Bryant Park | Press Coverage

Showing Off the Accordion's Hip Side

The New York Times
June 26, 2013

by Larry Rohter

Les Poissons Voyageurs, a Montreal group, is one of the acts in the Accordions Around the World festival this summer in Bryant Park.

The accordion just can’t get no respect.

Guitar players have Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix as avatars; accordionists are stuck, at least in the public mind, with Lawrence Welk and Frankie Yankovic. Pianists have the works of Bach, Chopin and Scriabin to challenge them; accordion players are saddled with requests for “Lady of Spain” and the monotonous oompah oompah of the polka.

But the free Accordions Around the World festival at Bryant Park this summer is offering accordionists an opportunity to change the stodgy image of their instrument, which was invented in Europe in the 19th century. Every Thursday through Aug. 29, from 5 p.m. onward, accordion players are stationed around the park, where they perform a varied repertory meant to show off their instrument’s versatility and range.

In keeping with its name, the festival’s emphasis is on folk and international genres like zydeco, vallenato, tango, klezmer, musette, qawwali, forró, bachata and the music of the Balkans. But last week’s edition, with 20 accordionists involved, also found Matt Dallow playing the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black,” Phillip Racz covering Frank Zappa’s “Peaches en Regalia” and Art Linowitz, who performs as Art Now, serving up Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry.”

“People will still say, ‘Hey, play a polka,’ because they still have that niche thing in their heads and pigeonhole the accordion as lame and kind of kitschy” said Mr. Linowitz, who will also be performing at the festival this week. “But I’ll play anything — Journey, heavy metal, Jimi Hendrix. It’s a goof, but I think you can do anything on an accordion.”

Conversations with the accordionists at the festival revealed a clear generational divide. Those in their 50s or older, like Mr. Linowitz, who is 64, showed a certain defensiveness about their choice of instrument. But the players in their 30s or younger had an entirely different attitude: proud, assertive, even arguing that their instrument has acquired an aura of hipness.

“Lawrence Welk played the squarest music this side of Euclid, and because of him, the accordion was lambasted as corny,” explained Marion Jacobson, a musicologist who is the author of “Squeeze This!: A Cultural History of the Accordion in America.” “But teenagers and people in their 20s are unlikely even to have heard of him, which means the accordion is now baggage-free and ready to participate in all the world music, ethnic and folk styles that have developed since the 1980s.”

Ms. Jacobson also mentioned that she had noticed what she called a “wave of hipster accordion playing.” She then rattled off a list of indie and punk rock performers who include the accordion in their instrumentation — They Might Be Giants, Arcade Fire, the Decemberists, Beirut, Calexico, Green Day, Gogol Bordello, Flogging Molly, the Pogues — and also noted that “certain rock stars, like John Mellencamp, Bruce Springsteen and Sheryl Crow, have adopted it as a side instrument to show their links with rootsiness.”

Among the performers featured at the festival last week was the Montreal-based ensembleLes Poissons Voyageurs, which will be playing again this Thursday. The group is notable not only for its eclectic style, which members describe as “Russian bluegrass and Gypsy gospel,” but also because it has two accordion players, Jean-François Leclerc and Chantale Urbain.

“The goal of Les Poissons Voyageurs is to gather music and songs from everywhere we go, and the accordion is an instrument that can be put into every kind of music style or situation,” Mr. Leclerc, 23, said. “Really, there is no limit. At the beginning, it wasn’t my primary instrument; I studied classical percussion, but you can’t really play alone as a drummer, whereas with an accordion you can, because it’s complete, an orchestra in itself.”

Ms. Urbain, 28, was originally a pianist but switched to the accordion because, she said, “it’s pretty hard to carry a piano and travel,” adding that pianos are often out of tune at bars and clubs.

“This is a good instrument for traveling, it doesn’t need amplification, and you can play melody and accompaniment,” she continued. “In Quebec, the accordion had an image as something for old people, mainly men, but I have really come to love this instrument.”

On Aug. 15, as part of festivities marking the 75th anniversary of its founding, theAmerican Accordionists’ Association plans to bring 75 accordionists to Bryant Park to play and jam together, with “New York, New York” already on the set list. The organization will also be holding its annual convention here that week, and the group’s president, Linda Soley Reed, said that both turnout and interest in the instrument have grown in recent years, especially among young people.

“A lot of our younger crackerjack players are going to come over, to show that we are not a dying breed,” she said. “I think we are long past the oompah problem. You see accordions on TV shows like ‘The Voice’ and even ‘Dancing With the Stars,’ and it was uplifting for me to see Mumford & Sons win a Grammy with an accordion on stage. All of that adds to a positive vibe.”

To a longtime accordionist like Bob Goldberg, who played the festival last week, that news comes as something of a mixed blessing. Mr. Goldberg, 54, cited Tom Waits’s 1980s recordings and Paul Simon’s “Graceland” as works that encouraged him to pick up what was then viewed as “a square and cheesy instrument, associated with boring pop stuff or straightforward two- or three-beat music.”

Since then he has found ways to adapt Bach, Beethoven, Aaron Copland and Thelonious Monk to the accordion, and makes a living teaching music and playing on advertising jingles. But one aspect of the accordion’s apparent resurgence seems to make him fret.

“I feel like right now the instrument is in a very strong moment and still in a state of evolution,” he said. “People have tended to look at the accordion as a novelty, not really accepted into serious instrumentdom — you know, the one-man band with a silly hat on his head and a kick drum. The accordion is a bit of an outlier that has tried to make its way in. But part of its identity comes from being outside.”