Name That Accordion: Old Wurlitzer

Grab your accordion identification toolkit… it’s time for another round of “Name That Accordion.” Today, reader Sherri B. has sent us some photos of an old Wurlitzer that once belonged to her great-grandfather. It’s an ornately decorated 120 bass, with a “Made in Germany” label on the back. Sherri thinks it’s from the turn of the (last) century, but that’s about all the information we have to go on. Have you seen a Wurlitzer like this one? How old is it really?

Name That Accordion

Accordion Noir Festival in Vancouver

Accordion Noir festivalA heads-up for accordion fans north of the border — Vancouver’s all-accordion radio show Accordion Noir presents its first annual festival this Thursday and Friday. The two-day squeezebox-o-rama includes live performances from Geoff Berner, Amy Denio, and more, as well as a special screening of the Accordion Tribe documentary. Check our calendar for more information.

Broadcast every Friday night from 9:30 to 10:30 on Vancouver’s CFRO: Co-op Radio 102.7 FM, Accordion Noir is “ruthlessly pursuing the idea that the accordion is just another instrument” by playing an eclectic brew of punk, folk, rock, zydeco, klezmer, jazz, and everything in-between. The brainchild of Bruce Triggs and Rowan Lipkovits, you can listen online live or download episodes directly from the Accordion Noir website. It’s the perfect companion to an evening of browsing the Let’s Polka archives.

The Sheng: Father of the Accordion?

ShengTime to brush up on your accordion history! The following piece was written by Yimeng Huang and appeared in a recent Washington Metropolitan Accordion Society newsletter.

I had a great time at the American Accordionists Association festival in August. Besides the great performances, the interesting workshops, the banquet, and other events, we had a little treat in one of the workshops: a short demonstration of the Chinese traditional music instrument, the sheng, and a short sheng/accordion duet. The accordionist was Chen Jun, vice president of the Chinese Accordionists Association, and his colleague played the sheng.

Up until that moment, I had never connected the accordion with the sheng, an instrument that I heard often in traditional Chinese folk music when I was growing up in Beijing, China.

When Chen said that the Sheng has 5,000 years of history and is the father of the accordion, it really intrigued me. The traditional sheng is a bunch of pipes — with holes in them — that are positioned vertically over a sort of cup. From the side of the cup comes a mouthpiece that you blow into (or suck out of — it works both ways like a harmonica).

The instrument sounds to me like something between a flute and a bagpipe. It can play chords, giving it a rich sound. Interestingly, it also uses reeds, and the reeds — like accordion reeds — are waxed onto the pipes. The reeds used to be made of bamboo and nowadays are made of steel.

As for the sheng being the father of the accordion, at first I had my doubts, but after some research, I found many sources that said in the early 1800s the sheng was brought to Europe and inspired the invention of the harmonica, accordion, and reed organ.

As young kids, we were taught to be proud of the four big inventions by the Chinese: the compass, gunpowder, paper-making, and printing. Now we have the accordion added to the list… or is that stretching it a little?

For more information, check out these links:

Thanks to Yimeng Huang and Mara Cherkasky of the Washington Metropolitan Accordion Society for allowing us to reprint this piece!

From Siberia to Wisconsin

Sergei BelkinYesterday’s Chicago Tribune had a fascinating profile of Sergei Belkin, a Russian accordion virtuoso now living in Wisconsin as a machine polisher in an industrial pump factory. Belkin grew up in Siberia and studied at the prestigious Moscow Conservatory but, after a long journey that took him from Siberia to Nome and now Wisconsin, he gave up the accordion shortly after reaching the U.S. Since returning to the instrument two years ago, though, he’s been wowing audiences and fellow musicians alike:

“Teri Forscher, a flutist who has performed with the Cleveland Orchestra and the Atlanta Symphony, heard him a few weeks ago. ‘It was extraordinary… I mean it was really, really jaw-dropping. When you see Sergei play, you assume he must be some kind of international star.'”

Instead, though, he spends most of his time at a factory job that has already contributed to a permanent soreness in his left shoulder and elbow that affects his playing. His story is a compelling one, and underscores how there are no guarantees, even if you have incredible talent.

The article includes a sidebar called “5 Questions on Accordions”, with answers to such burning questions as “Did any great composers write for the accordion?” and “What kinds of music can the accordion play?” Of course, if you’re reading this, you already know the answers. Smarty pants.

Quick Links: Cumbia, Polka, and the Righteous

  • Cumbia, My Lord, Cumbia
    You may be familiar with cumbia, the traditional Colombian (but now spread throughout Latin America) folk/dance music that prominently features the accordion. The Guardian looks at the latest cumbia innovation — Argentina’s “nueva cumbia,” where DJs are mixing cumbia with house, dancehall, and other genres. To hear it, check out El Hijo de la Cumbia or Oro11.
  • Polka for the Next Generation
    A fun, charming story by Leigh Ann Henion about her quest to learn to polka and her young niece’s blossoming into a polka princess. Art’s Concertina Bar — now Kochanski’s Concertina Beer Hall — makes a cameo appearance.
  • Featured Music: High Times
    The Fort-Worth Weekly introduces Mount Righteous, a Texas ten-piece with “feverish handclaps, helium-happy choir vocals, and dizzying bursts of trombone, snare drum, and accordion.” Imagine Mucca Pazza meeting The Polyphonic Spree, if you’re the type who enjoys defining new bands in terms of bands you already know. (And I am.)

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Wii Music’s Fake Accordion

While we’re still waiting for Accordion Hero to materialize, Nintendo is working on a music simulation game for the Wii, appropriately titled Wii Music. Due out next month in Japan (and the US later this year), the game allows users to play up to 60 different instruments, including the accordion. Judging from this video, the mechanics of Wii accordion-playing leave a lot to be desired, but hopefully that won’t prevent gamers from channeling their inner Contino.

Jascha Heifetz Cheats on Violin With Accordion

Jascha Heifetz on AccordionBefore Rolling Stone, before Spin, even before Let’s Polka, there was Accordion World magazine — keeping its finger on the pulse of America’s hottest up-and-coming instrument. Zevy Zions sent us this fantastic piece from the November 1936 issue which excitedly discusses violin virtuoso Jascha Heifetz’s interest in the accordion and what it means for the instrument:

“THE EMINENT VIOLINIST, JASCHA HEIFETZ, is shown in the above photograph, apparently taking his accordion very seriously. It has become now, not a fad, but a matter of real interest with some of our most prominent musicians in other fields, to take to their bosom our beloved instrument.

Mr. Heifetz is studying the accordion and may soon surprise some of our best players.

A few years ago a photograph like this would have appeared preposterous. Today our Symphony orchestras are accepting the accordion one by one. Three or four of our universities are already admitting the instrument and giving credit for it. A great many of our high schools have their own accordion bands. Our great name orchestras are not only including but featuring the accordion. And now our greatest musicians are taking it up. That is progress.”