Sunday, February 4, 2007

Accordion Action

As the old joke goes: Why do politicians make good accordionists? Because they are used to playing both ends off against the middle. To most, that sounds about right.

When I was a kid, my parents decided that I needed a musical education. They asked what instrument I might be interested in learning, and at about seven years of age I didn't know any better, so I said: the accordion. To this day, I'm not sure what drove that fateful decision. In any case, I haven't been able to listen to "Lady of Spain" since that time, and have an inherent distrust of all polka. I was scarred by the experience, so avoided the accordion at all costs for most of the ensuing years.

Then I discovered the Concertina, Zydeco, Acadian Folk music, Celtic accordion and Santiago Jimenez. And so, I rediscovered the accordion and learned that the instrument had a very distinctive role in a variety of appealing folk music traditions.

The French "Musette" style of accordion was perfected, often by Italians, in the sawdust covered salons, cafes and cabarets of 1920s and 30s Paris. Sweet, slow and languorous, it was epitomized by by Emile Vacher. The instruments were often in the hands of the French Manouche clan of Gypsy musicians, like Joe Privat, known for cool jazz and striking improvisations. Django Reinhardt playing guitar and Stephan Grapelli on Fiddle, often accompanied by Privat on accordion.

Gypsy musicians use accordions across Europe, with some of the best-known bands in the Balkans. Eastern European Klezmer musicians also relied on accordions to accompany the clarinet and strings. If you live in the San Francisco Area, you can hire Nada Lewis to perform this kind of energetic, ethnic music at your event. In fact, the folkloric net offers musicians in a variety of traditions. Today, jazz accordian is most associated with the instrumental work of Richard Galliano.

Irish airs work well with accordion accompaniment. Sharon Shannon is a Celtic squeezbox virtuoso, as was Joe Burke. I'm going to devote considerably more than one post to Celtic music, and more on the music of my own ancestors is on-deck.

In the U.S., accordion passions primarily are driven by three styles: Polka, Conjunto & Zydeco. I'm not interested in Polka, unless its Mexican; Zydeco and the Tejano Conjuntos are another story. The music of Cajun- and Afro-Louisiana blend into a single accordion style - to my ears. Players like C.J. Chenier, Wayne Toups, Queen Ida and Stanley Dural, Jr., better-known as Buckwheat Zydeco have been livening up the airwaves for decades. This is good-time, toe-tapping music.

But my personal favorite is the Conjunto music of Texas, made popular by the Jimenez family over three generations. Flaco Jimenez played accordion for year with the Texas Tornados and more recently Los Super Seven. Flaco has made guest artist appearances on albums with Dr. John, Ry Cooder and Bob Dylan. He is a winner of the Billboard Magazine Lifetime Achievement Award. Awesome, no?

Any discussion of Latin accordion would be incomplete with out a nod to Mexican great Chelito Sanchez; and to South American musicians like Maximo Jimenez of Columbia.

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