Your Grandmother's Polka
– Vancouver's new wave
of accordion music
Alan Zisman (c)
2010 First published in Columbia
by Alan Zisman (c) 2010
When I mention the word 'accordion', what's the first thing that pops
into your head? If you're of a certain age, perhaps it's Lawrence Welk.
Or polka bands in lederhosen. Or maybe the Far Side cartoon reading
“Welcome to heaven – here's your harp. Welcome to hell – here's your
Not exactly the hippest musical instrument, right?
the 1940s and early 50s, though, learning to play accordion was very
popular. One of the two books in the Vancouver public library under the
subject 'accordion', written in 1955, looked at ever-rising US
accordion sales and predicted that in only a few years, almost every
household would have one.
Instead, Elvis Presley appeared on Ed Sullivan, and within a few years,
every household in the US had a guitar. Accordions became the epitome
Of course, the accordion never really went away. Though few accordion
recordings made Top of the Pops in the past decades, it remained
popular in a wide range of ethnic and folk traditions, including Irish
music, Louisiana cajun and zydeco, Conjunto ('Tex-Mex'), and in
Canadian Newfoundland and Quebec musics. French musette stylings
dominated the popular soundtrack of the quirky movie Amelie.
But something else is happening now.
In August, the San Francisco Chronicle sported a front page article
about that city's 'accordion scene renaissance', quoting 29-year old
Skyler Fell, of the Accordion Apocalypse music store, saying “When I
play the accordion in a place like North Beach, I literally have people
jumping out of their cars. They tell me, “My great-grandfather played
it!” and they'll start dancing in the street”.
It's not just in San Francisco. Vancouver is also going through its own
accordion renaissance. There's a show on CFRO Coop Radio, Accordion Noir
weekly on Wednesdays at 10 pm – dedicated to 'ruthlessly pursuing the
belief that the accordion is just another instrument'. Show co-hosts
Bruce Triggs and Rowan Lipkovits have also organized an annual
Accordion Noir festival. Now in its third year, it will be running
September 19 – 26 with a full week of accordion-centric events at a
variety of venues around town.
The pair have also been convening a monthly Squeezebox Circle, held on
the first Thursday evening of each month at Spartacus Books (684 East
Hastings); it's now regularly attracting between 12-20 accordion
players ranging from new squeezers to pros.
Recently, the Squeezebox Circle gained a website: www.squeezeboxcircle.org
with links and resources, a calendar of gigs and other events, and
listings of over 50 local accordion players.
Though at least one of them makes a speciality of Oktoberfest events,
most of these bands are younger, and while they may drink beer, they
aren't your grandmother's polka band.
That doesn't mean that they don't draw on Old Country
traditions: local accordion + brass band Orkestar
can take you back to the Balkans. Another brass +
accordion group, Victoria's Bučan
(pronounced loudly as "boo-CHAN boo-CHAN" - that's Bučan
Bučan's Natasha Enquist pictured at the left) describes itself as
Victoria's #1 Gypsy Brass Band. Strathcona resident (and
was called by the Globe & Mail “The avenging angel of
Like Skyler Fell suggested, hearing these players make people want to
jump and dance. But it's hard to hear an accordion without wanting to
smile – and many of the new generation of accordion-friendly bands
offer music with a broad sense of humour (and in many cases irony).
Berner's songs are often wickedly satirical – see for example, his "The
Official Theme Song for the Vancouver-Whistler 2010 Winter Olympic
Local band The Creaking Planks
have referred to themselves as
'the jug band of the damned'. Their music adds Accordion Noir
co-host Rowan Lipkovits on accordion to other non-rock star instruments
like baritone sax and steel guitar producing songs that are less biting
than Berner's but no less amusing.
Given the alternative-flavour of many of these musicians and bands,
it's perhaps not surprising that you may have heard them playing at
local rallies, events and festivals – The Creaking Planks at
Velopalooza in June, Blackberry Wood
at Crab Park, Maria
in the Shower
at Under the Volcano, Maria in the Shower
(again) at Justice Rocks Festival. For Victoria's Gay Pride Parade,
Bučan Bučan were chauffeured across town in a fleet of pedi-cabs,
playing all the time.
So keep your eyes on the lamp posts for posters advertising this
month's Accordion Noir Festival (or check squeezeboxcircle.org
details). And when you hear an accordion, be prepared to jump out of
your car and start dancing. This ain't your grandmother's polka music
-- When he's not writing about
technology, Alan Zisman plays accordion with local political folk band The Gram Partisans
and with Mojo