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Columbia Journal

    Not Your Grandmother's Polka
    – Vancouver's new wave of accordion music

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2010 First published in Columbia Journal September 2010
    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 accordion”.

    Not exactly the hippest musical instrument, right?

    1931 Vancouver Accordion BandIn 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 uncool.

    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: 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.

    Natasha EnquistThat doesn't mean that they don't draw on Old Country traditions: local accordion + brass band Orkestar Slivovica can take you back to the Balkans. Another brass + accordion group, Victoria's Bučan 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 world-traveller) Geoff Berner was called by the Globe & Mail “The avenging angel of Klezmer”.

    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 Games". 

    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 and Sudanda 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 for 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 anymore.

    -- When he's not writing about technology, Alan Zisman plays accordion with local political folk band The Gram Partisans and with Mojo Zydeco. Favicon

Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan
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