Global Squeezebox

A look at the big, beautiful, and newly popular world of the accordion.

The accordion is one of those things that people have opinions about. Ask your friends. One will spend 20 minutes trying to convince you that accordions sound worse than bagpipes. Another will have a nightmarish flashback to her Polish mother “lulling” her to sleep by squeezing the box. Someone else will mutter something about that “ridiculous-looking, useless, wheezing, gasping, Lawrence Welk instrument.”

Others—especially world-music buffs and partner-dancing freaks—will go to the other extreme. They’ll rhapsodize about styles dominated by the long-insulted instrument: French musettes, Celtic music, klezmer, zydeco, tango, Colombian vallenato, “real” Dominican merengue, or that great Springsteen tune where an accordion took center stage. They will cite Astor Piazzolla’s mastery of the bandone�I>, the avant-gardeness of some New York dude named Guy Klucevsek, the hilarity of a San Francisco shtick band called Those Darn Accordions.

The rhapsodizers are members of what Joe Petosa Jr. of Wallingford’s 75-year-old Petosa Accordions, refers to as the “new generation” of squeezebox lovers. This is opposed to the “old” generation of squeezebox lovers, raised on polkas and waltzes; or the “middle-aged” generation of squeezebox haters, who came of age in the 1960s, and—brandishing the electric guitar like a weapon—labeled the accordion as the most uncool musicmaker around. During this time, the instrument went into a steep decline in the US, and every American accordion company stopped making the instrument, except, remarkably, Petosa (probably because its high-end, handmade accordions fill a very specific niche market).

“It wasn’t the instrument, it was the music that it was associated with,” opines Joe. (He doesn’t have to mention Lawrence Welk and his sidekick, Myron Floren. It’s understood.) “And it’s only in America that it lost its popularity, because we change too often, we have too many fads.” Nowadays, for kids “who had never heard of the accordion, it’s this cool-sounding instrument.” The boom of interest in world music and roots music hasn’t hurt. There are now international accordion festivals in cities from San Francisco to London, a flood of compilations of new and vintage squeezebox music, and it seems that daily some other rock or pop star starts recording with the reedy instrument.

If Petosa is one local sign of the accordion’s staying power, another is the fact that Eva Ybarra was invited to be an artist-in-residence in the University of Washington’s ethnomusicology department this year. Ybarra is a San Antoniobased accordionist and bandleader who is considered a master of conjunto music, a lively Tex-Mex folk style that was born late last century when German immigrants brought the button accordion to Northern Mexico and South Texas. Enamored of its portability, volume, and one-man-band potential, Mexican musicians paired it with the 12-string guitar, and started mixing European dance tempos such as polkas with Mexican song forms.

Ybarra, a small, ebullient woman who can’t seem to keep her hands still even when her accordion is firmly in its case, is an interesting example of both the old and new wave. On one hand, she is a perfect example of a “true” folk musician. The daughter of working-class Mexican-American parents (who were also musicians), she picked up the accordion when she was 4. By age 6, she was performing in the traditional venues for Tex-Mex music—dance halls, bars, and baseball fields—and at age 17 she recorded her first record on a small Texas label. She still plays a Hohner diatonic button accordion, the preferred box of the old-time musicians.

On the other hand, Ybarra has become famous for pushing boundaries. First, she’s one of a handful of women accordionists working in the conjunto tradition, no small feat. “People would say, ‘That’s a man’s instrument—you shouldn’t be playing that,'” she recalls. “But I didn’t listen.”

Second, she has a highly distinctive style, composing and playing tangos, fast-paced cumbias, and sentimental ballads that are layered with sparks of jazz, blues, even reggae. And of course, she plays polkas—the meat of any conjunto musician’s repertoire. But these, as one of Ybarra’s Seattle students explains, are not Welkean polkas: “They’re quick-spirited, mean little polkas.”

“She does a lot of augmented chords, and she plays a lot more notes,” explains Cathy Ragland, a UW-educated ethnomusicologist who organized a program of Mexican-American music at the Folklife Festival this year. “There’s a lot more subtleties in her style, little trills…. There’s a lot happening, but she manages to keep the melody pure.” Ybarra is known for being able to play chords that others cannot reach. In layman’s terms, this means she gives a great show—danceable, highly varied, and visually interesting.

In recent years, conjunto music has been popularized by artists like Los Lobos, who have incorporated many of its bouncy licks in their songs, and another San Antonio accordionist, Flaco Jimenez, who has enjoyed phenomenal crossover success. Ybarra’s tenure at the UW is also a symbol of the new respect that the accordion is getting at the academic level. Although the

instrument has a folksy image, it was invented fairly recently (patented in 1829), and some music scholars maintain that its rapid spread across the globe in the 19th century actually corrupted many “true” music traditions. When Ragland was doing graduate work on Tex-Mex accordionists in the early 1990s, for example, “there was the feeling that it was a bit weird.” But now, she says, “ethnomusicologists are doing whole projects on the accordion.”

Although Ybarra doesn’t yet have the name recognition of Flaco Jimenez, she’s gaining ground. In 1996, she was featured on Ellipsis’ acclaimed Planet Squeezebox compilation of world accordion music, and she has recently released her second CD, Romance Inolvidable, on Rounder Records.

Further, in one of her final Seattle performances before she goes back to San Antonio, Ybarra will be one of the 31 artists featured at WOMAD, Peter Gabriel’s celebrated multicultural arts festival (at Redmond’s Marymoor Park, 7/31-8/2). She’ll be accompanied by a band that includes 12-string guitarist Juan Barco, Joel Guzman on bass and drums, and vocalist and songwriter Gloria Garcia.

WOMAD as a whole promises to be an excellent showcase of world accordion music. Besides Ybarra, it features Kepa Junkera, a world-renowned Spanish—sorry, Basque—accordionist, who plays trikitixa, a cutting-edge version of traditional Basque folk music; and CesᲠStroscio, an Argentine musician who uses the bandone�cousin to the accordion) to play tango and other moody rhythms.

Plus, there are the Klezmatics, kingpins of the Jewish folk music revival; the Terem Quartet, a Russian group with one accordion and three balalaikas; and Lo’Jo, a six-piece French group whose performances are more like carnivals than concerts.

Check these musicians out, if only to admire the sheer physical strength it takes to push and pull the bellows while manipulating all those buttons and/or keys. Meanwhile, if you get bored with the squeezebox—or if your opinion on it was formed too early in life to consider changing now—there are another 20-odd groups to choose from where the accordion has yet to find a foothold. You might even find a bagpipe or two.