20 Years of the Cotati Accordion Festival

Twenty years ago, Jim Boggio and Clifton Buck-Kauffman had a crazy idea. What if they put on a music festival in the small Northern California town of Cotati? And what if it was centered around the accordion — which Boggio played — and incorporated a mix of musical styles like jazz, polka, Cajun, gypsy, etc. Would people be interested? Could they pull it off?

The answer is yes. Twenty times yes, in fact. This weekend, as they have for twenty years, accordion lovers from across the country and beyond will descend upon Cotati, CA, for the annual Cotati Accordion Festival. There will be two full days of accordion music, a tent dedicated to nonstop polka dancing, booths for accordion clubs and vendors, and, of course, the traditional Lady-of-Spain play-along accompanied by the release of white doves. Thousands attend every year and the non-profit festival raises important funds for local youth organizations.

Performers at this year’s festival include:

Anna and I have been attending for more than ten years and we’ll be there again this year. If you see us wandering around, be sure to say hi!

Esteban “Steve” Jordan Dies

Steve JordanIt’s a sad day for accordion and Tejano music fans; legendary accordionist Esteban “Steve” Jordan died last night of complications from liver cancer. He was 71 years old.

Known as “El Parche” because of his eye patch, Jordan started his career in conjunto in the 1960s, but soon began exploring and incorporating other musical styles into his work — blending rock, Latin jazz, blues, and salsa with traditional polkas and rancheras. He pushed the limits of the diatonic accordion and wasn’t afraid to experiment with new technology, using electronic devices like phase shifters and fuzzboxes to shape his sound.

“‘What Steve Jordan did was, he electrified the accordion,’ says Sunny Sauceda, a rising star on the squeezebox. ‘He used pedals, he brought in jazz influences to the accordion playing. He brought in the effects that had never been done on the accordion — to this day, nobody does it.’”

Definitely one of the all-time greats. Rest in peace, El Parche.

The Man Who Would Be Polka King

Jan Lewan was living the American dream. After emigrating from Poland in the mid-1970s, Lewan was a hotel worker by day, but a one-man show at night, singing and entertaining at church halls and Polish club functions. He settled down in Hazleton, PA, and started performing polka music, eventually forming his own band, the Jan Lewan Orchestra.

By the 1990s, Lewan was one of polka’s biggest stars, drawing thousands of polka fans to concerts and festivals on the East Coast and earning a Grammy nomination in 1995 for Best Polka Album. This video, from a performance at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, shows Lewan at the height of his popularity (and handkerchief-throwing powers):

And then it all unraveled. In January 2001, Lewan’s tour bus crashed on the way to Florida and two musicians — accordionist Tommy Karas and trombonist John Stabinsky — were killed. Lewan’s son Daniel was also seriously injured.

Lewan was also in hot water over dealings with his store in Hazleton where he sold Polish souvenirs. He sold unregistered promissory notes to investors in order to build his business, but the market soured and he failed to repay them. In 2004, he was sentenced to five years in federal prison for bilking investors out of millions of dollars. While in prison, he was nearly killed by an inmate who tried to slash his throat with a razor blade.

Now, a documentary called The Man Who Would Be Polka King tells the story of Jan Lewan’s rise and fall. Here’s the trailer; the film made the rounds at festivals last year, but you can watch the complete film online at Babelgum.

Lewan was released from prison last year and is currently mounting a comeback to rehabilitate his image and pay restitution to the (justifiably angry) investors whose money he lost. He’s also working on a polka-rap fusion with Vanilla Ice which sounds like it could be grounds for another criminal offense…

Mad (Men) About Accordions

I’ll admit, I don’t watch a lot of TV these days unless it’s Sesame Street or baseball, so when a friend asked me if I watch Mad Men, I just shrugged and replied, “That’s the one with the guys in suits, right?” When his jaw dropped and he said, “YOU MEAN YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE ONE WITH THE ACCORDION?!?”, I figured I should probably catch up.

Indeed, in the third episode of season three — “My Old Kentucky Home” for anyone looking it up on DVD or iTunes — office manager Joan Holloway hosts a tense dinner party where, after prodding from her husband, she reluctantly pulls out her accordion and sings “C’est Magnifique.” (And does it quite well.)

Joan plays accordion on Mad Men

It turns out that Christina Hendricks, the actress who plays Joan, is no newcomer to the accordion; she’s been playing for a few years. In an LA Times Magazine interview last month, she talked about how she got into the accordion:

“I started taking lessons four or five years ago. It is such a rich instrument for one person. You can get so much out of it, like a one-man band. I also think it’s a very romantic instrument, and it channels all the things I love—French culture, Tom Waits—and all the things I try to make my house look like. It’s something I’ve always been interested in.”

For an in-depth deconstruction of the Mad Men accordion scene, check out this essay from ethnomusicologist Meredith Aska McBride, who puts the performance into its 1960s context.