The accordion is like a rare flower that only grows in a very specific climate. Wherever the accordion thrives, you find the same conditions: an unlikely mix of wildly disparate cultures that somehow landed in the same spot, and restless, innovative musicians.
You hear it when Argentinian accordion superstar Chango Spasiuk talks about Misiones, the rural province where he grew up. For one thing, Misiones rests on the border between Argentina and Brazil, and draws inspiration from both cultures. But the cultural collisions there go much deeper than its border location would indicate.
“Misiones is the province that received the biggest number of immigrants 100 years ago,” Spasiuk says during a phone interview from Princeton, New Jersey. “The Ukrainians, Germans, and Polish people came here. Because of that, the social fabric of Misiones is much more complex than other places in Argentina, so there is all this convergence of these cultural colors.”
Spasiuk is one of the can’t-miss performers at San Antonio’s 7th annual International Accordion Festival, held October 12-14 in La Villita. He’s an internationally admired virtuoso whose charisma enables him to connect with pop audiences that would otherwise show little interest in folk-based music, and he’s currently touring the United States for the first time. Accordion Festival director Pat Jasper, who describes Spasiuk as a “giant genius,” delights in the fact that his San Antonio appearance comes on the heels of highbrow concerts at Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center and New York’s Symphony Space.
For Spasiuk, the emigration of Eastern Europeans to his Argentinian province is not a mere history-book abstraction, but a major part of his personal ancestry. His grandparents were Ukrainian, and Spasiuk spent his adolescence playing polkas at weddings and parties.
“My grandparents had nothing to do with that, because they were real peasant people living in the countryside with no sensibility for anything musical, but the people with the musical sensibilities were my father and uncle,” he says.
The Eastern European, Spanish, and Native American elements that naturally meld in Argentina have resulted in a folk style known as chamamè. Spasiuk says chamamè was the only form of music he heard until he was 20, and credits a brief college stint studying anthropology for expanding his musical range, because “the friends I met there had huge record collections that I could listen to. Suddenly discovering that there’s so much more music in this world was an important impact.”
If there’s been a consistent agenda behind the International Accordion Festival, it has been to put accordion players from every corner of the globe on the same stage and celebrate the extreme differences and surprising similarities of their musical traditions. In the case of Spasiuk and his Quintet, uninitiated South Texas listeners will likely find them exotic yet strangely familiar, with accordion runs that vaguely recall regional conjunto masters. Since Spasiuk and Santiago
Jimenez Jr. (another featured festival artist) both absorbed polka rhythms at a young age, the spiritual kinship is perfectly logical.
The Canadian traditional form known as Quebecois is similar to chamamè only in the sense that it’s a meeting point for seemingly incongruous cultures. “The traditional stuff in Quebec is a blend of Irish tradition — after the great immigration of the Irish people in the middle of the 19th century — and French music,” says Quebecois king Yves Lambert, another standout performer at the festival.
Lambert spent 26 years as the frontman for the much-loved La Bottine Souriante, a collective that Jasper calls “the Grateful Dead of the Quebecois scene.” Burly, boisterous, and never onstage without his trademark Panama hat, Lambert left La Bottine Souriante in 2002 to form Le Bebert Orchestra, a group that trades his old dependence on piano for a two-violin combination that creates phrases that feel like Celtic reels with a French accent.
Lambert recalls that as a teenager he was drawn to Frank Zappa, free-jazz, Mississippi Delta Blues, and the post-modern folk of The Incredible String Band, and picked up the harmonica before attempting to learn accordion. “For me, the Quebecois music is like the blues,” he says.
If Spasiuk worked from a provincial folk base and gradually expanded his focus while Lambert did the opposite, the San Francisco group known as Those Darn Accordions has steadily adhered to its own oddball path.
Group leader Paul Rogers says TDA began in the early 1980s as a Bay Area guerrilla operation in which local musicians would meet on a street corner with accordions, run into a nearby restaurant, and serenade the dazed patrons with “Lady of Spain” or “Viva Las Vegas.” Around town, these became known as “accordion raids.”
When the band started attracting attention in the San Francisco press, serious gigs came along. Some members dropped out at that point, and Rogers took charge, whipping the novelty act into a tight band that showcased at SXSW and garnered a record deal with Flying Fish records. With four accordions and a rock rhythm section, they veer from tongue-in-cheek originals such as “Hippie With a Banjo” to profoundly weird covers of Elvis Costello’s “Pump It Up” and The Who’s “Baba O’Reilly.”
Rogers knows Costello through mutual friends, but he says that Costello balked at allowing TDA to change the lyrics of “Pump It Up” for a 1994 parody recording, so Rogers “had to sing it straight.” It’s worth noting, however, that in the late ’90s, Costello himself began performing “Pump It Up” with accordion as the lead instrument. Pure coincidence? Not too likely.
“It was about that time that we stopped doing parodies anyway,” Rogers says, “because we started doing shows with Weird Al `Yankovic`. You could see that people were thinking, ‘This is another Weird Al wanna-be band,’ and we didn’t want to be known for that. So our covers now are pretty faithful.” •
International Accordion Festival
Fri, Oct 12-Sun, Oct 14
Free Sat & Sun
La Villita (South Alamo Street at East Nueva