Accordionists in D.C.: They Aim To Squeeze
Saturday, August 18, 2007
Imagine a universe exactly like ours in every way but for a lone exception: There is only one type of music. Accordion music.
This week, such parallel universes have collided.
The rift in the cosmic fabric could be found at the Holiday Inn Commonwealth Ballroom in Old Town Alexandria, site of the 60th annual Coupe Mondiale, the World Cup of accordion competitions for younger players.
In Accordion Universe, all music is powered by the swaying bellows pulling air in, pushing it out. There's the familiar oompa-oompa-oompa of polka everywhere, yes, but the instruments also can play whimsical pop and mournful ballads. All types of music, in fact, with the soft drone of the keyboard being pushed to and fro.
The scene at the hotel on Tuesday night for the competition's opening performance is much like any international gathering. A melange of languages wafts through the lobby; bags droop below the eyes of jet-lagged travelers. But our universe ends and this universe begins as someone pushes a birdcage bellman's cart through the doors; it's laden not with suitcases but a pile of accordion cases. At the end of the hallway, accordionists are practicing a difficult riff. And in the rooms, strains of accordion jazz and accordion pop and accordion polka mix with spoken French and Chinese and Danish.
"The soundtrack of life is full of accordions," says Faithe Deffner, the U.S. delegate to, and vice president of, the Confederation of International Accordionists, which stages the Coupe Mondiale every year. "People don't see accordions very much, but they're always in commercials, television, movies."
More than 1,000 accordionists have descended upon Alexandria to join with their musical kin at the week-long festival. There's an international competition in which 70 musicians under age 32 compete in six categories (winners will perform at 6 tonight at the Kennedy Center) and a domestic competition of 300 players.
There were performances all day -- all day-- Wednesday, Thursday and yesterday at the Holiday Inn, and concerts each night at the Kennedy Center, and then even more afterward back at the hotel. Still need an accordion fix after 12 hours? Catch a group of players as they retire to the nearby Crowne Plaza Hotel bar and restaurant for an open-mike "accordion happy hour."
In popular culture, the accordion is often maligned. Frank Busso, 64, of New York, has played the instrument since age 7. He earned a master's degree in business but found playing and teaching the accordion lucrative enough that he never used the degree.
"The good appearances of the accordion are in the background," Busso laments. Nobody notices the accordion player in "Scent of a Woman" as Al Pacino, intoxicated by Gabrielle Anwar's perfume, sweeps her off her feet to tango. Nobody notices when the super-spies of "True Lies," Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis, are dancing to accordion music. They do remember Urkel.
"Steve Urkel," Busso says with a groan. "He didn't do much for the accordion." Busso's referring to the uber-nerd from the '90s TV show "Family Matters," with his oversize glasses, suspenders hiking his pants well over his bellybutton, and his incompetent accordion playing. Sadly, the accordion got lumped in with the rest of it.
Fourteen-year-old John Moceo is the antithesis of Steve Urkel. Sporting spiked black hair and a large gold crucifix necklace, he speaks in a brimming-with-confidence Staten Island accent: Moceo is one of the youngest virtuosos performing at the Coupe. There's no such thing as a lame hobby if you're among the best in the world. Even the guys who can solve a Rubik's Cube in under 15 seconds command a certain degree of respect.