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Beyond the Polka: Accordion aficionados keep squeezebox’s legacy alive

Frank Caravella, president of the Alabama Accordionists’ Association, played in Las Vegas clubs and ballrooms in the accordion’s heyday. Photo by Danny Weston

By Aaron Tanner

Once a popular and even glamorous instrument, the accordion fell out of favor over the years, as rock ’n’ roll came to dominate the musical landscape. But some Alabama musicians are working to promote the once noble squeezebox by introducing its versatile sounds to some who’ve never heard one performed live.

Members of the Alabama Accordionists’ Association gather not just to play, but to promote the “orchestra in a box,” so named because of its portability and ability to play a wide range of notes. Such versatility makes it useful as a solo instrument as well as part of an orchestra. “It is a perfect instrument,” says Craig Funderburg, who is in charge of organizing concerts sponsored by the organization.

Every genre of music features the accordion, from Latin and Big Band to Zydeco. The instrument is also prevalent in many countries other than the United States, such as China and Italy, where a majority of the world’s accordions are manufactured.

And the accordion has experienced a bit of a comeback in today’s popular music. Several current acts, such as Arcade Fire and The Lumineers, feature the accordion, perhaps because of its retro style and sound that makes it stand out from string-based instruments.

Alabama Accordion Club from AREA on Vimeo.

Association President Frank Caravella remembers the heyday of the accordion, when he played at some of the most popular parties at Las Vegas clubs and ballrooms. One of his favorites was the Polish-American Club, where the lively atmosphere allowed him to entertain the audience while they mingled throughout the evening. “Great fun and good money for the venue,” Caravella says.

The rise in the popularity of rock music, coupled with the relative affordability of guitars, took a toll on the beloved accordion – by the 1960s and ’70s, fewer students were interested in learning it.

“Some people have never heard an accordion,” Funderburg says. “Most people in the United States have never been educated about the accordion and what makes it the most perfectly designed musical instrument.”

But association members are working to educate young people by visiting schools across the state. Caravella gave concerts at a couple of elementary schools in Morgan County this past November, showing the youngsters how an accordion works. Both students and teachers enjoyed his performance.

“Most of the children and adults have never heard an accordion live – in concert,” Caravella says. “So when we show up for a performance or class, it is something new and different.”

The organization also hosts concerts for the general public. Last year’s concert featuring Canadian accordionist Michael Bridge was so popular with audiences who saw the first show that some stayed for his second performance that same evening. “You just don’t hear these types of concerts very often,” Caravella says.

A new generation

Though many association members are older, they are influencing some younger folks to play the instrument. Current UAB student Terence Penn was inspired by one of the organization’s concerts to learn the instrument as a way of getting back into music after taking a hiatus to focus on his studies.

“I thought it was a neat opportunity to learn a relatively uncommon instrument that utilizes my background in piano and music theory,” says Penn, who is currently taking lessons from one of the association’s members.

As a kid, Kyle Owen of Madison was encouraged by Funderburg, along with his own self-motivation, to pursue learning the accordion after deciding to move beyond the toy version his mom bought him. “I didn’t want to just make noise on the toy accordion, I wanted to make real music,” Owen says.

There are different reasons why people choose to play the accordion over a more familiar instrument, such as a piano or a saxophone. For Owen, he plays to stand apart as a musician. “Being unique is what defines me.”

Caravella continues performing for the joy it brings him. “Any musician worth his salt plays his instrument for the love of the music,” he says.

For Mike Hymes of Trussville, playing the accordion is a way of honoring the memory of his mother, who was part of a traveling band in the Caribbean with her cousin. “They were quite the entertainers back then,” says Hymes, who inherited his mom’s 1940s-era accordion.

As the accordion slowly regains popularity thanks to the newer digital models that can produce sounds electronically, Caravella is optimistic that future generations will decide to play the same instrument he started learning over half a century ago.

The Alabama Accordionists’ Association has members of all ages and skill levels. To learn more about the group and their yearly concert series, visit their website at bamaccordionists.com.