In praise of the accordion

1500px-Accordion_button_mechanism.svgWatching the Donegal band Altan last night I got interested in watching the accordion player Martin Tourish, who’s recently joined the group. The accordion is a complex instrument; the player has to finger the melody, create the rhythm on the chromatic keys, and also not to forget to keep pumping to push the air through the instrument.

What’s odd about the accordion, and other forms such as the concertina, is that it’s a relatively recent instrument—it was invented in Germany in the 1820s—and that makes sense, since it is sufficiently complex that it’s evidently a product of the industrial age. But it spread rapidly, and forms of it are found throughout Europe’s folk music cultures, and beyond to Brazil and North America as well. It’s impossible to imagine Cajun music without the accordion, for example.

My guess is that the reason for its instant success was that in the days before amplification (or electricity, come to that), its sound could fill a room pretty much on its own, at the cafe, bar, or dancehall. And maybe that’s still the case: a New York Times article on the instrument a few years ago quoted a younger player who’d swapped piano for accordion because ‘“it’s pretty hard to carry a piano and travel,” adding that pianos are often out of tune at bars and clubs.’

Perhaps because of its role as a pre-electric instrucment, it’s still strongly associated with folk and ‘world musics’. There are a few exceptions, but it’s never really crossed into the pop and rock mainstream. The New York Times quotes some bands that have used the sound, and it pretty much proves the point. It is a quirkly list: They Might Be Giants, Arcade Fire, the Decemberists, Beirut, Calexico, Green Day, Gogol Bordello, Flogging Molly, the Pogues. Springsteen uses it in his lineup when he’s showing off his roots, mostly, as far as I can tell, on songs made famous by Pete Seeger, but also on the much earlier love song to Sandy.

Anyway, Martin Tourish can be seen playing on youtube at a session in Donegal with the guitar player Antoin Bracken. I like this because the first of the two tracks here is slower, and reflects the range in tone you can get from the instrument.

And this calls to mind some of my other accordion favourites.

The first is the English folk classic Morris On, in which a star-studded band plays versions of English folk songs as they might have been heard before Victorian collectors cleaned them up (“Cuckoo’s Nest” has nothing to do with bird-watching.) John Kirkpatrick is the accordion player here, driving along the electric band. Richard Thompson, Ashley Hutchings, Barry Dransfield and Dave Mattacks are also in the line-up, and Shirley Collins makes a guest appearance.

And it’s impossible to write about accordion players without mentioning Kepa Junkera, one of the towering figures of modern Basque music, who pays a trikitixa, or Basque diatonic accordion, displayed to great effect on records such as Bilbao 00:00h and Herria.

It happens that it was Kepa Junkera’s birthday at the weeken, and so here are a couple of tracks of his from youtube.

And the second is from his recent record, Trikitixaren historia txiki bat, which translates as “a little history of trikitixa”. This a fine video: as well as having some excellent accordion playing on it, it also reflects the way in which the Basque music culture is a living part of the region’s identity, certainly in the provinces located in Spain. 



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