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Squeezing the Best From Summer 

The Cotati Accordion Festival isn't your grandmother's accordion festival. Well, yes it is. But it's more. Lots more.

Wednesday, Aug 27 2003
The blacktop is soaked in summer, unusually hot, even for August, but climate seems of little consequence to the girl. She is a portrait of abstraction. Isolated by a damp blur of tar-black hair clinging to her face, she sits with one stockinged leg sprawled in the gutter, the other leg tucked neatly beneath her tattered skirt, a pearly accordion resting upon one knee. As the bellows uncoil across her chest, a slow minor-key chord crawls through the heat, and an old-world melody, sad, rich, and impervious to the brightness of day, finds purchase. I wonder that the sight of such a girl, playing such a song, is not reason for pause in the harried progress of the workaday world, but no crowd gathers near. Alone, I lean against a tree and close my eyes for a century until the final note unfurls, weighed down by love, famine, desire, and dearth. Senseless to my presence, the girl rises and casts a final, lingering look at the blank window overhead. Adjusting her skirt and shouldering her awkward cargo, she brushes the hair from her face with the back of her hand and heads down the street. Only then do I catch sight of her worry-bitten lips and mascara-streaked cheeks, coming to glean what my neighbors seemed to have instinctively known: that this song, while performed in plain view, was a private affair, a last entreaty of musical notes carrying all those things that might have been, a piece written for a girl, an accordion, a vacant window, and no one more.

There was a time when such a thing might not have been notable, a time when love letters were often carried on the wind and reed of the accordion.

During the 1930s, San Francisco laid claim to no fewer than 12 successful accordion factories, most of them maintained by Italian families in North Beach, but the accordion had long pumped at the heart of immigrant communities throughout America. French, Arab, Russian, Italian, German, Balkan, South American, Irish, Jewish, Mexican, and Chinese, all found inspiration and solace in the "homegrown" sound of the squeezebox. Soldiers, sailors, mayors, and miners of every class and creed could agree on the laurels of the accordion, a level of unanimity that no doubt irritated Ambrose Bierce enough to prompt the entry in his Devil's Dictionary: "An instrument in harmony with the sentiments of an assassin."

Querulous detractors aside, by the 1950s, the accordion was the most popular musical instrument in America, if not the world. (China was quickly becoming home to the largest number of accordion players on the planet, and despite growing competition, manufacturers in Germany and Italy were recording unprecedented sales.) Right here, in the Bay Area, the streets were swarming with accordions. Door-to-door salesmen peddled button boxes and bandoneons, along with vacuum cleaners and encyclopedias. Children were given on-the-spot aptitude tests that they could not fail, garnering instant admittance to one of dozens of accordion schools in Northern California. Whether interested in the German diatonic button accordion, which had become synonymous with the Mexican norteña; the French chromatic accordion, known to Russians as a bayan; the piano accordion, doomed with its dry-tuning to be forevermore associated with Lawrence Welk and the polka; or the concertina, which was born in the churches of England but grew up in the whorehouses of Argentina, there seemed no limit to the fame and affection that could be amassed by a push-button master. Then someone showed up with an electric guitar, and the jig was, quite literally, up.

But there's a strange wind blowin'.

"These things move in cycles," says Jason Webley, peering out from under his fedora with cat-green eyes. "I can foresee a day when playing the electric guitar will be a laughable thing, and people will be embarrassed to admit they ever took guitar lessons as kids."

Webley, a lean, ramshackle performer with a background in punk and a penchant for medicine-show imagery and surrealist non sequiturs, is not the sort of act you might expect to find at the 13th annual Cotati Accordion Festival, but this isn't your grandmother's accordion festival. Or, rather, it is, but that's not all it is.

"We've been married for 40 years," says Addie Burlake, a Crescent City resident with a wild, easy cackle and an unquenchable passion for penny ante. "He's been playing for three. I tolerate it because it pleasures him. And I can't hear it on my side of the house. Of course, when the money runs out at 84, I can't promise anything ...."

"That's when I get a monkey and hit the road," says Jack Burlake with a wink. As Those Darn Accordions launch into a disturbing rendition of the Who's "Baba O'Riley," Burlake slips into a tent, where Kimric Smythe, owner of Smythe's Accordions, is holding court.

A pyrotechnician and sound tech with a history of building and destroying machines with Survival Research Laboratories, Smythe came to accordions by way of a $10 toy he bought in the Mission District. Now, after only a few short years, Smythe's Accordions is one of the leading refurbishers on the West Coast, and those entering Smythe's tent -- including Burlake -- act as if they've found the Great Oz.

"Everyone told me I had to find this guy in Oakland," says 25-year-old Gregor Perez, cradling an antique accordion his father discovered in the basement of their new house in L.A. Perez's accordion is of particular interest to Smythe.

"It's a German accordion, but the manufacturer's insignia has been torn off, and there's a sticker on it written in Hebrew," explains Smythe. "I'm guessing World War II." The word gets around, and soon Perez has a pretty young girl at his arm who offers to read the sticker.

"I'm so glad I came today," says Perez, reveling in his instant notoriety. "To think, I was going to go watch sports and drink beer with my friends. I can't wait until [Smythe] fixes this up, and I can start to play it."

Onstage, Those Darn Accordions launch into "We're an Accordion Band." There are groans, but they're good-natured. Schlock aside, the talent represented by this year's program is diverse and exceptional, from the avant-garde stylings of Guy Klucevsek, who has commissioned works by the likes of John Zorn and Fred Frith, to the child prodigy Alex Meixner, who has performed with everyone from the Brave Combo to the London Symphony Orchestra.

"Have you spoken to the Great Morgani?" asks filmmaker Steve Mobia. "You must."

The Great Morgani, aka Frank Lima, is a Santa Cruz street musician who owns more than 30 accordions and boasts a repertoire of more than 1,200 songs, including the collected works of Fellini's soundtrack composer, Nino Rota. And he dresses in celebration of the accordion, covered from head to toe in spandex, fish, spikes, or computer chips, given his mood, with an instrument to match. He is the festival's honorary director and a featured character in Mobia's upcoming documentary, which has the working title Behind the Bellows.

"I came to the accordion by way of Susan Sounds," says Mobia, evoking the name of the much-missed Space Lady who once plied her accordion trade on the streets of San Francisco wearing Viking horns. "I took her accordion to be repaired, and when I strapped it on my chest, it felt like a large diaphragm."

A chronic asthmatic who spent a good deal of his childhood in hospitals, Mobia has a particular interest in the process of breath. "It's like having very large lungs," says Mobia, conjuring the dreamlike quality of his other movies. "You know I'm doing a documentary, but it's not going to be entirely straight. I've written a segment for [San Francisco multi-instrumentalist/songwriter] Mark Growden."

As the sun dips behind the green canopy of Cotati's town square, Growden takes the stage, a great, black accordion strapped to his chest, the sweet breath of summer at his hind.

"Inside every bird, there's a smaller bird," he croons into the microphone, as two sparrows land on the stage pavilion, cocking their heads to the sound.

About The Author

Silke Tudor


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