The accordion, affectionately known as a "squeezebox" due to the method of playing it, has become a worldwide cultural icon. An extremely eclectic and diverse instrument, the accordion is associated with everything from Parisian cafés to mariachi bands and Polish polkas. And, of course, we have a very strong accordion presence here in Louisiana, due to the prevalence of Cajun and zydeco music in Acadiana.
Formerly relegated to the outer edges of the musical mainstream, the accordion is currently enjoying a major surge in popularity and coolness. It's making its way onstage with your favorite bands and reaching a broader range of ears, and accordion sales are now at an all-time high—although, in some cultures such as Cajun and Creole, it's always been at the top of the musical food chain. But where did this iconic instrument come from? What makes it sing, and what is it about accordion music that makes us want to two-step or tango every time we hear its characteristic wail?
David C. Symons—accordion player, expert, technician/repairman/owner of Big Squeezy Accordion Repair, as well as co-founder of the New Orleans Accordion Festival—squeezed in some time to talk accordion to us.
"Accordions are not a single instrument, but a vast and varied sub-category of bellows-driven free-reed aerophones," Symons explained. If that sounds too technical for the average non-musical Joe, it means that accordions are in the same family as harmonicas, melodicas (that mouth-blown, piano-looking thing that Jon Batiste plays), and "those old organs that you pump with your feet."
Accordions come in a wide variety of flavors and personalities. They play a myriad of music from Cajun and klezmer to classical and cancan. They can be large and cumbersome or small and boxy. Accordions are played with either keys or with buttons—and within this last category, there are diatonic button accordions (each having two different notes per button) and chromatic button accordions (which come in two different varieties). According to Symons, the piano accordion, which is so-named because its keyboard looks just like that of a piano, is the sort of accordion that you see most frequently in the U.S. and in Western Europe.
In its early days, the accordion demanded to be noticed. It was like your drunk uncle at the family reunion, a neon tie-dyed sweater in church, a belligerent football fan after a bad call—it was the loudest, the most attention-grabbing, the most "look at me" instrument in any band. This helped to bring it into the spotlight, where, in the case of Cajun music, it somewhat eclipsed the fiddle. "The accordion blasted the fiddle out of its starring role," Symons said. "It was louder and could be heard at the back of a room with 100 dancers."
And yet, the accordion is far more variable than that, able to blend in with everything from a rock band to a symphony. It has an extensive range, a far-reaching repertoire. It's sometimes loud and boisterous, with "brute force triumphing over musical subtlety," and other times melodic and delicate—"as gentle and innocuous as a bicycle," Symons said.
Origins of Accordions
The accordion dates back almost 200 years. "The origins of the instrument are complicated and controversial, but suffice it to say that the first thing called an accordion was patented in 1829 in Vienna by a Transylvanian of Armenian descent," Symons said. "The first accordions to crawl from that primordial ooze were simple creatures, able to play only a few chords to accompany a singer."
Since then, the accordion has become increasingly fancy, intricate, and expensive (according to Symons, a brand-new, well-crafted accordion can set you back as much as $8,000 to $15,000). "Accordions grew gradually more mechanically complex and versatile over the 19th century, branching off into innumerable species," he explained. "A modern, professional accordion has over 4,000 parts—more than a piano, more than perhaps any acoustic instrument, except maybe a large church organ."
Symons explains that the accordion made its way to Louisiana via German Jewish merchants in the late 1800s. They were later adapted into Cajun and zydeco music, alongside the fiddle, and are now very much integrated into Louisiana culture as a whole—and far beyond.
These days, accordions are enjoying a heyday. It's a regular accordion renaissance—they are downright trendy.
"The accordion is the most popular it's been in probably 60 years and not even in an ironic way anymore," Symons said. "When I started playing in the 90s, it was hipster and contrarian to play accordion, like writing on an antique typewriter (which I also did) or refusing to have email. It had become this comic cliché of everything uncool, which has come full circle back to being cool, but in a slightly snotty hipster way, like wearing a Christmas sweater from the thrift store."
A Not-So-Quick Fix
Symons has been playing accordion for 22 years and repairing them—an extremely lengthy and painstaking process—for the past nine. And later, he took up accordion repair when he moved to the New Orleans area from the Northeast, since there was a void in that industry that someone needed to fill.
"I became an accordion technician out of necessity when I moved to New Orleans and there was no one doing it here," he said. "I've since learned from others as well, spent time working for a master accordion technician in Cologne, Germany, and developed my own techniques."
Nowadays, Symons might spend as much as 40 to 80 hours working on the accordions that he restores. He explains that with up to 448 reeds per instrument, it can sometimes take him over 10 hours just to get one properly tuned—an absolute necessity, since out-of-tune accordions tend to sound like the whales in Finding Nemo. But despite the time-intensive effort involved, he loves the artistry of fostering and fixing up an ailing accordion. "It's crazy from a business perspective to do this work," he admitted. "But it gives me some satisfaction to rehabilitate an instrument that would otherwise never be played again, like raising an orphaned baby rhinoceros and releasing it back into the wild."
Besides his love of both mending and playing accordions, the high note of Symons's career is the people he meets.
"Accordions are odd instruments often played by odd people," he said. "One thing I love about being an accordion technician is the vast range of humans who play this instrument. One day, I'll have an elderly nun in a habit in my workshop (back when people were allowed to come inside); the next day, a Brazilian kid who works on an oil rig, then a virtuoso who plays with some of the world's most elite classical musicians, then someone who plays eight hours a day on Bourbon Street whose bellows have dissolved from the gallons of sweat they have absorbed, or a shaggy busker with an accordion held together with duct tape and straps made from a clothesline. The old instruments have stories to tell of the people who played them and the music they played."
A Festival of Accordions
Symons, along with three other local accordionists, initiated the New Orleans Accordion Festival in 2018. It was a three-day festival with 16 musical acts playing a wide variety of accordion music. "We [also] had a lecture on the history of free reed instruments, an accordion repair demonstration, a documentary film screening, a late-night cabaret, a jam session, and an accordion petting zoo," Symons added. The every-other-year festival would have been held in November 2020, but COVID had other plans. Now, Symons hopes to bring it back again in 2021, if current COVID restrictions allow for it. "Actually, this should have been a great year for the accordion, since it's just about the only wind instrument you can play while wearing a mask," he says.
A Side Note…
If you have always wanted to learn to play, you too can jump on the accordion band wagon. Mastering such a complicated instrument might seem like a daunting task, and Symons agreed that getting really good at it could indeed take years. But he also assured us that learning to play the accordion—at least at a passable level that won't have listeners plugging their ears from acoustic turmoil—is actually easier than many other instruments. He recommended a good teacher or even a simple YouTube video, but insisted that dedication and daily practice are also absolute musts.
"There's some commitment involved. The accordion is heavy, uncomfortable, asymmetrical, temperamental, does not like humidity or extremes of temperature, and is arduous and expensive to repair and tune," he said. "It has advantages over other instruments, however, which more than make up for all that. It's like a relationship with a complicated and difficult, but never boring, person."
Accordions are anything but boring. They're multifaceted, dynamic, and sometimes eccentric. They have style and character. They can be found in Cajun dancehalls, Mexican restaurants, and Irish pubs. The accordion is musical nostalgia and cultural identity. As Symons said of his beloved instrument, "It's a circus. It's a Fellini film. It's an old photograph of Red Army soldiers posed in front of a tank." The accordion is all that and so much more.