Quick Links: Oh Canada!

Once again, we spotlight our hockey and accordion-lovin’ neighbors:

  • Accordion Revolution
    Great pair of interviews that focus almost entirely on accordion-playing. One with our old favorite Geoff Berner (touring in support of his new album, Klezmer Mongrels) and the other with Felicity Hamer of the United Steelworkers of Montreal.
  • Joanna Chapman-Smith
    Like Geoff Berner, Joanna is another klezmer-influenced accordionist from Vancouver. She combines jazzy vocal stylings with acoustic roots instrumentation, killer clarinet lines and accordion flourishes, a touch of modern jazz and a touch of cabaret.
  • Walter Ostanek Band
    Canada’s Polka King finally has a website (and blog) worthy of his title. I really like the videos — Walter is warm, genuine, and, of course, an incredible accordion player.

How Many Hippies? 17 Hippies

17 HippiesThey aren’t really hippies. In fact, there aren’t even 17 of them (13 at last count). But that hasn’t stopped Berlin’s 17 Hippies from rolling dozens of genres — Eastern European folk, French chanson, Cajun/zydeco, and more — into a unique pop style all their own. Lyrics sung in German, French, and English somehow all feel at home when layered over accordion, ukulele, banjo, clarinet, bouzouki, and trombone. When the band first started, members intentionally chose instruments they had never touched; twelve years and 1200 concerts later, they’re still playing traditional tunes and instruments in an entirely untraditional way.

Last year, 17 Hippies played at Mountain Stage in West Virginia; you can listen that entire, high-energy appearance online at the NPR website. And if I haven’t sold you enough, here’s a track off their excellent 2007 album, Heimlich:

MP3 Monday: Clifton Chenier

Since tomorrow is Mardi Gras, it seems fitting to kick off the week with some zydeco from the King of Zydeco himself, Clifton Chenier. Influenced by both early Creole musicians like Amédé Ardoin and blues musicians like Professor Longhair, Chenier took the French Creole music of rural Southwest Louisiana and blended it with blues and R&B to create the sound that became known as zydeco. And unlike other Cajun/Creole accordionists, Chenier preferred the louder, more flexible piano accordion to the smaller, more traditional diatonic. But, as he liked to tell his son C.J. Chenier, “whatever you put into this instrument, that’s what you get out of it.”

Clowning Around with Cirkestra

Peter Bufano ran away to join the circus more than 20 years ago, making over 1000 appearances as a clown for Ringling Brothers, Circus Smirkus, and others. But he’s no longer just clowning around; today, he composes and plays accordion with his gypsy/klezmer-inspired circus music ensemble Cirkestra. According to Bufano, writing scores for the circus poses unique challenges:

“Often I have a month to write two hours of music. And it has to be flexible. It’s not like Broadway where you’re playing the same thing every night. Some nights the guys jumping through the fiery hoop make it and some nights they don’t, but the music has to keep going.”

(MP3 removed at artist’s request.)

MP3 Monday: La Strada

La StradaWithout releasing a record, Brooklyn’s La Strada has already built a loyal New York City following; so their fanbase should balloon after the release of their self-titled debut EP next Tuesday, February 24th. With swelling strings, soaring harmonies, and (of course) plenty of accordion, this passionate seven-piece is well on their way to removing the word “next” from their “next big thing” promise. To me, their sound is somewhere between Beirut and DeVotchKa — marrying old-world folk/Balkan stylings with modern American rock and then running away with it to join the circus.

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Giant Accordion on the Loose?

Bruce at Accordion Noir forwarded us a strange Russian news article about a “Monster-Accordion” that will be unveiled at the Kremlin in April. The instrument will be the centerpiece of a celebration of the accordion’s 100th birthday:

“Precise dimensions of giant accordion remain unknown, but according to the art director of the holiday concert the height of the instrument will be several meters. To make the instrument sound two people will draw bellows and several people will push keys of the instrument.”

“Several meters” high? I wonder if this giant accordion is related to this one built by Giancarlo Francenella in Castlefidardo, Italy. That accordion — which is more than 3 meters tall and 2 meters wide — requires two people to play it, one on the keys and another to push the bellows. (Sounds like the punchlinke to a “how many accordionists does it take to screw in a lightbulb” joke…) If you want to see it in action, the accordion was recently transported to the Tate Modern in London for an exhibition and will be there through April 26th.

Blair Kilpatrick Answers Your Questions

Blair KilpatrickRecently, we asked readers to send in their questions for Blair Kilpatrick, author of Accordion Dreams: A Journey into Cajun and Creole Music. Thanks to everyone who responded — and congratulations to Mister Anchovy, who won our drawing for a free copy of the book. Today, in her first set of responses, Blair describes how she was drawn to the accordion and the musical life that she and her husband share.

What inspired you to choose the accordion, as opposed to another Cajun instrument?

Good question. But I never did choose the accordion. It chose me.

It came to me in a dream. Literally. A series of recurring dreams, strange and vivid. I was at one with the instrument, almost dancing with it. It felt like the accordion was playing me. I’d wake up in the morning with the sensation still lingering in my hands. This was peculiar, since I wasn’t a musician and had no memory of ever laying my hands on an accordion.

My unlikely passion for Cajun music had begun on a birthday trip to New Orleans, when I heard some recorded music — it was a Beausoleil tape — on a swamp tour. After that, I became consumed with the sound: buying up cassette tapes, listening constantly, going to monthly dances put on by Chicago’s one and only homegrown Cajun band. After nine months of listening, dancing, and dreaming music, I finally gave in: I had to find an accordion.

So it didn’t feel like a choice or decision — it was more like succumbing to a consuming passion. A sensible person would have stuck to Cajun dancing, or maybe picked up the guitar or triangle as a first instrument. (Later on, I did learn to play them both, along with some very basic fiddle.)

After the fact, I’ve tried to analyze what it is about the particular sound of the Cajun accordion that appeals so strongly to me. My first teacher at music camp, a very young Steve Riley, described it this way: loud and crude. It is, in some ways. Cajun accordion also has a very percussive quality, because of the inherent nature of a single row diatonic instrument. It’s like the wild skirl of the bagpipes or the wail of a blues harmonica — it moves you. Or it doesn’t.

More recently, I’ve begun to suspect the accordion resonated so strongly for me because of my Slovenian roots, which were mostly discounted when I was growing up. But that’s another story.

The Big Squeeze Accordion Throwdown

Big SqueezeAre you ready to put your squeezebox skills to the test? Texas Folklife is looking for the most amazing young accordion players in Texas and Louisiana for its annual Big Squeeze accordion contest. You could win cash, a trip for two to play in Germany (courtesy of Hohner), and a day of recording at SugarHill Studios in Houston. Finalists will battle it out before a huge crowd on June 6th at the 20th Annual Accordion Kings & Queens festival. Contestants must be age 25 or younger and the entry deadline is March 1st; check the Texas Folklife site for details.

MP3 Monday: 2009 Grammy Winners

While the headlines around yesterday’s Grammy Awards focused on the artists featured during the CBS telecast, we’re turning the spotlight on those noble, accordion-toting winners who flew under the radar at the pre-telecast ceremony.

It was no surprise that Jimmy Sturr walked away with his 18th Grammy for Best Polka Album. This was Sturr’s fourth consecutive win and, at this point, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where anyone else wins this category. (Per our interview with Jimmy three years ago: “I’ll [step down] when the New York Yankees do.”)

Meanwhile, Beausoleil avec Michael Doucet took home the Grammy for Best Zydeco/Cajun Album. (Initially, we heard that Steve Riley won this award, but it turns out there was some confusion because both albums have the same title.) Unfortunately, I don’t have any clips from their winning album — but I did find one place where you can buy it online:

Conjunto legends Los Tigres del Norte won once again for Best Norteño Album. They’ve already collected numerous Latin Grammys over the years and appear to have extended their dominion over the main awards ceremony as well.

One of our longtime favorites, They Might Be Giants, won their second Grammy, this time for Best Musical Album for Children. The Here Come the 123s album and DVD has been in heavy rotation in our household for months and nothing calms our fussy baby faster.

If you know of any other accordion artists who won hardware at the Grammys last night, let us know!

Start ‘Em Young: Pint Size Polkas

Pint Size PolkasWe’re just starting to explore the vast world of children’s music, but Pint Size Polkas by Uncle Mike and his Polka Band already sounds like a must-have for our collection.

Creator and Wisconsin polka musician Mike Schneider first heard polka music when he was five years old and, even then, the bouncy rhythms made a lasting impression. He recorded Pint Size Polkas “to help children and their families discover the good, clean fun that you will experience with polka music.” With songs like “Alphabet Polka,” “Numbers Schottische,” and “Tiny Bubbles in the Tub,” children will learn about the alphabet, numbers, and even hygiene while dancing to a polka beat.

If you’re in the Midwest, keep an eye on your local news — Mike’s been doing a number of local TV appearances over the past few weeks. If you miss those appearances, you can catch the video for “Jolly Lumberjack Polka” on YouTube.

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