Beyond Polka

The East Bay has a great accordion scene. You'd love it. Best of all, no lederhosen required.

We come to praise the accordion, not to bury it.

The infamous instrument — long notorious for suffering much derision and abuse from musicians and nonmusicians alike — is now rather chic in polyglot America. Forget Lawrence Welk and “Weird Al” Yankovic: This is not your father’s (or mother’s) accordion. Nowhere is this more evident than the East Bay, where you can tango, two-step, or otherwise tune in and drop out to accordion culture any night of the week. Recently, we did exactly that.

Sunday afternoon, Cotati: The Thirteenth Annual Accordion Festival

San Jose native Rich Kuhns and his demonic instrument pace Trio Paradiso through a captivating set of Latin-tinged rhythms and melodies. Yes, demonic. Remember the classic Far Side cartoon: “Welcome to heaven, here’s your harp; welcome to hell, here’s your accordion.” But Trio Paradiso devotes equal time to the guitarist and bassist, and Kuhns wants it that way. “Accordion should be a musical condiment, and not the main course,” he says.

To prove the accordion’s condiment potential, last Halloween Kuhns provided the eerie background music for a Fine Arts Cinema screening of the 1922 silent chiller Nosferatu, using his piano accordion and a theremin. The Fine Arts teamed up with Berkeley’s Boaz Accordions for five years, producing such joint accordion/cinema ventures.

But try selling the “condiment” notion to the guy who rips into “Play That Alpen Music, Kraut Boy” or the dozens who join the climactic “Lady of Spain” group accordion-a-long onstage on this lovely afternoon. Cotati: where class meets kitsch, and neither bats an eye. A T-shirt for sale at one of the vending booths reads “Accordions Don’t Play ‘Lady of Spain’: People Do.”

Sunday evening, Berkeley: The Starry Plough

Rising from a circle of wooden chairs during the regular Irish music session, Riggy Rackin of Sebastopol belts out “It’s Not Yet Day,” a drinking song with a hearty chorus that inspires a few regulars — some dressed in Ren Faire finery — to join in. Among the regular collection of fiddlers and guitarists, Rackin stands out by accompanying himself on concertina: an instrument, he’s quick to point out, that serves as the accordion’s predecessor in Western music, invented by an English chap named Wheatstone in the 1840s after he observed the free-reed shang in Asia.

But you already knew that.

Rackin takes advantage of the instrument’s small size, ease of use (notes are the same no matter which direction the bellows are moving, unlike diatonic accordions), and clarity of tone (its notes sound on a single reed, unlike the accordion’s three). The concertina, however, was combined with sea music after the great age of sail by English ’50s folkies like Louis Killen. “If sailors played a bellows-driven instrument,” Rackin says, “they probably played a button accordion or melodeon.”

Okay, so accordion enthusiasts are also tech nerds. Sue us.

Wednesday, Berkeley: The Daniel Thonon Workshop at Boaz Accordions

Boaz is arguably the epicenter of the East Bay accordion scene. “Yes, the accordion is cool again,” says Thonon, the classically trained 53-year-old Belgian who has played and studied in most of the French-speaking diaspora, including Paris, Switzerland, Algeria, and his current address near Montreal. He has gone to great lengths to coax precise sounds out of his Castagnari, having it built to his specs in Italy. “It’s the Rolls-Royce of accordions,” he says confidently.

Tonight, I enter the fray. Sales and marketing guru Judy Rubin, who could sell an accordion to a drowning man by convincing him it would keep him afloat, slyly teases me: “You’re taking the workshop, right?” Minutes later I’m sawing away to a Parisian waltz on a bright red Czech-made “Popular” two-row button box, tuned to G/C (each row of right-hand keys represents a key you can play in) with a half-dozen other beginners. My arms hurt until I figure out where the release valve is.

Thursday, Oakland: Smythe’s Accordion Center

Just down the road from Boaz is Kimric Smythe’s smaller workshop, adorned with classic oil paintings of zydeco legend Boozoo Chavis and Argentine bandoneón legend Astor Piazzolla, his arms spread wide as a pelican’s wingspan. Smythe gazes at an accordion with a discerning craftsman’s eye: “You look inside these things,” the ex-Air Force mechanic says, “and you can see the hands of the person who built them.” Smythe simultaneously fields questions, searches for springs and glue, puts an accordion together, and answers the phone. He’s a one-man accordion multitasking show.

Thursday, Alameda Cove: Quinn’s Lighthouse

Skip Henderson alternates between a concertina and a Hohner button box whilst leading his band, Starboard Watch, through a set of unamplified chanteys. “Hey, a folk guy in the corner with a guitar, the crowd can talk over him,” he explains later. “An accordion you really can’t ignore!”

Henderson doesn’t take life or whiskey in half-measures; like any true buccaneer, he has his price, and our interview costs me a dram of the hard stuff. The 66-year-old immersed himself in concertina music about the same time Hendrix was burning a Stratocaster at Monterey, and he hasn’t looked back since, spinning delightful tales of global accordion-playing high-jinks. While anchored off the Panama coast (a freebooters’ paradise in days of yore), Henderson wrote the tune “Billy Bones,” which was slated to be used in Pirates of the Caribbean this summer before Disney’s last-second change of heart.

Skip got over it. Captain’s hat slightly askew, he looms over tables at Quinn’s while belting out numbers like “Maggie May.” Everybody loves him.

Friday, Berkeley: La Note

Alex Yaskin, impeccably dressed in beret and blue bow tie, pumps out “YMCA” whilst the upscale diners at this Shattuck Avenue French cuisine joint more or less ignore him. Yaskin plays it all — from Russian and klezmer to Deep Purple and the Bee Gees. His ability to read the La Note crowd helps him pay the bills: When Yaskin makes his final trip of the evening with the tip jar, a twentysomething drops in a few dollars and says, “Dude, thanks for playing ‘Stairway.'”

Another Friday, Alameda: McGrath’s Pub

Dave LaClerque has recently integrated his accordion into the sound of roots band the Shots, where “Star of the County Down” meets “These Boots Are Made for Walking.” While studying ethnomusicology in Galicia, Spain, he became enamored of the region’s native musical culture, suppressed during Franco’s reign. He’s a bit of a techie, too. (Dave, not Franco.) LaClerque ventured over the Pyrenees to buy his personal axe from French craftsman Bernard Loffet.

Saturday: Berkeley Public Library

Even an accordion fanatic needs a break. I take a sonic breather by leafing through E. Annie Proulx’ Accordion Crimes, in which everyone who even goes near the ill-fated instrument suffers a catastrophic end. Fatal insect bites, decapitations, and lynchings litter its pages. I return home to a fitful night’s rest.

Sunday: Back to Boaz Accordions

To get to Lebanese accordionist Elias Lammam’s workshop, we venture through racks of books (Songs of Latin America for Accordion, Irish Piano Accordion), a fleet of comfy couches, and a box labeled Dino Raffetti, Castelfidardo, Italy — a small principality that represents to accordions what Hershey, PA, represents to chocolate lovers. Lammam (who himself rocks Boaz Rubin’s favorite model, an Italian Armando Bugari) explains that because of the quarter-tones in Arab — but not Western — music scales, accordions must be physically tuned differently to accompany the music.

There’s so much to learn here, so many cultures to explore — Italian, zydeco, conjunto, and tango scenes, each with their own instruments, stylings, nuances. San Francisco’s North Beach still has a lively accordion scene, a remnant of the turn-of-the-century epoch when the squeezebox-making industry was centered here (it’s also the official instrument of San Francisco — bet you didn’t know that). East Bay locales such as Alameda’s Eagles Hall and Ashkenaz in Berkeley regularly feature accordion-driven Louisiana music.

Yes, the accordion is no one-trick pony, which explains why it flourishes in the Bay Area and elsewhere despite a somewhat dubious public image.

“Accordion music is like beans,” says Boaz saleswoman Rubin. “People say they don’t like beans, but then they realize they like hummus, or other things made with beans. There’s all kinds of music out there.”

Welcome to the East Bay. Here’s your accordion.

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