Squeeze Play

Instrumental in every culture, accordions are starting to regain a note of respect

The Star-Ledger
February 7, 1999
by Stuart Miller

Picture an accordionist. No, not a bow-tied old vaudevillian playing for laughs, or a lederhosen-garbed, barrel-chested polka player with funny hat and mustache. And most definitely not Lawrence Welk. Erase that from memory.

Today's accordionists are funky jazz players, classically trained orchestra members and even hip young rockers. Since Paul Simon's seminal "Graceland," world music and ethnic folk music have increasingly crossed into the mainstream, and the accordion - along with siblings like the concertina and bandoneon - is showing up everywhere from the Philadelphia Symphony to the Broadway stage, earning its handlers the attention and respect they've been denied for decades.

"Everyone began digging toward his roots, and in every style of music they found an accordion involved," says Walter Kuehr, who opened his accordion shop, the Main Squeeze, on Manhattan's Lower East Side three years ago. "Then they found out it's not such a ridiculous instrument after all."

More and more accordion schools are opening around New Jersey and nationwide, says Maddalena Belfiore, head of the Accordion Teachers Association of New Jersey, an affiliate of the American Accordionists Association. The AAA, along with the Missouri-based Welk Resort Center, is even searching for "The Hottest Accordionist in America," with the winner to perform, perhaps, on "The Tonight Show."

Accordion lovers find much to praise - the squashbox, as Zulus call it, is versatile, portable and simultaneously provides harmony, melody and rhythm, all with its pure, "breathing" sound. (There are different types - with varying numbers of buttons or a piano keyboard and with numerous pitches and tones - for different styles.)

"It's more satisfying than the flute or violin because you can accompany yourself," Kuehr says, and "unlike the piano, you can carry it."

Barry Mitchell, whose accordion accompanied political parodies appear on ABC's overnight "World News Now," says the surge in popularity is partly "a backlash against synthesized sounds and samplings. Kids are amazed at anything acoustic."

Some lovers of what Mark Twain dubbed "the stomach Steinway" stubbornly insist it was always stylish so it can't make a comeback. "It has never been anything but popular and beloved in my environment," says Helrni Strahl Harrington, who runs A World bf Accordion, the nation's only accordion museum, in Duluth, Minn.

Yet after the 1950s, when tens of thousands of kids studied it at home or in school, most Americans in touch with reality noticed the precipitous plunge in the accordion's reputation. Accordionists know where to point the fingers. "Blame it on Lawrence Welk," says Kuehr.

Welk's schlocky TV show, which ran from 1955 until 1982, "stood for everything that's square and what your parents liked," says Mitchell.

The other culprit was rock 'n' roll, particularly four lads from Liverpool. "The Beatles ruined the accordion business," says Charles Nunzio, 86, a Basking Ridge resident and lifelong accordionist.

Had the Fab Four wielded squeezeboxes, things would have been different, but suddenly, everyone wanted to learn electric guitar. (The guitar is also easier for kids to handle, since an accordion can weigh up to 27 pounds.)

"You play one hour and need three hours of physical therapy," quips Kuehr.

And Michael Shapiro, producer of the 1995 three-CD set "Planet Squeezebox," wryly notes that the guitar is not only less bulky, "but from a Freudian standpoint, it's also a sexier instrument."

So the accordion was demoted to a kitschy symbol of the generation gap, a butt of jokes ultimately personified by Weird Al Yankovic. But jibes in comics, like "The Far Side" (in heaven they hand out harps; in hell, accordions) and "The Wizard of Id" (accordions in the torture chamber), were actually nothing new. In a cartoon by 19th century French artist Honore Daumier, a man says, "One does not yet have the right to kill the people who play this instrument, but there is hope that we will soon get it."

In fact, this young contraption, a sensitive, complex instrument composed of 2,000 parts, has always had to fight for acceptance. Its roots date back 5,000 years to China, where gourds with bamboo pipes (the cheng or sheng) were the first free reed instruments with bellows. But one blew into the cheng, and it wasn't for several millennia, when the cheng reached Europe (most likely in the 18th century), that it began evolving.

A German man named Christian Buschmann invented the accordion in 1822, although Austrian Cyrill Demian usually gets official credit since he patented his in 1829. (The concertina was patented in England that year.) As migration and missionaries lugged accordions to the far comers of the world, the apparatus quickly became integral to virtually every culture's folk music - from klezmer to Cajun, from Chinese to Celtic.

But according to "The Classical Squeezebox" by Henry Doktorski, the accordion - sometimes called the hand harmonica - was scorned as ugly and clumsy by classical composers.

Early accordions were indeed, "very crude," Shapiro says. "(But) even when it was perfected, the attitudes didn't change." Accordions continued to evolve (the piano keyboard, and a tone chamber for a mellower sound, for instance), but by the 1860s their mass production prompted the elitist classical crowd to sneeringly dismiss it as a gadget suited only for lowbrow music, meaning peasants dancing in pubs. Doktorski writes, "It was a victim of its own popular appeal.

Accordion music journeyed to America with immigrants, and here - in this melting pot where music was both a link to home and a way to fit in - it flourished in this century. With its one-man-band practicality and impossible-to-ignore sound, the newcomer was particularly popular with vaudevillians, says Faithe Deffner, president of the American Accordionists Association. (Meanwhile, her organization, founded by vaudevillians in 1938, became instrumental in legitimizing the squeezebox in classical music by commissioning contemporary composers to score parts for it.)

Nunzio, a Newark native, quit school at 15 to play with a vaudeville act. From 1935 until 1955, his ensemble bands - playing popular hits and show tunes - performed thousands of live shows and radio performances. Later, he even edited classically oriented books like Complete Hanon's Studies for the Accordion.

In the 1940s and '50s, accordions were ubiquitous, Deffner says, with accordion orchestras and even an Accordion Department at the University of Houston and other colleges. But again, it became too popular for its own good, as kids chafed at being forced to play their parents' instrument. Welk and the Beatles crystallized that rebellion.

Eddie Monteiro, who at age 10 tied for first at the inaugural competition of the Accordion Teachers' Association of New Jersey in 1959, watched his cherished instrument slowly being reduced to a joke. By the late 1970s, Monteiro, then a professional jazz and classical accordionist was forced to switch to keyboards or be dropped from gigs.

But before the accordion could be squeezed from the scene it bounced back. Of course it had continued thriving on the fringes, in zydeco, polka, tangos and other ethnic musics, and it was from there that it returned, as people suddenly started paying attention to these alternative sounds.

Quirky rock bands like Los Lobos and They Might Be Giants got there first, as did equally offbeat TV shows like "Northern Exposure." Soon the accordion had gone totally mainstream, appearing on "The Drew Carey Show" theme and best-selling albums.

"Once you see Sheryl Crow in patent leather pants playing accordion on stage, you know it has become cool," says Carol Sharar, a Hackensack resident whose accordion hits Broadway beginning April 22 in "The Civil War" at the St. James Theatre. A classically trained violinist who had added that sound to folk and pop bands, Sharar picked up the accordion two years ago and found this once-scorned instrument quickly welcomed. "It gives them a different flavor," she says.

At the Philadelphia Symphony, West Collingsworth resident and veteran violinist Davyd Booth suddenly found that his recent accordion hobby was in demand; he was "surprised" to find how often it was used both with the full orchestra and in chamber music groups.

Monteiro, of East Hanover, happily reports that his keyboard-accordion ratio has reversed and most of his jazz performances are now on squeezebox.

"I still have to overcome skeptics," he says, but his modem accordion, armed with a MIDI synthesizer that can replicate jazz organs and string sections, wins people over. "Afterward, they say, 'I've never heard anything like this.' "

Joanna Arnold, assistant director of the Acme Accordion School in Haddon Township, says musicians in their 20s who ignored the accordion while growing up are suddenly enrolling for lessons. Even the Internet is flooded with accordion aficionados offering everything from technique tips to sound clips from Australia to the history of the accordion in Ghana.

The comeback, however, remains relatively small. "It makes me feel good," Nunzio says, "but it's going to take quite a bit yet before it gets back to where it's been."

In fact, Shapiro warns that in some Arabic and Balkan countries, accordionists are switching to electronic keyboards to emulate Americans. "Never underestimate the power of American culture to totally subvert the beauty of a folk culture."

Still, the accordion is hardy enough to endure just about anything, even the fact tt Lawrence Welk reruns can still be seen on PBS in 286 markets. And listening to "Planet Squeezebox" - which includes everything from Nigerian to Bulgarian to Finnish accordion music - and hearing how easily every culture has incorporated the accordion into its heritage, one is struck not just by the diversity, but by the similarities, by how the accordion fits so naturally into each of our lives no matter where we're from.

So perhaps in the 21st century the accordion will even come to be seen as a symbol of our planet's shared humanity, thus helping to, ease ethnic strife and bring peace on, Earth. Then people would really have to take the squeezebox seriously.