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Accordions Squeeze Out a Comeback

Times Staff Writer

When the curtain parted, 32 youthful musicians appeared on the crowded stage, each clutching a small accordion to his or her chest.

Never mind that when the band of fourth-graders began playing, some had forgotten to unclip the leather strap that releases the instrument’s bellows. The simple tunes, learned during a 10-week program at four Los Angeles public schools, were music to their parents’ ears.

Warm applause accompanied doting laughter from the mostly Asian, Latino and black recital audience, largely unfamiliar with the traditionally European instrument. Nearly 300 parents and supporters attended, surpassing anyone’s expectations.

To the Italian government officials who organized the “Accordion Extravaganza” held earlier this week at Barnsdall Park, it all represented a welcome sign that the long-forgotten accordion may be making a comeback.

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The event culminated a pilot project by the Italian Consulate’s Trade Commission, which provided accordions, teachers and weekly lessons.

It also represented a victory in the newly launched effort by the Italians to recapture some of the popularity of the instrument’s American heyday during the 1950s, when accordion studios offered lessons in every neighborhood and Lawrence Welk was the polka king.

The recital’s success will also be good news to the townspeople of Castelfidardo, Italy. According to the trade officials, Italy is the “homeland of the accordion” and Castelfidardo is its accordion-making center.

A delegation from the town visited Los Angeles recently to meet with Italian Trade Commissioner Francesco Paterno.

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“They came to my office and told me, ‘Listen, you have to do something to help revive the use of the accordion in the United States,’ ” Paterno said.

Completely Dependent

He explained that the town is completely dependent on accordions.

“If they don’t sell accordions, the whole town is out of work,” he said.

Donald Dustin, performing arts director for the Los Angeles Unified School District, observed that the advent of electronic instruments spelled the accordion’s “virtual death” in the United States. Although the district was “delighted” to participate in the project, he said he could not remember the accordion ever being a part of the district’s music program. “Serious musicians have traditionally looked upon the accordion as not quite legitimate,” he said, because it lacks the classical musical tradition of the violin or piano.

Some accordion enthusiasts, however, see signs of a revival.

At the recital, Randy Martin, president of the Accordion Federation of North America, lauded the instrument’s versatility, portability and natural attraction for youngsters. His own jazz combo, which includes seven accordions and a drum, performed a raucous trilogy of such rock ‘n’ roll standards as “Twist and Shout.”

Varied Combos

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Other accordion performers at the recital included a chamber ensemble and a jazz trio.

“A lot of performers are rediscovering the accordion,” Martin said, pointing out that such stars as Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon and Los Lobos, have included the accordion in recent recordings. “It’s like a mini-renaissance.”

Paterno said Los Angeles was picked for the pilot project because it is a “trend-setter . . . and because people are easier to convince here; they are more willing to experiment.”

When the trade commissioner approached the district with his proposal, he intentionally chose elementary schools from ethnically diverse neighborhoods--including Castelar near Chinatown, Loreto in heavily Latino Cypress Park, Marvin Avenue on the Westside and 32nd Street south of downtown.

“The whole point is that we don’t want to identify the accordion as an Italian ethnic instrument, rather as a universal instrument,” he said.

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Paterno added that the success of the pilot project will probably lead to programs in other Los Angeles schools. Much will depend on finding sponsors to pay the $25,000 bill for each program.

Eight youngsters from each school who showed interest and exhibited the most promise were picked by teachers and administrators. Oblivious to the history of the accordion’s popularity, or to issues of international trade, most of the young musicians said they thought the accordion was “fun,” although it took some a while to warm up to.

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Some had never seen or heard an accordion before.

“I thought it was weird,” said Sabrina Yaras, 9, recalling her first impression. “But when I heard it, I liked the sound.”

The consensus was that the accordion was easy to play. Other advantages are that “you can walk with it,” and “it makes a lot of noise.”

A few, however, remained unconvinced. Kim Lim, 9, of Castelar School, explained why she plans to stick with the violin: “The accordion is too heavy to carry and my parents think it’s too loud.”


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