Let's Polka - An Accordion Blog

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.

Aleksandr Hrustevich, Internet Accordion Star

On the Internet can you become a star overnight; just ask Ukranian accordionist Aleksandr Hrustevich. Late last week, this video of Hrustevich performing the third movement of “Summer” from Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” swept across the Internet faster than his fingers across his bayan (Russian chromatic button accordion). From NPR to Digg, viewers raved about his performance, mostly along the lines of “Wow, I never knew an accordion could sound like this!” Indeed it can.

Check Aleksandr’s YouTube profile for more videos, including performances of Bach, Tchaikovsky, and more.

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.

MP3 Monday: Arizona Accordion Club

Hot Original Polkas by the Arizona Accordion ClubOne of the reasons we created our directory was to showcase the numerous accordion clubs across the country working tirelessly to promote our favorite instrument. A great example is the Arizona Accordion Club who, in addition to their monthly meetings, hold an annual festival and even sponsor scholarships for young accordionists.

This year, the club has gone even further with the release of Hot Original Polkas, an album of — you guessed it — original polkas written and performed by members of the club. Each polka has its own flavor and the players range in age from 19 to 80+. The album kicks off with this track written by club member John Smoltz. (Not the baseball player, though he used to play the accordion, too!)

Shawn Feeney’s Musical Anatomy

What if we didn’t need musical instruments? What if they were a part of us, natural extensions of our bodies that allowed us to extend and transform our voices into something altogether different? That’s the idea behind artist Shawn Feeney’s Musical Anatomy series. He imagines bodies with musical anatomies, referencing musicians from a variety of genres and traditions — a bluesman with a harmonica mouth, a jazz musician with saxophones where his nose and mouth would normally be, and so on.

Astor & Pollux

The drawing above, “Astor & Pollux,” depicts a pair of Siamese twins joined at the bandoneon, with faces modeled after Argentine tango legend Astor Piazzolla. Check Shawn’s site for more strange and wonderful imaginings; you can also pick up a poster of “Astor & Pollux” for $10.

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MP3 Monday: The Polka Floyd Show

We’re back! After a long vacation, we’re tanned, rested, and ready to share some strange and wonderful things from the accordion world with you. Let’s start with some classic rock with a twist; as you can guess from their name, The Polka Floyd Show isn’t your typical Pink Floyd tribute band. This Ohio band combines a love for Roger Waters and the boys with accordion and peppy polka rhythms. Their latest release, Live from the Ohio Theatre, showcases tracks from throughout Pink Floyd’s lengthy career, including early chestnuts like “The Gnome,” while a lively crowd eats it up.

You might think their schtick would get old quickly, but the musicianship is solid and the energy never wanes. Traditional? Hardly. Campy? A bit. Fun? Absolutely.

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:

Minding the Accordion Store

Forget the recession; running an accordion shop is a challenging business even in the best of times. Last week, the Chicago Tribune had a great profile of the Italo-American Accordion Company in Oak Lawn, Illinois, which has been in business for nearly 95 years. Joe Romagnoli took over the business in 1948 and made a name for himself by selling meticulously hand-crafted instruments. Today, his wife Anne runs the business, but it’s a far cry from the accordion company’s heyday. According to John Castiglione, who runs Castiglione Accordions in Warren, Michigan:

“The market is more scattered than it was in the ’50s, when the accordion was the No. 1 instrument and everyone took lessons and there were schools… People still buy, but for all intents and purposes, you don’t find stores selling just accordions.”

At Italo-American, they’re lucky to sell a handful of instruments a month; most of their business comes through repairs. But Anne, who’s now 83 years old, refuses to retire and makes a spirited accordion sales pitch to anyone who walks through her door.

“If you have an old accordion, put life into it. The accordion is a happy thing. There is no other instrument this self-sufficient. You play guitar, you need people. But you can take an accordion to a picnic. You can’t take a trumpet to a picnic!”

Accordion Babes Return for 2010

West Coast Accordion Babes Pin-Up Calendar 2010Forget puppies or creepy babies dressed in animal costumes. Instead, treat yourself to a calendar with some class — the 2010 West Coast Accordion Babes Pin-Up calendar. We picked up our copy at Cotati last weekend and, like last year’s calendar, it features a year’s worth of artsy photos of professional accordion babes showing off their bellows. And if that wasn’t enough, each contributed a track to the calendar’s companion CD, resulting in a fun mix of folk, jazz, gypsy, pop, and more.

Artists in this year’s edition include Big Lou, Jessica Fichot, Tara Linda, and the ladies of Those Darn Accordions. The calendar is just $20 and can be ordered here or directly from many of the accordion babes themselves. I recommend acting fast — last year’s calendar sold out in just three weeks!

The annual Accordion Babes calendar is put together by San Francisco accordionst Renée de la Prade of the band Culann’s Hounds. Renée’s become a fixture as a street performer in San Francisco, belting out tunes on her Irish button accordion; check out her recent feature and audio slideshow on the SF Chronicle website.

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.

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