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Accordion Retains its Popularity in American Heartland - 2003-06-22


It's June. The time when Americans, at least a few of us, are again celebrating National Accordion Awareness Month! The accordion is a boxlike instrument, a squeezable bellows with a keyboard. It was first popularized in America by European immigrants in the early 1900s. Rock-'n'-roll killed much of the interest in accordion music, which was viewed as "too ethnic" and out of synch with modern taste. But that hasn't stopped Tom Torriglia, the moving force behind National Accordion Awareness Month, from trying to spark a revival.

Tom Torriglia wasn't always in love with the accordion. Like many people from musical families, he started off studying the piano, which he practiced constantly, if half-heartedly, until he was seven.

"And one day an accordionist came over to jam with my dad," he recalled. "And I was sitting there and I was watching this guy play this thing, and it was like the hand are going and I am like seven years old and I am going Wow!"

The accordion never lost its appeal in parts of the American heartland where European immigrant groups settled and retained cohesive communities. The accordion is an important part of Louisiana Cajun music, for example, which is French-based. And one can still hear distinctive accordion music along the Texas border, which has historic ties with Mexican and Spanish culture.

"Then in the Midwest, the accordion is extremely popular with polka, if you go to Cleveland, Detroit, places like that," he explained. "And that is because those are states that are heavily populated with German people and Italians, It is a prominent part of the people's culture."

In mainstream urban American culture however, the accordion is often viewed as out of date and un-hip in a way that's summed up by the slang word "dorky."

"Sometimes I play into the dorkiness of it and just have fun with it. It doesn't bother me," said Mr. Torriglia. "I don't care if people come up and say that was kind of dorky. I'd say you are kind of dorky for thinking that this is kind of dorky. Because it's kind of not!"

Adam Phillips: "What is beautiful about the accordion?"
Tom Torriglia: "The sound, of course. It's so unique. And there is no other instrument like it. It's own rhythm section. It is its own instrument. You've got bass. It's like an orchestra strapped onto your shoulders. One of the greatest things about the accordion is the versatility in the genre of the music in which it can be played all the way up. Or you can play polkas, lovely French song[s], and Italian."

The first accordion with piano-style keys was invented in 1907 by the Grini Company for a musician who played both piano and harmonica and wanted to combine them. Grini had its factory in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco, where thousands of southern Italian immigrants had recently settled.

"Actually around 1907, when the accordion was invented, there were actually eight accordion manufacturers in North Beach," said Mr. Torriglia. "So it was like the business in the community. People were making accordions. People were playing accordions. It had to have been an incredible time for the instrument. As a result, San Francisco decided to honor this fact and name the piano accordion as the city's official musical instrument."

Mr. Torriglia was the driving force behind that proclamation. He is also the founder and guiding light behind National Accordion Awareness Month. The highlight of this year's festivities was an all-day bash in which seven accordion-centered bands played in seven different musical genres.

"It has provided me with a soapbox in which I could promote the accordion in a positive way and raise it out of dorkiness," said Mr. Torriglia.

Accordion culture is energetic, if nothing else. And Tom Torriglia is proud to have made his own contribution to the ongoing accordion repertoire.

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