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Accordion Madness

Updated on October 14, 2013

I know little about polka, barring the fruits of a curious obsession with Frankie Yankovic's 1983 arrest for leaving a supermarket with a package of bacon and a steak stuffed in his pants. But that's another story.

Polka revolves around the accordion (and the clarinet), which surfaces in surprising places as one travels the byways of both traditional and experimental music.

Some musicians, among them San Antonio-based Tejano (Tex-Mex) accordionist Leonardo “Flaco” Jiménez, prefer the button accordion.

The master
The master | Source

Born in 1939, Jiménez has played with an impressive list of musicians. Check out the albums “Doug Sahm & Friends” and “Texas Tornados”, whose players include Jiménez, Sahm, Augie Meyers, Freddy Fender and one Bob Dylan.

The button accordion was introduced to south Texas by Europeans, many of whom relocated there from Mexico during the Mexican Revolution from 1910 to 1917. These settlers brought an amber beer style to Mexico, called Vienna lager (also called Oktoberfest or Märzenbier). That style lives on in beers such as Dos Equis Amber and Negra Modelo. You also find a lot of sausage in Texas. Coincidence? I think not.

Tejano music draws from European roots, including elements of the waltz and polka. The latter is quite easy to discern, which brings us back to the matter at hand.

Accordions, Sausage and Beer

Fast forward, if you will, to April 1990. when The New York Times reported that the city of San Francisco had declared the accordion, specifically the piano accordion, to be the city's official instrument.

Accordions in Opposition

While popular culture has largely moved on to other types of music, there is an active polka subculture in the United States, with several outposts in cyberspace. The “Let's Polka” website, which seems to have been last updated in 2009, recognizes a few offshoots, including Detektivbyrån, a Swedish band that used an eclectic mix of instruments, including a piano accordion, before disbanding in August 2010.

The accordion figures prominently in certain avant rock groups, particularly those operating under the banner of Rock in Opposition. RIO emerged in the late 1970s, when a number of avant-progressive groups declared their opposition to the music industry, which essentially ignored them. The label connotes elements of social commitment, musical excellence and operation outside the normal music business. The term is applied to various bands today.

The original RIO bands were Henry Cow from England, Stormy Six (Italy), Sweden's Samla Mammas Manna, the intensely dark Univers Zero (Belgium) and Etron Fou Leloublan of France, later joined by Art Zoyd (France), the Art Bears (from the ashes of Henry Cow) and Belgium's Aksak Maboul.

Accordionists in RIO groups include Zeena Parkins of the Art Bears, the Slovenian Bratko Bibic of Begnagrad and Nimal, and Lars Hollmer of Samla Mammas Manna. Many RIO groups employ classical and folk elements to bend rock in unprecedented ways.

Polka in the New Millennium

But I was discussing polka. Unlike “Let's Polka”, the “Polish American Journal” is still being updated. It's nice to see news of events such as the International Polka Association (IPA) Festival of Bands in Chicago, but scrolling down, one sees one obituary after another, as the old bandleaders expire.

With its large European ethnic population, Chicago has more than its share of polka, and is home to the IPA. Musicians from Chicago and elsewhere in the midwest developed the Chicago style of polka, which emphasizes the clarinet, trumpet and button accordion, and has a strong element of improvisation.

Chicago is also home to the Polkaholics, a three-piece polka-rock group with nary a squeeze box in sight. But I digress ... again.

The New York Times reported in June 2009 that the Polka category was being eliminated from the Grammy Awards “to ensure the awards process remains representative of the current musical landscape.” Grammy Awards were bestowed in well over 100 categories, and one might wonder why they couldn't squeeze in one more. But the number of entrants in the category had shrunk to about 20 each year, and the winner was generally Jimmy Sturr, who has taken home 18 of them.

Jimmy Sturr and his Orchestra are still out there gigging. The band has a flashy website with pictures flashing and music playing. They even has a tour sponsor: Mrs. T's Pierogies, natch. Music is sold on the site, on CDs—no downloads. But you can buy the MP3s on Amazon. After all, it's the 21st century.

Addendum

My brother John alerted me to the 1959 hit, "Robbin' the Cradle", an accordion-laced hit written and performed by Chicagoan Tony Bellus. The song spent 26 weeks on the Billboard charts.

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