Thinking Outside the Squeezebox

We’re no strangers to accordion concerts, festivals, or even hootenannies. But a symposium? Indeed, the first-ever “Thinking Outside the Squeeze Box” Accordion Symposium will take place this September 23-25 in Cedar Rapids, IA.

The symposium will celebrate the way accordionists have been mixing traditional music with new approaches. There will be jam sessions, dance parties, and workshops on topics ranging from “Techniques of Rock Accordion” to “Stretching the Horizons of the Button Box”. Presenters and performers are coming from across the country and include Paul Rogers (of Those Darn Accordions), Maggie Martin, Renee de la Prade, Roxanne Oliva, Ron Borelli, and more.

Why Cedar Rapids? Cedar Rapids is home to the Czech and Slovak National Museum and Library and has a long tradition of accordion music. Leo Greco, who passed away this week, was one example — he played accordion for years and led his own band (Leo and the Pioneers) in the 50s and 60s.

Can’t make it to Iowa? If you still want to support the symposium, consider backing their Kickstarter campaign and help offset the cost of hosting the event.

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!

Go West, Accordion Players

For the first time in its 70 year history, the Accordionists and Teachers Guild is bringing its annual festival west of the Rockies to California. The celebration takes place this week — from July 21 to 25 — at the Hilton in Santa Clara, south of San Francisco and just down the road from Let’s Polka headquarters.

This year’s festival includes performances by featured artists and festival orchestras, numerous workshops (from “Bass Patterns” to “Understanding and Playing Balkan Rhythms”), and plenty of opportunities to rub bellows with some of the world’s best accordionists. There’s also the Anthony Galla-Rini Classical Accordion Competition, with over $10,000 in prizes at stake, and special screenings of the documentary “Behind the Bellows”. If you’re a more casual fan, there will be concerts every night (Thursday-Saturday) featuring the likes of Alexander Sevastian, Cory Pesaturo, and more; admission is just $15.

Cory Pesaturo and the Galla-Rini Festival Orchestra will also be performing a special concert on Saturday afternoon at the Great America amusement park. Roller coasters + accordions… what could be better?

I’m going to try to sneak over to the festival for a couple hours to see what’s going on and hopefully meet some of the folks we’ve been writing about these past few years. If you see a guy with a red “Let’s Polka” shirt wandering around, be sure to say hi!

Accordions in Austin: SXSW 2010

SXSW 2010It’s that time of year again: the start of the annual South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, and our accompanying roundup of a few of the accordion-toting artists performing this year. With hundreds of bands on more than eighty stages over five days, you’re bound to find something you like.

  • Pinata Protest
    We’ve been following this energetic, accordion-powered punk/conjunto band from San Antonio for a few years now. Fun, frenetic, and far from your typical Tejano music.
    Cantina mp3
  • Takashi Kamide
    Takashi Kamide switched from classical piano to jazz piano in high school after hearing the legendary Bill Evans. But after being inspired by the sounds of Richard Galliano and Stefan Hussong, he upgraded to jazz accordion.
    Takashi Kamide mp3
  • Cerronato
    Inspired by Colombian vallenato and cumbia, this Austin quartet fuses rich four-part harmonies with accordion, bass, and percussion in an authentic, but innovative mix.
    Mi Compadre Bernabe mp3
  • The Woes
    With a lineup sometimes as large as thirty musicians, the Brooklyn-based Woes play a lively stew of Delta blues and early Country, of bluegrass and New Orleans marching band music, dished out by banjo, harmonica, accordion, French Horn and organ.
    The Secret mp3
  • Los Texas Wranglers
    From traditional Tex-Mex conjunto to country and western, the Wranglers have been packing dance halls in the Austin/San Antonio area for more than ten years.
    Un Poquito De Carino mp3

This is by no means an exhaustive list — check the SXSW site for more bands, as well as schedule and venue information. And for other accordion artists that you may have missed out on, check out our SXSW writeups from 2006, 2007, and 2008 (we clearly dropped the ball last year).

Quick Links: Festivals in Review

We consider ourselves lucky if there’s one accordion festival going on during a given weekend; two festivals is practically an embarrassment of riches. And yet, that was the case last weekend. While the International Accordion Festival took over rainy San Antonio, some trailblazers in Southern California hosted the first-ever Orange County Accordion Festival.

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The (Controversial?) International Accordion Festival

This weekend, accordion lovers will flock to San Antonio for the 9th annual International Accordion Festival. This free, two-day outdoor festival always features a stellar lineup of concerts and workshops featuring accordionists from around the world in a variety of genres — from Balkan to Basque, Acadian to Arabic, and beyond. Performers at this year’s festival include Buckwheat Zydeco, Guy Klucevsek, Ivan Milev, the George Lammam Ensemble, and many others. There’s also a pre-festival concert on Friday night featuring conjunto/Tejano greats like Mingo Saldivar and Joel Guzman.

So where’s the controversy? Some conservatives have singled out the $25,000 grant given to the festival by the National Endowment of the Arts as an example of misguided government spending during the economic downturn. The SA Current has a good rebuttal from festival organizers, as well as local restaurant and shop owners who benefit greatly from the tourists that the festival draws to downtown San Antonio. Clearly anyone who doesn’t think an accordion festival will help stimulate the economy — or at least stimulate the people attending — has never been to an accordion festival.

All Squeezed Up at Graceland

Last month, the American Accordionists Association held its annual festival in Memphis, Tennessee. The gathering featured performances by Riders in the Sky (with Joey Miskulin), Jeff Lisenby and the NashVegas Jazz, Tony Lovello, Bruce Gassman, Joe Natoli and Mary Tokarski. In between the concerts, workshops and competitions, a small band of accordionists made their way over to the King’s house for a little rock and roll… accordion-style.

Under the direction of Frank Busso, the fifty-strong accordion band played “Love Me Tender” and “Blue Suede Shoes” on Elvis’ doorstep:

MP3 Monday: Monsters of Accordion

Monsters of AccordionWe’re still unwinding from a fun weekend at the Cotati Accordion Festival, but there’s no time to rest. Not when the Monsters of Accordion are about to unleash their fury on the West Coast. The brainchild of accordion madman Jason Webley, this annual event showcases some of the best accordion-toting singer-songwriters around in a whirlwind, week-long tour.

Joining Webley for this year’s edition are Stevhen Iancu of the Dolomites, Eric Stern of Vagabond Opera, and Geoff Berner. At various stops along the way, they’ll be joined by special guests like Mood Area 52 and Mark Growden. This year’s tour kicks off in Seattle on Wednesday and makes stops in Portland, Eugene, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Sacramento before winding up in Ashland next Tuesday. (Check our calendar for dates and times.)

Street performer turned cult musician, Jason Webley is known for his gravelly voice, his caterwauling squeezebox, and his unique ability to involve the audience in his shows; most of his concerts end with the entire crowd locked arm-in-arm, singing at the tops of their lungs. (We’ll share some video evidence of this from the Cotati festival later this week.)

Stevhen Koji Iancu is a Japanese/Romanian British Immigrant who puts together a fiery blend of Gypsy music, fusing older Japanese styles of Enka with subtle elements of Cumbia, Ska, Punk, Balkan and Romanian music, and many other styles from around the world. Iancu has also performed with numerous groups, including Balkan Beat Box, and was a touring member of Gogol Bordello.

Eric Stern is the bandleader and primary composer of Vagabond Opera, Portland’s favorite absurdist cabaret ensemble. A premiere operatic tenor, accordionist, composer and showman, Stern commands the room with his incendiary stage presence and devilish virtuosity. Son of an accomplished Gaullic accordionist, he is adept at countless styles, at times performing on a specially-tuned quarter tone accordion to play complex Arabic melodies.

“I want to make original klezmer music that’s drunk, dirty, political and passionate. As a Jew of eastern european descent, I feel I have a calling to make this music live, not just preserve it under glass like something in a museum.” Berner’s music, inspired by traditional Jewish folk song and fueled by whiskey, dresses his wry wit and biting social commentary in shockingly beautiful, plaintive melodies.

If you need more convincing, check out our recap of the Monsters of Accordion 2007 show in San Francisco, including photos and a video of Corn Mo doing the best solo accordion rendition of “We are the Champions” you may ever hear.

MP3 Monday: Cotati Accordion Festival

Cotati Accordion FestivalIt’s a big week here at Let’s Polka and one reason is that we’re only a few days away from a weekend of nonstop music and squeezing at the 19th annual Cotati Accordion Festival. The trip to Cotati is always one of the highlights of our year; here are a few of the artists we’re looking forward to hearing this weekend:

Frank Marocco is a true accordion legend, known for his technical mastery of classical and jazz accordion, as well as his skills as an arranger and composer. Now based in Los Angeles, Frank is probably the most recorded accordionist in the world, having played on hundreds of movie soundtracks, television scores, and commercial jingles. He even played on the Beach Boys’ classic album Pet Sounds in 1966.

One thing I love about Cotati is that it attracts not just local artists, but bands from across the country. This year, Copper Box makes the trip from Oshkosh, WI, bringing its unique blend of rock, polka, blues, and zydeco. The band features the husband-and-wife team of Danny (accordion) and Michelle (guitar, sax) Jerabek.

Known for her jazzy blues vocal style and her button accordion, Tara Linda‘s latest album features 1930’s ballads, cumbia, dance-hall rancheras, cry-in-your beer country duets, and even some Johnny Cash. With Luna Nueva, Tara Linda sings in the “dueto” style with Gilbert Reyes on a collection of songs dedicated to the life and legend of Lydia Mendoza.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Those Darn Accordions and the band is celebrating with a 20-city tour that kicks off this week. On Saturday in Cotati, TDA will be joined onstage by several former members, including Big Lou (also performing at the festival with her Polka Casserole), Bill Schwartz, Ron Muriera, Tom Torriglia (also performing with Bella Ciao), and Art Peterson.

And there are so many more: Jason Webley, Los Texmaniacs, Ginny Mac, Culann’s Hounds… the list goes on and on. It should be a fantastic weekend for accordion lovers and we’ll be sure to take lots of photos (and videos) along the way. If you’re headed to the festival, let us know and we’ll be sure to keep an eye out for you!

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.

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