By Richard von Busack
THE ACCORDION'S appeal is probably due to the way it throbs. You don't play an accordion so much as you embrace it. When held against the chest, the accordion's vibrations turn your abdomen into a resonator, giving your heart a sonic massage. No other musical instrument so envelops you, except for the equally maligned sousaphone, which nestles around the torso like an anaconda.
The accordion's effect on listeners can be every bit as penetrating, as is witnessed by the number of bumper stickers reading "Use an Accordion, Go to Jail--It's the Law." (My accordion teacher, a crusty old party like William Demarest, told me to fix wiseacres with a jailhouse glare: "Yeah, I just got out.") But on one weekend each year, squeezebox miscreants use accordions and go to Cotati, taking over the small town like Marlon Brando and gang in The Wild One.
Clifton Buckman-Kauffman runs Prairie Sun Recording in Cotati and is a founder of the 6-year-old festival. "We were looking for something musical to draw a crowd, some kind of event, something multicultural," he says, remembering the dilemma faced when the La Plaza Park bandstand was erected, "without attracting too many unruly kids and a lot of potential problems." In part, the idea of attracting devotees of the belly-organ came from local musician Jim Boggio, who has recorded "a lot of different genres, zydeco, jazz, folk music on the accordion at my studio," says Buckman-Kauffman. "We realized that there seemed to be an incredibly untapped demand for accordion entertainment, especially among older folks who recall the golden days of the accordion."
At the first fest in 1990, Boggio and Buckman-Kauffman expected around 1,000 people. Some 5,000 showed up. This year, they're expecting 10,000 fans to attend a show of squeezebox-playing outlaws that includes the cheerful cowpoke Sourdough Slim, Celtic sounds by Golden Bough, Jim Boggio and his Swamp Dogs, Polkacide, Steve Balich, Norteña music by Ramon Trujillo and His Mariachi Jalisco, plus--and this is aptly underscored in the promotional material--a wooden dance floor for dancing.
If you've ever tried to polka on the wrong kind of floor, you'll no doubt still remember how your feet hurt.
SAN FRANCISCO is said to be the place where a piano keyboard was first grafted onto the accordion. Many accordion manufacturers plied their infernal trade there, and Colombo and Sons of San Rafael were, until they ended the business in 1994, the oldest firm of accordion manufacturers. That the accordion has roots in Northern California can also be seen in commentary by local writers: Ambrose Bierce, formerly of St. Helena, spoke for many when he wrote in his Devil's Dictionary that the accordion was "an instrument in harmony with the sentiments of an assassin."
The accordion's origin is dated to sometime in the 1820s when various accordionoids were invented by Friedrich Buschmann in Germany and by Cyral Demian in Vienna, while Matthias Hohner busied himself devising the first harmonica. The harmonica and the accordion are cases of parallel development; the accordion is just a big harmonica with bellows and valves. The free reed that's at the heart of all of these musical instruments is an invention of the Chinese, who used it in an eons-old wind instrument called the sheng. The accordion is still most popular in China, where they have accordion orchestras of a size unseen in the United States since the 1950s. During the Long March, Mao's army was evidently led by a vanguard of accordion-playing girls. Whether this was meant to delight or to terrify is up to the reader.
A great traveler because of sturdiness and portability, an accordion is loud enough to surmount the stamping of feet at a dance--though dancing is not the purpose for which some of them were built. It is the quintessential people's instrument: homely, boxy, and free of the ultra-glamor that's made pop music pretty insufferable to the thinking person for the last 30 years.
When this versatile instrument got kicked out of the spotlight by the electric guitar, the accordion became a national joke. Now, the accordion causes a lot less comment than it did five years ago, even though it's still used as a sight gag by musicians like "Weird" Al Yankovich. Everyone from Bruce Hornsby to Tom Waits to Those Darn Accordions has done their part to make the instrument less of a curiosity and more acceptable to the masses, and still the accordion is a symbol of rebellion: Those who play it, even those who just wield it, are tacitly stating, "We're through being cool."
The Cotati Accordion Fest swings off Aug. 24-25 at La Plaza Park, downtown Cotati. 9:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. $7-$12; kids under 12, free. 664- 0444.
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From the August 22-28, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent
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