol Bordello is a band known for chaotic live shows and music that blends Eastern European melody with punk bravado and cabaret flair. Founder and singer Eugene Hutz came to the US from the Ukraine with his family in the early 1990s and learned English in large part by listening to Johnny Cash records. Now living in New York City, Hutz has surrounded himself with an impressive band incorporating violin, saxophone, and, of course, accordion (from their excellent accordionist, Yuri Lemeshev).

Their latest album, Gypsy Punks: Underground World Strike, is polished, but still manages to capture some of the intensity of their live show. To appreciate Gogol Bordello, though, you really need to see them as well as hear them. Here’s a clip of the band performing two songs (“Not a Crime” and “60 Revolutions”) during their appearance on Later… with Jools Holland last month:

Let’s Polka in the SF Chronicle

Eagle-eyed San Francisco Chronicle readers may have noticed a rather flattering writeup on us in today’s Tech Chronicles. (The piece is an extended version of a blog post that appeared on the Chronicle’s site on Friday.) Now you can learn more than you ever wanted about how Anna and I met, our accordion backgrounds, and the origins of Let’s Polka. Thanks to Chronicle writer Jessica Guynn for having the guts to promote accordions in the Technology section, and for calling Anna a “veritable Count Guido Deiro.”

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