Accordion Articles - The Main Squeeze

Rock’n’roll blasted the accordion into deepest, deepest obscurity. But now, it seems, it’s hip to be square and the humble squeezebox is enjoying a huge revival.


Written by: Richard Guilliatt
Publication: Good Weekend magazine, The Sydney Morning Herald
Date written: February 28, 1998

Richard Nixon, the most disgraced president in the history of the United States, is an amateur accordion player. So is the nutty Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot. These two facts alone should tell you that the accordion is an instrument with a severe public image problem. Cartoonists around the world have lampooned it. The Nazis tried to ban it. In the popular Australian imagination, accordions are usually associated with late-night television commercials for 20 Polka Greats or interminable evenings at the RSL Club, listening to some portly gent dressed like a matador wheezing out a barnstorming version of Roll Out the Barrel.

Well, now it’s payback time, because the instrument that Mark Twain dubbed the "stomach Steinway" is undergoing a miraculous rebirth. Accordions have been popping up increasingly on hip jazz record, movie soundtracks, in theatre and fiction in recent years. And their cultural efflorescence reaches a giddy pinnacle at this year’s Adelaide Festival, where accordions will provide the musical soundtrack, the visual symbol and the all-round aesthetic leitmotiv for Australia’s premier arts event.

When Adelaide Festival director Robyn Archer asserted that accordions are now the "hippest instrument in the world", she was actually being serious. To prove the point, Archer has turned the Festival Centre Plaza into an accordion-shaped venue called the Squeezebox which will feature nightly performances by such accordion virtuosos as the Argentinian tango exponent Daniel Binelli, Louisiana zydeco sensation Beau Jocque, Viennese jazz performer Otto Lechner and New York postmodernist Guy Klucevsek. Accordions also feature in major festival events such as the dance performance La Tristeza Complice and Ensemble Moderne’s music theatre production, Black on White.

It’s a roster that gives a good idea just how widely the humble squeezebox has travelled since it was invented in Vienna last century. Eminently portable, it is an instrument that produces rhythm and melody notes simultaneously, and its bellows act as built-in amplifier. (Admittedly, not everyone sees this latter feature as a bonus.) In Europe and Russia, it has long been a staple of both classical and folk music; Italians took it to Argentina, where it became pivotal to tango music; Germans took it into the American south, where blacks and Cajuns adapted it as a driving rhythm instrument in zydeco music; the Portuguese and French took it to Africa, and a harmonium version is used widely in the Sufi devotional singing of Pakistan.

In was only in the early 1960s, with the rise of rock’n’roll, that Western teenagers came to view the squeezebox as the embodiment of everything that was hackneyed, dorky and terminally kitsch about their parents' culture. Guy Klucevsek, one of the performers scheduled to appear in Adelaide this week, recalls that between his adolescence in 1950s Pennsylvania and his early twenties as a music student, the accordion went from ubiquity to obscurity in the United States. "When I was growing up, the accordion was the most popular musical instrument of the time," remembers Klucevsek, who now lives in New York. "It wasn’t just part of the American-Slovenian culture that I came form; it was part of the wider American culture of television and popular music. But in the 1960s and 1970s it was out; it was the most unhip instrument you could possibly be playing."

In the mid-1960s, Klucevsek had trouble even finding a music school that provided a serious course in accordion playing, and for the first 15 years of his career he avoided playing the ethnic music of his heritage. Instead, he eked out a living on the fringes of new music composition, with occasional paying gigs for advertisers who used the accordion primarily for cheap laughs.

"When they needed something that sounded really square, they would use an accordion," he recalls. "I once did a commercial for Polly-O mozzarella cheese: they used me to do the music for their competitor’s cheese, which was hard and dry and tasted bad."

These were tough times to be a professional squeezeboxer, but the virulent anti-accordionism began shifting in the mid-1980s, when Argentina’s Astor Piazzola visited the US for the first time in 15 years. Piazzola’s nuevo tango quintet combined the melancholic sighs and groans of his bandoneon (a square–ended squeezebox) with slashing, erotically charged tango rhythms plays on violin and guitars. For Americans raised on Polly-O mozzarella commercials, this was something very new. At the same time, Cajun and zydeco music from Louisiana were rediscovered, and pretty some pop artists such as Paul Simon and Bruce Gornsby started incorporating the accordion into their music.

Since then, Klucevsek has become a one-man advertisement for the accordion revival. He has collaborated with groundbreaking jazz artists such as John Zorn, Bill Frisell and ‘Bobby Previte, and with performance artist Laurie Anderson. His nine solo albums—sporting song titles like Flying Vegetables of the Apocalypse and Dining in the Rough in the Buff—range from polka to the avant-garde. It’s his accordion you can hear in the background of the audio version of E. Annie Proulx’s novel Accordion Crimes, and he once even popped up on the children’s television program Mr Roger’s Neighbourhood.

Of course, in many non-Western countries the accordion needed no reviving because it never suffered the post-rock’n’roll humiliation meted out to it by people like Weird Al Yankovic. In Russia it has long been regarded as a serious classical instrument, and across Europe it is integral to the sound of folk music, from the wedding bands of the Slavic countries to the romantic musette of France. One of Australia’s foremost players, Tania Lukic-Marx, was born in Yugoslavia, completed a seven-year master’s course in Kiev and now performs around the world as a soloist whose repertoire includes Bach and Scarlatti.

The accordionists visiting Australia over the next several weeks will range from the Bulgarian wedding band of Yuri Yunacov to the Tiger Lillies, a London trio who have updated European gypsy music, and the melodramatic ballad style of French singer Jacques and the Zydeco Hi-Rollers – the hottest zydeco band in Louisiana – are touring nationally as well as appearing in Adelaide.

Of course, there are those for whom the sound of an accordion remains a unique form of auditory torture, right up there with brass bands and bagpipes. There are three Internet sites devoted entirely to accordion jokes(e.g., "Why do some people automatically hate accordionists?" Answer: "It saves a lot of time.") And when Robyn Archer unveiled her poster for the Adelaide Festival last year – a medieval painting of the Virgin Mary holding an accordion instead of the baby Jesus –some Christians were so outraged they began roaming the city tearing them off walls.

To this day, Archer is convinced that had she chosen some other instrument – a dulcimer, perhaps –the reaction would have been nowhere near as vehement. "I think it was precisely because people have such a low opinion of the accordion – they somehow thought we were vulgarising the Virgin Mary," she recalls. "I found myself giving interviews where I was saying, ‘Really, there’s nothing inherently blasphemous about the accordion.’ Hopefully, we can change that body of opinion."
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