Wednesday, June 10, 2009

National Accordion Awareness Month

I’m sure that you knew that June is National Accordion Awareness Month—or maybe not. I’ve always found the accordion to be a fascinating instrument. Where I grew up in the upper Midwest, it was the instrument of Polka bands. No wedding or community gathering was complete without a Polka band, and you could count on hearing one every Saturday night in the local bars. I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve heard “The Beer Barrel Polka”!

The best known Polka musician was Frankie Yankovic, known as “America’s Polka King” after he famously beat Duke Ellington in a battle of the bands in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. That’s a serious hometown advantage! I can’t imagine the same result anywhere but in the upper Midwest.

After I became interested in Irish music, I was surprised to find out that the accordion was a staple instrument in traditional Irish music, but the instrument was the button accordion, not the piano accordion used in Polka bands. The button accordion is set to play in only one musical key, so it’s limiting in a certain sense, while the piano accordion is more flexible. But since most traditional Irish music is in one key anyway, it isn’t much of a limitation. The piano accordion has the advantage of being easier to play by ear, and since many traditional musicians don’t read music, that advantage outweighed any disadvantages.

After I moved to Texas, I was surprised to find that the button accordion was also a staple of a lot of Hispanic music, especially conjunto music. Esteban “Steve” Jordan, an illiterate, all but blind from birth, musician is the probably the best known conjunto accordion player—he’s been called the “Jimi Hendrix” of accordion players for his virtuosity. NPR did a profile, including a sample of his music, here:

The common thread among all these styles of music: polka, Irish and conjunto; is they evolved for a small number of musicians to play, without amplification, before a large audience or at a dance. Wind instruments and drums can easily provide enough volume to be heard in those types of venues, while string instruments usually can’t. If you needed a portable instrument with high volume and the capability of playing more than one note at a time, then the accordion was almost your only good choice before the electric guitar and keyboard. So wherever you have a folk tradition, older than electricity, of traveling bands, you will find accordion players. In addition to the traditions I have mentioned, there are accordion traditions among the Basques and Romas, in France, Germany, Eastern Europe, South America and probably other places I don’t know about.

If you want to hear a great sample of accordion styles, then you should mark your calendar for the International Accordion Festival in San Antonio, Texas, which will be held this year on October 9-11, 2009. The website is here:

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