Vallenato at the Smithsonian

I spent my Memorial Day weekend in Mendocino, lounging around my in-laws’ house, reading their subscription to Smithsonian magazine when I stumbled across an article about vallenato, the popular accordion-driven folk music from Colombia. It mentioned that on June 6, a new Smithsonian film about vallenato called The Accordion Kings will premiere at the National History Museum.

The documentary focuses on the annual accordion competition held at the Festival de la Leyenda Vallenata in Valledupar. (We’ve shown clips of this festival on our site before.) Traditionally played with the accordion, caja (drum), and guacharaca (percussion stick), vallenato is a melting pot of African, European, and Colombian rhythms and sounds. Here’s a clip of five-time competition winner Hugo C Granados, who last year won the special Rey de Reyes (“King of Kings”) contest which is held only once every ten years.

Weird Al and the Roland V-Accordions

Weird Al YankovicIt’s probably no surprise that Weird Al Yankovic is on the cutting edge of accordion technology and, indeed, Roland has a fun little interview with him about their V-Accordion line of digital accordions. Apparently Al has been an FR-7 user for quite some time and just picked up the smaller, lighter FR-2. In the interview, Al talks about the appeal of a digital accordion versus an acoustic one:

“I really like the idea that it is a direct connection. The accordion is a hard instrument to mic, because if you put an acoustic microphone next to an accordion — especially the left hand — the bellows are always moving. So it’s kind of hard to get an even sound, because the mic is always going to be closer and then further away from the sound source. Internal microphones are also always a problem, because you still get the sound of the bellows. So just the simple fact that there’s a digital solution out there where you get a clean accordion sound is very appealing to me.”

Weird Al will be on tour this summer supporting his latest album, Straight Outta Lynwood; keep an eye on our calendar for dates. (Interview found via Wired).

Open Season for Accordion Festivals

Memorial Day Weekend is almost here and that can only mean one thing… festival season! Whether it’s a celebration of Polish culture or crawfish, festivals are the perfect excuse to get outside, have fun, and listen to some great music. Preferably accordion music.

The season kicks off with two big accordion-related festivals this weekend; the first is the National Button Accordion Festival in Bessemer, PA. This festival is the rebirth of the old Fontana Jamboree and features three full days of dancing and jamming to Czech, Polish, Slovenian, Austrian, German, and many other types of music. And despite the name, piano accordionists are welcome.

Meanwhile, the small town of Ennis, TX plays host to the National Polka Festival. The largest Czech heritage festival in the US, the National Polka Festival has all the ingredients for a great summer festival — there’s a parade, a festival king and queen, tons of food (kolaches galore!), and a bunch of bands. Brave Combo, Polka Freak Out, Vrazel’s Polka Band, and many more will be leading folks on multiple dance floors.

And that’s just the beginning. There are Cajun/Zydeco festivals in California, Louisiana, Rhode Island, as well as another polka festival in the Adirondacks. Just bookmark the Let’s Polka calendar and we’ll take care of all your summer festival needs.

Running Off With Babylon Circus

Babylon CircusI always loved the circus growing up, but I’ll tell you — Ringling Brothers had nothing on the high-energy, French ten-piece Babylon Circus. What started as a ska band in 1995 in Lyon has evolved to include reggae, rock, jazz, and numerous other eclectic influences. But with lyrics in French and English — sometimes both in the same song — addressing social and political issues (like the Iraq war), Babylon Circus isn’t pure diversion. It’s music with a message: get out of your seat and take action, whether it’s marching in the streets or jumping on the dance floor.

Their latest record, Dances of Resistance — released in France in 2004, but just making its way here now — continues to mix the political with the carnival, interspersing full-length songs with brief, circus organ-ridden ditties. Described by some as a French Gogol Bordello, the band has a reputation for electric live shows, as shown in this performance of “J’aurais Bien Voulu”:

Big Lou in Keyboard Magazine

This month’s issue of Keyboard Magazine has an excellent profile of one of our favorite polka artists: Big Lou, the Accordion Princess. The piece covers her double life as a geophysicist/accordionist, her squeezebox arsenal, and how she made the transition from Texas honky-tonk piano player to polka princess:

“The only thing that a piano player has to pay attention to is phrasing, or breathing [compressing and expanding the bellows]. That’s kind of a sure giveaway when accordion players listen to piano players who don’t really learn how to play the accordion.”

To learn more about Big Lou, be sure to check out our interview with her (conducted in late 2006). You can also catch her weekly radio show online at 247PolkaHeaven.

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Los Angeles Accordion Festival

Los Angeles Accordion FestivalNorthern California has had its fair share of accordion festivals over the years, so it was only a matter of time before Southern California got into the act. The first Los Angeles Accordion Festival is a three-day event running from May 30th to June 1st at Eagles Hall in Los Angeles.

Designed to showcase some of L.A.’s finest new accordion talent, there’ll be four or five bands performing each night with diverse styles ranging from Irish to Tex-Mex, Cajun to Rockabilly, and nearly everything in-between. On Saturday, May 31st, there’ll also be an accordion workshop on the three-row button accordion led by Otono Lujan of Conjunto Los Pochos, accordion instructor at the Eagle Rock Music Studio. For more information — including a full list of artists performing — check the festival website or the listing on our calendar.

Quick Links: Lone Star Edition

Today’s links are sponsored by the great state of Texas, home of Flaco Jimenez, Brave Combo, and the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders.

Five Questions: Skyler Fell

Skyler FellIt’s time for another installment of “Five Questions” — our occasional interview series with notable personalities in the accordion world.

Today, we’re talking to Skyler Fell, owner of the Accordion Apocalypse Repair Shop in San Francisco. A professionally trained accordion repairwoman, Skyler offers repairs, parts, lessons, and free advice out of her humble shop in Hunter’s Point. Accordion Apocalypse has become a Bay Area accordion hub, hosting bi-weekly jams and shows by touring bands and wild circuses. She also plays in a couple bands herself: the Hobo Gobbelins and the Accordion Apocalypse Circus Sideshow.

When and why did you start playing the accordion?

I started playing accordion when I was around 20 years old, after walking into Boaz Accordions in Berkeley. Feeling inspired by live circus bands featuring fierce and independent women with a hardcore edge in Europe and the Bay Area, I decided to have a go at the accordion. What has happened since has been a truly magical and eye-opening journey.

The Kids (Accordion Bands) Are Alright

The future of the accordion is now; at least, it is for these young accordion bands readers sent us after our post on a kids accordion band photo from the 1930s. Each of these bands is helping promote the accordion to a whole new generation.

  • Showstoppers Accordion Orchestra and Dancers
    Founded in 1970 and led by Rosita Lee Latulippe, the Showstoppers Orchestra give the students of the Latulippe’s music school the opportunity to travel and perform. Over the years, the band has performed across the country and even overseas; last year, they performed at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage during the Coupe Mondiale.
  • Tameside Junior Accordion Band
    Founded in 1992 by Betty Pollard, teaching and instruments are free for members of the Tameside Band, supporting their philosophy that money shouldn’t prevent children from learning music. The Band won the elementary group championship at this year’s UK Accordion Championships.
  • Cool Cats Accordion Band
    The Cool Cats are part of Terry Bell’s accordion and keyboard studio (United Teachers of Music) in Independence, Missouri. Playing everything from Bach to boogie, some of the band’s alumni have gone on to compete nationally and internationally.

I’m sure there are plenty of other young accordion bands and orchestras out there. If we left yours out, leave us a comment and let us know.

Paste Promotes the Accordion Revolution

Not sure how I missed this, but the April issue of Paste Magazine has a couple features on the accordion. The first, “Squeezebox Redux: The World’s Dorkiest Instrument Earns Hipster Cred”, notes the accordion’s recent rise to prominence in the indie rock world. One label head suggests that “the more bands that use accordions, the more [new] bands will be inspired to try it themselves.” DeVotchKa’s Tom Hagerman also has a good quote:

“The accordion can quickly color a piece of music into a much darker or even grotesque sort of tune… I think in pop music it tends to make things sound a little anachronistic, in a good way.”

Paste also published their “Ultimate Accordion Playlist”. The list is, again, indie rock-centric, and features a number of the bands we’ve covered here (They Might Be Giants, the Decemberists, Gogol Bordello, Arcade Fire, etc.). Any notable omissions?