From the town festivals to the limelight of International music: the journey of an "uncool" instrument
In my town, up until thirty years ago, it was common to be initiated into music from an early age. Some learned from their parents or relatives; others took lessons from eccentric teachers who travelled throughout the province teaching for a few ‘lire’. In my family there were no musicians, and so, when I was 12 years old, I convinced my father to hire Mario, the teacher who would introduce me to the magical world of piano.
Mario, the Maestro, was a tall guy with thick and heavy eyeglasses. He drove a beige Fiat Panda and used to walk into my house always loaded with instruments. Apart from the piano Mario also taught guitar, mandolin, organ and accordion. The latter was perhaps the most popular among my friends. I didn’t know at that time that in the future this curious instrument would become one of my greatest passions.
When I was a child the accordion was certainly not a cool instrument.
The accordion was the protagonist of small town festivals, and evoked images of parents and even grandparents dancing in packed ballrooms every Sunday. The famous dance “Liscio” from the Romagna region had also conquered the South of Italy, and this style of playing was what was normally taught to young aspiring musicians.
Mario, who probably learned to play the accordion in similar circumstances, was a great lover of both classical and traditional music. Even though at the time I did not understand the difference, I knew that with that magic box he could play both, and with refined mastery.
Over the years I have known musicians from all over the world and found that in every country in which the accordion was introduced, the instrument has fit deeply and ‘harmoniously’ into their musical traditions. What would the Valse Musette in France, the Forrò in Brazil be without the accordion? What would the accordion be today without the great expertise of Italian artisans who, since the end of the nineteenth century, elevated the instrument to the technical perfection? Although it first appeared in Central Europe, it was precisely in Italy that the accordion began to spread widely, in particular by the laboratories of a small village in the Marche region, Castelfidardo. Perhaps some of you have an instument at home with“Soprani”, “Serenelli”, Piatanesi”, or “Borsini” written on it. These brands accordions were all manufactured by the artisans of Castelfidardo, that before becoming the home of the accordion and the diatonic accordion, was just a small agricultural village.
Aside from Italian instruments, Italian musicians also began to sail throughout the world exporting their music; they joined the local ensembles and played in the vaudeville and recorded jazz. As did the Derio brothers in the United States at the beginning of the Twentieth century. In 1928 Guido Derio, who was considered the world’s foremost Piano-Accordionist, arrived Australia and acquainted this country with the wonderful instrument.
This instrument that is played close to the heart, though now present throughout the music conservatories of Europe, is still today overlooked in the academic world of music. As Giorgio Albanese (a paesano and a talented interpreter of the instrument) comments, the accordion is still seeking emancipation from it’s humble folk origins.
Giorgio made his debut in Australia a few weeks ago. I attended his concert and witnessed the reaction of the dumbfounded audience. Many find it hard to believe that such delicately played jazz music could come from a humble “squeeze box”.
Artists like him are helping to redefine a more appropriate understanding of the accordion.
Giorgio also began to play at a very young age under the guidance of a local master, like Mario. Another Maestro, perhaps self-taught, but certainly enchanted by the soulful and versatile instrument that even featured in the dreams of none other than Leonardo da Vinci.
Now what’s uncool about that?
Some technical details: It may seem strange but the accordion is considered a wind instrument, just like the flute or trumpet. It is the air, in fact, that generates the sound. The air is produced by the opening and closing of the bellows. It is by vibrating the reeds inside the instrument, by means of a complex mechanical system, that these are opened and closed; depending on the keys you are playing.
The skill of the maker is then also in tuning the different registers of the instrument and being able to give the musician as much versatility of sound as possible.
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