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.)

Franz Nicolay’s Accordions

Franz NicolayI’m always curious to hear what gear “professional” accordion players are carrying around — and it’s even better to hear the stories behind their choices. Franz Nicolay, keyboard/accordion player for The Hold Steady, recently posted on the band’s message board in response to a question asking what kind of accordion he plays. Turns out he currently has three: a red 72-bass Hohner Concerto II, a full-size 120-bass Galanti, and a ladies-size 120-bass Iorio Candido. I liked the bittersweet story behind the Galanti:

“The really good one is a full-size 120-bass Galanti, an Italian beast I bought off a Bulgarian fellow named Sergio in Forest Hills about five years ago. I found him on Yahoo Classifieds; it’s kind of a sad story: he’d emigrated with his brother fifty years earlier, and they’d always lived together, worked together, never married, and after work they’d play accordion duets in the basement. When his brother died, he couldn’t bring himself to play alone. So he gave me an incredible deal, because, he said, ‘I can tell you’re a musician and I want it to go to someone who’ll play it.'”

In addition to The Hold Steady, Franz plays with a number of other groups, including the World/Inferno Friendship Society, Anti-Social Music, and Guignol, and he just released his solo debut, Major General.

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.

Richard Galliano and Tangaria Quartet

Richard GallianoThe annual Ottawa International Jazz Festival just wrapped up and one of the biggest hits was French accordion virtuoso Richard Galliano. Performing with his Tangaria Quartet, Galliano’s concert was “as thrilling a performance as was heard” throughout the entire festival, according to a review in the Ottawa Citizen. Galliano “reeled off one exhilarating song after another,” allowing the audience “to lose themselves in his brilliance.” Not a bad review, I’d say.

Born in Cannes in 1950, Richard Galliano studied at a conservatory as a youth, but quickly changed his musical devotion to jazz after hearing (and memorizing the solos of) jazz trumpeter Clifford Brown. Galliano set out to establish the accordion’s reputation in jazz, becoming a sought-after accompanist and soloist. Astor Piazzolla invited him to be the bandoneon soloist at the Comédie Française production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” starting a close friendship that lasted until Piazzolla’s death in 1992.

More recently, Galliano has become known for a style he calls “New Musette” — a fusion of styles ranging from samba and salsa to waltz and tango. Regardless of what he’s playing, though, it’s always with unparalleled skill and passion. Here’s a fantastic video of Galliano performing Piazzolla’s “Libertango” solo:

Five Questions: Bradley Jaye Williams

Bradley Jaye WilliamsHang on tight — it’s another edition of “Five Questions”, our interview series with noteworthy accordion personalities from around the globe.

Few accordionists can cross genres as comfortably as Bradley Jaye Williams. Born in Michigan, Williams moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and then to Austin, where his music career really took off, playing with the likes of Flaco Jimenez and Mingo Saldivar. He currently plays in three bands: an authentic Texas-style conjunto called Conjunto Los Pinkys, a Cajun/Zydeco dance band known as The Gulf Coast Playboys, and The Fabulous Polkasonics, a combo that plays Polish-American “honky style” polkas, waltzes, and obereks.

When and why did you first start playing the accordion?

In 1986, I started playing the 2-row button accordion while living in a tiny studio apartment in Berkeley, California. My neighbors listened to me struggle with “La Cucaracha” and “La Nopalera” for a few months! Why did I start playing? I love accordion music! It was the natural thing to do. It felt right. To me, the accordion was always cool and it’s at the heart of many styles of dance music I love. I grew up in Saginaw, Michigan around all kinds of music… Motown, country, Dixieland, jazz, rock n’ roll and polka music… mainly the Polish-American and German music of Marv Herzog and Lawrence Welk (of course).

Living in the Bay Area in my 20’s, I experienced the music of Flaco Jimenez and it really struck a chord with me. Here was good old polka music being chopped and customized in a new and different way. I loved it. Ultimately, I think I was drawn to the international and cross-cultural appeal of accordion music and polka… the songs, customs, dance, food and pure FUN we all share. Of course, there is also something very compelling about the accordion itself: a magnificent machine…beautifully designed…and a challenge to play.

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Running Off With Babylon Circus

Babylon CircusI always loved the circus growing up, but I’ll tell you — Ringling Brothers had nothing on the high-energy, French ten-piece Babylon Circus. What started as a ska band in 1995 in Lyon has evolved to include reggae, rock, jazz, and numerous other eclectic influences. But with lyrics in French and English — sometimes both in the same song — addressing social and political issues (like the Iraq war), Babylon Circus isn’t pure diversion. It’s music with a message: get out of your seat and take action, whether it’s marching in the streets or jumping on the dance floor.

Their latest record, Dances of Resistance — released in France in 2004, but just making its way here now — continues to mix the political with the carnival, interspersing full-length songs with brief, circus organ-ridden ditties. Described by some as a French Gogol Bordello, the band has a reputation for electric live shows, as shown in this performance of “J’aurais Bien Voulu”:

Big Lou in Keyboard Magazine

This month’s issue of Keyboard Magazine has an excellent profile of one of our favorite polka artists: Big Lou, the Accordion Princess. The piece covers her double life as a geophysicist/accordionist, her squeezebox arsenal, and how she made the transition from Texas honky-tonk piano player to polka princess:

“The only thing that a piano player has to pay attention to is phrasing, or breathing [compressing and expanding the bellows]. That’s kind of a sure giveaway when accordion players listen to piano players who don’t really learn how to play the accordion.”

To learn more about Big Lou, be sure to check out our interview with her (conducted in late 2006). You can also catch her weekly radio show online at 247PolkaHeaven.

The Kids (Accordion Bands) Are Alright

The future of the accordion is now; at least, it is for these young accordion bands readers sent us after our post on a kids accordion band photo from the 1930s. Each of these bands is helping promote the accordion to a whole new generation.

  • Showstoppers Accordion Orchestra and Dancers
    Founded in 1970 and led by Rosita Lee Latulippe, the Showstoppers Orchestra give the students of the Latulippe’s music school the opportunity to travel and perform. Over the years, the band has performed across the country and even overseas; last year, they performed at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage during the Coupe Mondiale.
  • Tameside Junior Accordion Band
    Founded in 1992 by Betty Pollard, teaching and instruments are free for members of the Tameside Band, supporting their philosophy that money shouldn’t prevent children from learning music. The Band won the elementary group championship at this year’s UK Accordion Championships.
  • Cool Cats Accordion Band
    The Cool Cats are part of Terry Bell’s accordion and keyboard studio (United Teachers of Music) in Independence, Missouri. Playing everything from Bach to boogie, some of the band’s alumni have gone on to compete nationally and internationally.

I’m sure there are plenty of other young accordion bands and orchestras out there. If we left yours out, leave us a comment and let us know.

Quick Links: MySpace Roundup

One of the benefits of having a MySpace page for Let’s Polka is it helps us keep tabs on tons of artists that might otherwise fly under our radar. Here’s are a few that have recently caught our ear:

  • Piñata Protest
    We’ve seen a few punk/polka bands, even some punk/zydeco, but San Antonio’s Piñata Protest is the first punk/Tejano band we’ve come across. An answer to the traditional Tejano music its members grew up hating, this is what would happen “if Ramon Ayala and Sid Vicious had a baby.”
  • Amber Lee and the Anomalies
    Accordionist Amber Lee Baker, accompanied by banjo and fiddle, sings of rodeo clowns and whaler’s wives while leading this charming acoustic group from Anna’s old stomping grounds (Santa Rosa, CA). Their debut CD, Estuaries, is due out next month.
  • Accordion Death Squad
    Armed with an excellent name, the Accordion Death Squad plays “gypsy music from Ratsylvania,” which is apparently near Charlottesville, Virginia. Swirling accordion and violin guaranteed to keep you dancing.

Are you in a band we need to hear? Add us on MySpace.

(Dave’s Accordion) School is In Session

If you live in L.A. and play the accordion, there’s a good chance you’ve been to Dave’s Accordion School. Located in Atwater Village, Dave’s has been offering accordion lessons and repairs since 1971. Run by Dave Caballero and his wife Veronika, the pair met years ago when Veronika wandered into the shop looking for accordion lessons. (Three children and three grandchildren later, I guess you could say the lessons went well.) Here’s a nice video profile of Dave’s Accordion School put together by a USC School of Journalism student.

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