Four Things You Probably Don’t Know About the Accordion
The first thing you probably don’t know about the accordion is that the whole world loves it. At least, that was the first thing I learned at the 2011 International Accordion Festival in San Antonio, Texas, which featured bands from every non-Antarctic continent playing more than a dozen completely different styles of accordion music. There were the German-style polka players, sure, but there was also zydeco and klezmer, Irish music and Cape Verdean music, Danish music by way of Iowa. Seriously, the whole world loves the accordion.
I was at the festival with my boyfriend Niko and his mom Sarah, both of whom are musicians who had played with some of the bands performing there. And while I’m on the universal appeal of the accordion, I should mention that they started in on the foreign language with the first band we saw, a Tejano group called Albert Zamora y Talento. When I say “foreign language,” I don’t mean Spanish — I mean that impenetrable language spoken by people who actually know about music.
Zamora is a Grammy-nominated artist from nearby Corpus Christi, so when he took the stage, the crowd went wild. They went wild again every time he pulled some showman stunt like playing the accordion behind his back. I was in awe — the dude was shredding on the accordion — but my boyfriend and his mom rolled their eyes. “It would be impressive if he modulated up half a step,” said Sarah.
“Or changed chords,” said Niko.
“I definitely know that those words have to do with music,” I said, quietly, to myself, in my head.
Of course, this all changed when Zamora and his band members, who were perhaps a bit on the husky side, started doing coordinated dances involving a lot of thrusting hips. Then Sarah slapped her knees with delight. “This isn’t an American thing,” she said. “Big, fat, shambling guys trying to look sexy — and it’s working!” To be fair, they weren’t that big and fat, and the hip thrusts demonstrated pretty conclusively that they weren’t shambling. It was, however, working.
Let’s back up for a moment, because the second thing you probably don’t know about the accordion is what it even actually is. The simplest definition of an accordion, I learned, is that it’s a free-reed instrument. A reed is the same basic deal as the mouthpiece of, say, a saxophone, except with an accordion, instead of blowing into the reed with your mouth, you blow air over it with the bellows (known in the biz as the “crinkly in-and-out part”). To play a melody, you press buttons on the side(s) of the accordions.
Lots of other free-reed instruments, members of the extended accordion family, showed up at the festival. For example, the frontman of the Hector del Curto Tango Quartet played not the accordion but the bandoneón. (Niko, regarding the quartet’s supermodel-looking Juilliard-trained cellist: “It’s every chubby composer’s dream to poach a beautiful cellist from Juilliard.” His mom: “Maybe every chubby composer should learn to play the bandoneón like that.”)
For another example, a group called Riyaaz Qawwali, which plays Sufi devotional music, used the harmonium rather than the accordion. They played the type of ambiguously worded love songs that can be sung either to God or to your main squeeze. (Accordion? Squeeze? I don’t know. I tried.) Translations of song titles included “‘My Eyes Are Thirsty For You’…but not in a creepy way.”
The third thing you probably don’t know about the accordion is that not many women play it. At the festival, there was a female vocalist, a female guitar player, the aforementioned female cellist, and that was … it. Granted, that’s a problem throughout the music industry, but it was still disappointing — especially given the presence of my boyfriend’s mom, who plays multiple instruments and studied accordion with one of the festival’s featured artists. Put her onstage!
I’m not saying the lack of women was definitely part of a worldwide patriarchal conspiracy to ensnare us all in male-dominated religions, BUT I’m just SAYING we were told there would be a Mass with mariachi music (because, accordions) at a local Catholic church, and when we went, there was no mariachi music. And then we just had to sit through a whole Mass. In Spanish. I mean, it’s cool, I learned that I have to wear my vestido de fiesta when God invites me to his banquete, but I feel like we could have avoided some awkwardness if the Catholic church didn’t lie about mariachi music or prevent women from being priests and getting abortions and performing at the 2011 International Accordion Festival.
The fourth thing you probably don’t know about the accordion is that, as the emcee put it, “accordion music is dance music.” It was true; by the second day, Sarah was wishing she had a capable dance partner. “Maybe I should place a personal ad,” she said. “‘Large Determined Woman Wishes to Dance.’”
Ironically, the only performances I attended where I didn’t see any dancing were the Lammam Group’s. The Lammam Group is three brothers who play classical Arabic music. One of them is Elias Lammam, who is Sarah’s accordion teacher and literally one of the best accordionists in the world. When Ivan Milev first saw Elias play, he kissed his fingers. When Abu Seoud first saw Elias play, he announced, “You are the new Abu Seoud!” I am told this is as impressive as it sounds. The festival’s blurb on Elias explains how “[Arab] accordionists began tuning their instruments to Middle Eastern scale — maqams. These scales make prominent use of microtones — notes not found in Western scales — and are impossible to play on standard accordions.” Maybe it’s just harder to dance to music that’s so good it actually achieves the impossible.
Aside from the Lammams, no matter what style of music was playing, people would get up and then, subsequently, get down. Young Latino couples with babies in strollers, middle-aged white couples wearing cowboy gear unironically, bespectacled oldsters, bejorted hipsters — everyone. At one point, a man in a black fez with a Bulgarian flag draped around his shoulders led twenty or thirty strangers in a folk dance that couldn’t form a proper circle without pushing half the dancers into a river. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many different people just enjoying themselves together. I guess what I’m trying to say is … accordions for president??
Lauren O’Neal is from the Internet and lives in Austin, Texas.