MP3 Monday: Polkastra

PolkastraWhen a band is named Polkastra and their album is called Polkalypse Now, you know it’s going to be fun. But don’t let song titles like “Ludwig van Polka” or “Four String Polkanini” fool you; there’s some very serious musicianship behind Polkastra’s silliness.

Led by renowned violin virtuoso Lara St. John, this eclectic septet includes Israeli composer Ronn Yedidia on accordion as well as the New York Metropolitan Opera’s contrabassoonist. They set out to make a polka record just for fun, but soon found themselves exploring polka’s ties with folk, jazz, and classical music. It’s too bad that the polka Grammy is no more because Polkalypse Now is a blast — a joyous, energetic of celebration of polka in its many forms — and already one of my favorite albums of the year (polka or otherwise). You can find the digital album on iTunes now, while the physical CD will be released in August.

Squeeze Fest LA This Weekend

Squeeze Fest LAIs it just me, or are accordion festivals popping up everywhere these days? The organizers of last year’s Los Angeles Accordion Festival are back with SqueezeFest LA this Sunday night at the Ford Theatres in Hollywood. It’s an excellent accordion triple-bill featuring Portland’s Bohemian cabaret Vagabond Opera, up-and-coming Cajun band Feufollet, and LA’s own Conjunto Los Pochos. The Los Angeles Accordion Festival itself will return in August with Flaco Jimenez as a headliner (dates/venue are still TBD). For information on Sunday’s Squeeze Fest LA, check the listing on our calendar.

Billie Jean on Accordion

Like many other children of the 1980s, I spent last night listening to my old Michael Jackson albums and reminiscing about my childhood — the trip to the mall to buy Bad on cassette… borrowing one of grandma’s fancy gloves while practicing the moonwalk… okay, maybe that last one was just me.

Nestled among the classic Michael Jackson videos on YouTube, I found this clip of Montreal busker Scott Dunbar doing a fanastically funky one-man accordion band rendition of “Billie Jean.” All that’s missing is the glove.

Crocodile Gena’s Birthday Song

Unless you grew up in the former Soviet Union, chances are you probably haven’t heard of the accordion-playing Crocodile Gena. A character from the Cheburashka childrens books written by Eduard Uspenskiy, Crocodile Gena works as a crocodile in a zoo (naturally) and enjoys playing the garmon (a Russian accordion) and singing with his friends. This video comes from one of the Cheburashka animated films created in the 1970s and captures Crocodile Gena singing his most famous tune.

Here are the translated lyrics:

“Let the pedestrians walk clumsily through the puddles
And let the water run over the asphalt in a river.
It’s unclear to the passersby,
On this rainy day,
Why I’m so happy.

But I’m playing the concertina
For all the passersby to see.
Only come once a year.

I wish that a wizard
Would fly in, in a light blue helicopter,
And show a movie for free.
He would wish me a happy birthday
And probably, leave as a present
500 ice cream sandwiches.

But I’m playing the concertina
For all the passersby to see.
Only come once a year.”

MP3 Monday: Gilberto Monteiro

Gilberto MonteiroLongtime readers may remember us writing about Renato Borghetti, the excellent accordionist from the Rio Grande do Sul region of Brazil. Today, we have a track from an artist who has influenced Borghetti heavily — fellow gaucho accordionist/composer Gilberto Monteiro. Monteiro isn’t as well known outside of Brazil as Borghetti, but his talents are no less impressive; it has been said he is of the few accordionists who impressed Astor Piazzolla.

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Plan Your Accordion Weekend

Our accordion event calendar is always full of great concerts, festivals, and hootenannys, but this weekend is especially jam-packed. Here are a few noteworthy events you might want to check out:

  • Leavenworth International Accordion Festival (Leavenworth, WA)
    The 15th annual Leavenworth Accordion Festival includes workshops, jam sessions, a film/video series, a parade, and four nights of concerts and dances. Performers include Lynn Marie, Janet Todd, and S-Bahn.
  • Petaluma Accordion Festival (Petaluma, CA)
    Bay Area accordion fans know all about Cotati, but nearby neighbor Petaluma has its own two-day accordion celebration, too. We’ll be there on Saturday, so if you see a guy with a red Let’s Polka shirt, come say hi! (There’s also a great accordion triple-header on Friday night in Petaluma with Vagabond Opera, the Mad Maggies, and Amber Lee.)
  • Make Music New York: Mass Accordions (Brooklyn, NY)
    Tired of playing alone? Join a mass gathering of accordion players at the Old Stone Church The Bell House in Brooklyn and play music with the Famous Accordion Orchestra and Main Squeeze Accordion Orchestra. (Update: Moved indoors to The Bell House due to potential rain on Sunday.)

For polka fans, there’s also the International Polka Fest (Carleton, MN) and the Syracuse Polish Festival (Syracuse, NY). Check our calendar for more great accordion events in your neighborhood.

Quick Links: Polka Grammy Backlash

Last week’s news about the elimination of the polka Grammy brought the polka sympathizers out of the woodwork…

  • The Grammys Bite Polka
    Humorist Barry Mitchell (“Accordion Guy” on ABC’s World News Now) takes to the streets with this bouncy rant against the Grammys.
  • Is Polka Out of Step?
    Nice editorial from the LA Times: “The Grammy snobs might think that polka’s three-quarter time is up. But this is a genre that’s been around for more than a century longer than rock ‘n’ roll… it will proudly waltz on.”
  • Defending the Polka
    Great interview with Mark Halata of Houston polka band Texavia about Texas Czech polka, its origins and influences, and its place in the 21st century.
  • Polka Grammy Outrage
    Entertainment Weekly interviews 18-time polka Grammy winner Jimmy Sturr, who explains why the Grammys have made a terrible mistake.

MP3 Monday: Los Texmaniacs

Los Texmaniacs: Borders y BailesIn conjunto music, the 12-string bajo sexto is the accordion’s best friend: a constant companion who handles the bass and backbeat, allowing the accordion player to focus on right-hand melody (and often ignore the left-hand bass buttons entirely). As conjunto music’s premier bajo sexto player, Max Baca of Los Texmaniacs has become the guy every accordionist wants to play with.

Baca started playing bass in his father’s band at the age of eight and formed his own band when he was just twelve. He eventually went on to play with Flaco Jiménez and then the Texas Tornados, the popular cross-over group that included Jiménez, Doug Sahm, Freddy Fender, and Augie Meyers. Baca loved the Tornados’ rock-and-roll sound, but was drawn to the traditional conjunto music of his roots as well. In 1997 he created Los Texmaniacs and went to work fusing blues and rock-and-roll influences with the traditional conjunto pairing of button accordion and bajo sexto.

In recognition of the way Los Texmaniacs has pushed the envelope with conjunto, Smithsonian Folkways is releasing Los Texmaniacs’ Borders y Bailes this month as part of their ongoing Tradiciones/Traditions series showcasing music from Latin American traditions. Los Texmaniacs will also perform at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall in Washington next week.

The track below (“Redova”) is a bouncy instrumental duet between Baca’s bajo sexto and David Farias’ accordion. The redova rose to popularity in Europe in the mid-1800s and was imported to Mexico shortly thereafter; its sprightly one-two-three step resembles a fast waltz. You can still hear it amongst the polkas, schottisches, cumbias, and huapangos at a typical conjunto dance.

TV Alert: Petosa on The Price is Right

A few months ago we noted that ever since accordion player (and Cleveland native) Drew Carey took over as host of The Price is Right, accordions have been popping up on the show regularly as prizes. Now, we hear from Petosa Accordions in Seattle that Tuesday’s episode will feature one of their accordions as a prize on a game called “Tempations.” It’s awesome to see Drew — who’s the owner of a top-of-the-line Petosa AM-1100 himself — promoting our favorite instrument on national TV. Keep squeezin’, Drew!

Remembering Clyde Forsman (1915-2009)

Clyde ForsmanIn the spring of 1995, I was an eager college freshman doing what all young men dream of when they leave home: learning to play the accordion. I didn’t have a teacher or any lesson books, but I did have Those Darn Accordions’ album Squeeze This on cassette.

On the cover was Clyde Forsman, his octogenarian back covered with tattoos, smiling broadly and showing off his biceps while lifting an accordion. When people kidded me about playing the accordion, I showed them that album and made them listen to Clyde’s rendition of Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire” — a stunning version that rendered all other covers futile. Clyde Forsman helped me prove that the accordion could be cool.

Clyde passed away Friday night at his home in San Francisco; he was 94. One of the founding members of Those Darn Accordions, he played with the band from 1989 to 2000 and was easily its most beloved member. He won over crowds with his charm, humor, and the way he would take off his shirt to reveal his fantastic tattoos before launching into “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” or the aforementioned “Fire.” An amazing entertainer and an incomparable accordion ambassador, he will be sorely missed.

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