Singing, dancing and accordion playing in the “Before Times”—Oy vey!

I’m still trying to picture an autumn in Richmond, Virginia, that doesn’t include the Richmond Folk Festival. That picture is sad, silent, colorless, and signed in the corner by the disaster artist COVID-19. Thanks, COVID. Your painting sucks.

But before, for three nights and two days, every October since 2005, the banks of the James River were covered with first-rate musicians from across the globe. Wildly happy (and sometimes soaking wet) spectators would sit in chairs or on blankets listening to insanely great music from every genre you could imagine (and some you didn’t even know existed). Combine that with dance tents, CD sales, food and beer trucks and, always, always, the rumbling musical accompaniment of a coal train, rolling by as it blows its haunting and beautiful diminished-key horn.

In other words, that’s one more reason why October is magnificent in Richmond.

For a tragically good reason this year, Richmond will not be jamming tens of thousands of spectators into one area (albeit sprawling and outdoors) for them to sing, dance, and shout, shoulder to shoulder. As awesome as the Folk Fest is, that would be a very bad idea.

To soothe my soul, I’ve been poring over folk fest videos from previous years that I’ve captured on my phone. This next video I’ve watched over and over.

Yes, it features the fine accordion playing of Patrick Farrell with the Klezmer band Winograd’s Nue Tanzhoyz Kapele. Oh how I love me some Klezmer. But it also captures the spirit of the entire fest. It’s a seven-minute video, but I bet you’ll end up watching the whole thing. Not just because of my husband’s fine video work (he grabbed my phone to record when I jumped up to dance) but because the band, the dancers, and the spectators are all having so much dang fun. Their joy is infectious, so join them and dance in your kitchen if it moves you!

Enjoy this taste of Folk Fest 2011.

When this happened nine years ago, I was only a couple of years into my strange accordion addiction. I loved hearing it, anytime, anywhere, but my playing was a bit tortuous still, and I sure as hell didn’t know any Klezmer songs. I couldn’t even attempt one. Nine years later, I’m still happily addicted (rehab didn’t work, mom!) and, guess what—I’ve learned a cool Klezmer song called Odessa Bulgar. Thanks, Dallas Vietty, for teaching it to me.

The virtual folk fest will take place October 8 – 10. Enjoy it with your friends (six feet apart) and your favorite beverage in your backyard. And don’t forget to wear a mask and wash your hands.

Christmas is coming–add this accordion documentary to your wish list!

I first interviewed filmmaker Roberta Cantow over a year ago. At the time, she was raising money to put the final touches on her refreshing documentary about the resurgence of accordion music in the US. I was an easy sell; Roberta had me with the words, “accordion documentary.”

I am delighted to report that her film is now complete and available for purchase. Here’s just a peek of what you can expect.

I certainly didn’t need a movie to convince me that the accordion was where it’s at–I am hopelessly unable to resist its allure. But this charming, educational, and wildly musical film does come in handy to sway the opinion of disbelievers. It’s also just plain fun for music lovers of all types.

As a kick-ass side bonus, her film also features my good friend Frank Petrilli, one of the heavy hitters in the accordion jazz world. It also highlights the late Walter Kühr, former owner of the Main Squeeze Accordion Shop in New York City (where I bought my beloved accordion) and conductor of the all-female Main Squeeze Orchestra. Walter left this world too soon, but, fortunately,  a bit of his unique essence is forever captured in this film.

For the very reasonable price of $24.95, you can make the accordion lover on your gift list deliriously happy. If you really want to go crazy, you can also buy a t-shirt or the award-winning movie poster. You’ll find it all on the Accordions Rising website.

Go ahead. It’s time the rest of the world learned how hip accordions really are.

Something is missing

The RecitalDespite my lack of natural musical ability, I began the painful and joyous experience of learning to play the accordion about seven and a half years ago. It’s been a sick addiction ever since. And from the moment I started squeezing the bellows, my dog Sunny was by my side.

She dug accordion music. Seriously.

She would be blissfully napping upstairs and the instant I hit the first few chords, I’d hear that familiar click clack of doggy nails as she raced down the stairs. Seconds later she’d be lying by my feet. Then after a while, when she’d had enough, she’d gently put her paw on my thigh and give me the look that it was time to put the squeeze box away. Once, while walking her (something we did twice a day, every day, for nearly 13 years), I heard the strains of accordion music in the distance–hardly a daily occurrence in Richmond, Virginia. She took off in hot pursuit. I, of course, had no choice but to follow.

She dragged me up some rather steep steps to the front porch of a row house, where I was forced to give an awkward hello to the barefooted dude playing accordion. “Hi there! Pay no attention to us. We just accidentally walked 12 feet up your front steps from the sidewalk way down below to to say hey.” I explained to him that my dog liked accordion music and he thought that was cool. Sunny and I both sat there for a good while and listened. That was a good day–one of so many with her.

My husband and I lost our remarkable dog to rapidly spreading liver cancer just 3 weeks ago. Because I loved her so very much, I knew her eventual loss would be heart wrenching. I had no idea just how much it would actually hurt.

To help me process my grief and allow me to focus not on her death but on the immense joy she brought to my life, I created a slideshow of her adventures. My choice would have been to accompany these photos with the music of John Hiatt and his oh so fabulous song, Just My Dog and Me. But since his copyright lawyers would have been quick to snatch that up from YouTube, I used recordings of me playing music (and some music of my friends) as a soundtrack instead. Sunny would dig the fact that it’s mostly accordion.

Please forgive my woefully inadequate sound editing in iMovie. I’m still learning.

Accordions rule but accordion-loving dogs rule more.

Dogs are our link to paradise. They don’t know evil or jealousy or discontent. To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring—it was peace.
—Milan Kundera

Sunny is really a person in a dog suit. And one day I’m going to find the zipper. 

– Andy Swartz

In search of a soundproof practice booth.

practice blog post pic

My typical expression when I’m learning a new song and no chocolate is available.

I loathe envy those people who sit in front of sheet music they’ve never seen before and whiz right through the song, seamlessly sight-reading every note. You guys suck are impressive. Sure, you might slow down during a few tricky measures or hit a clunker every now and then, but at least you play a recognizable tune. When I’m learning a new song, the music sounds about as enjoyable as the soundtrack from Eraserhead.

I hate learning a new song. Truth be told, my husband and dog aren’t wild about it either. What I do love is the part when I can finally play it without people and pets fleeing the room. Thankfully, there is a way to get from the craptastic part to the kick-ass great part–it’s called practice. It ain’t fun, but it works. In fact, it works really really really well. Almost like magic. Well, if magic were boring and tedious and repetitious and painful to your brain and required endless quantities of chocolate.

Recently, I learned to play that beautiful old Neopolitan song, “Santa Lucia.” Let’s just say I wasn’t exactly a quick study. My fingers felt flabby and awkward. For a very long time the sounds I was making didn’t sound even remotely like a song. Fortunately, on the night I was about to chuck the music (and the accordion) across the room, I was chatting with some accordion pals of mine who reminded me to take it slow. Really slow. As in one or two measures at a time.

That was really good advice. Rather than playing the song from the beginning (which I already sort of knew) to the end, and just replaying the bad parts over and over, they told me to skip the parts I already knew and jump right to the crappy spots. I did that. And sometimes that meant playing two measures for 20 minutes. Once I could play them flawlessly, I was able to add another measure and try playing all three of them together. Then when I could play those flawlessly, I could add another one. And so on, and so on, and so on. I thought it would never end but eventually it did. And eventually the song didn’t suck.

I decided to tape my suffering and humiliation for the blog, in hopes that it might inspire even one poor schmuck like me out there to keep on plugging. Practice really does work. Here’s proof. Warning: the early part of this video is slightly less painful than a root canal. By a dentist looking to determine whether it’s safe.

Keep the faith.

What is it about accordions and Massachusetts?


Performance by the accordion orchestra during Open Mic Night
Photo by Stewart Dean

Well, damned if I didn’t have another amazing time at another freaking accordion camp in the great state of Massachusetts. What are the odds? Apparently they are pretty effing good.

Just when I thought my musical week at the Cape last year couldn’t be topped, I experienced the Northeast Squeeze-in, a relatively undiscovered gem of accordion get-togethers known as NESI.

Picture a mid-September weekend in a rustic campground in Western Massachusetts. Add some great grub, a plentiful supply of BYOB, endless jamming, an open-mic night, a contra dance, a late-night pub sing, an accordion orchestra—the list is endless. Throw in 80 or so of some of the nicest, smartest, quirkiest, most talented, and humble humans I’ve ever met, and that should give you a slight idea of what made this far-too-short weekend so unforgettable. I was positively over the moon.

NESI scheduleThe workshop part of the weekend was spontaneous. There was something for everyone, regardless of their skill level. The attendees are also the instructors, so if you want to teach something, you simply write it on a Post-It note and add it to the board.

The hard part was deciding which workshops to attend. You had your pick of topics like French musette folk songs, accordion repair, jazz improvisation, Klezmer, even French folk dancing (that was a freaking blast; the folks who weren’t dancing were making the music for us to dance to).

I have to mention again how talented and kind these attendees were. It wasn’t enough for most of them to play just one instrument. They had to play two, three, or even four. Uhm…seriously? That’s just showing off. But here’s the rub. They made people like me, someone who is still struggling to play just one instrument, feel welcome.

I glommed on to some of those talented people during my performance at the open-mic night, which was a bit of a turning point for me. I never enjoy performing on stage with an accordion–it brings on Asian flu-like symptoms and unrelenting hot flashes. But this time I had a freaking blast. Here me and my wicked-cool pals Dave, James and Meredith perform Tico Tico. And, yes, James is playing four instruments—accordion, clarinet, a foot-pedal cabasa, and a samba whistle. If I didn’t dig him so much, I’d want to punch him.

Here’s a bit more of open-mic night.

Hours of Contra dancing followed the performances and after getting ridiculously sweaty I ventured into the main cabin for a cold beer (or two) and the late-night pub sing. Hot damn, this was fun.

I felt like I was reuniting with old friends instead of hanging out with a bunch of strangers. The entire experience also reminded me  of how lucky I am to be hopelessly devoted to the accordion. This beautiful but largely under-appreciated and misunderstood instrument has exposed me to so much delight in this world. I suppose there might be some accordion-playing dirtbags out there, but I haven’t met one.

Accordions rule.

P.S. Stewart Dean took some amazing photos of the event. You can find them on his Flickr page.