(Gianod Scud'lein) Brugnoli's Val-Taro Musette Orchestra
By Dominic Karcic
[This article was translated and then published in the Gazzetta de Parma
on September 10, 2002.]
My infatuation with the accordion and the Val-Taro Musette style goes
back to my very early childhood in Astoria, New York. I vividly remember
my mother ironing and listening toTempo di Ballo, an evening radio program
that played Italian music and especially Val-Taro Musette music. While
a child I was so mesmerized by the lilting sounds and melodies of this
musical style that it inspired me to study the accordion -- which eventually
became my life-long passion. Little did I think that I would ever write
an article about Val-Taro music or even set foot in Borgo Val di Taro
(Parma, Italy), the home and birthplace of John Brugnoli, one of the architects
of this musical style.
John (Scud'lein) Brugnoli was born in Borgo Val di Taro November 29,
1898.The family nickname Scud'lein could be traced back to his grandfather
who loved his wine and loved to drink it from a bowl (soup plate) or "scodella,"
which in dialect was called "Scud'lein."
John was one of the four children of Giuseppe and Maria Brugnoli. He
had two older sisters, Maria and Maddalina, and a younger brother, Luigi.
Luigi became an outstanding accordionist, lived most of his life in Paris
and is said to have been one of the early pioneers of the piano accordion.
Luigi was John's first teacher; under his tutelage, John established himself
as a talented young musician and performed throughout the Borgo Val di
John married Josephine Ferrari (born Feb. 22, 1901- died May 24, 1998)
in February 1923 in Borgo Val di Taro. Two of their three children, Luigi
(Gino) and Tina, were born there. These years in Italy and Europe were
difficult times for all the populace. A better life in the United States
was something that millions of Europeans yearned for, and John was no
exception. He left his family in Italy, migrated to the United States
in 1928 and found work as a mushroom merchant. Because he was an illegal
alien he eventually had to exit the United States via Canada and reenter
the United States. This was the normal procedure in those years for people
who wanted to legalize their status. In due time he became a naturalized
John wasted no time in establishing himself in the New York area as a
noted accordionist and composer. His wife, son and daughter joined him
in 1935. John's third child, Albert (Albie), was born in New York City.
During this time John was playing at a cabaret called Francino. It was
his successful experience there that inspired him to consider opening
a place of his own.
Once the idea of owning his own cabaret was nascent, John realized that
he needed a partner because of his financial constraints and also because
a musician of equal status and ability would be an asset to the enterprise.
In Italy, he knew the accordionist and fellow Borgo Val di Taro resident
Pete Delgrosso. Pete had emigrated to the USA before Scud'lein and was
well established as an accordionist in New York City. As the story goes,
John was looking for Pete high and low. He finally found him playing in
a place on the West Side of New York City called Bel Tabarin. They agreed
to go into business together, and both John and Pete had to borrow money
from friends in order to see their dream become a reality. Once the monies
were obtained, the Val-Taro Restaurant and Val-Taro Musette Orchestra
were born. It was musical history in the making.
Val-Taro Restaurant and Bar, named by John's daughter Tina, opened for
business on December 24, 1936, at 869 Second Ave., between 46th and 47th
Streets. Tina relates that they were all set to open except for one detail
- the liquor license. They couldn't open without it! Patrons formed a
line outside the door patiently waiting in the cold for the paperwork
to arrive. Finally Val-Taro Restaurant opened its doors for the first
time. The new establishment was jammed on opening night and was an instant
Once opened, Val-Taro enabled John Brugnoli, Pete Delgrosso and their
guitarist Joe (Canon) Cerina to polish and implement their unique musical
skills, which would later come to be imitated by many. They experimented,
composed and created a dynamic musical style using new ideas and familiar
traditional Northern Italian folk melodies. Their arrangement of Tutti
Mi Chiamano Bionda (True Love Waltz) became their theme song. (It is believed
that this song was actually their arrangement of an old melody titled
La Mula De Parenzo. The melody was altered a little and the now-famous
lyrics were added.) To this day no Northern Italian social event can be
considered complete without Tutti Mi Chiamano Bionda being played.
They recorded for Italdisc, Nightingale, RCA Victor, Columbia and Colonial
records. Several song books (Let's Waltz and Polka with Val-Taro Musette
Orchestra) of their compositions and arrangements were published by Cerabino
Music Inc. (1953) and also by Colonial Publishing (1952).
Val-Taro became a mecca for people who loved good dance music, good times
and, above all, the accordion. Over time the name Val-Taro became synonymous
with the accordion. It was the place where many a great accordionist mastered
the Val-Taro Musette style. Notable accordionists like Mindie Cere, Addie
Cere, Pete Spagnoli, Emilio Chiesa, Hugo Nati, Gelso Pellegrini, Aldo
Bruschi and Frank Toscano all worked in Val-Taro over the years. Its music
attracted patrons from all parts of Italy but also people from the French,
German and Croatian communities in the New York metropolitan area.
The Val-Taro success also was an incentive for other entrepreneurs to
establish similar types of cabarets featuring Northern Italian accordion
music. Many eventually flourished in the New York midtown area but not
every one quite equaled the Val-Taro.
Selling his share of the business in 1939, John left Val-Taro and entered
into another partnership with his long-time friend Emilio Spagnoli. The
new cabaret was called the Terrace Cafe (Second Avenue and 59th Street).
John was there until 1946 when he returned to Val-Taro.
Val-Taro closed in 1961, but that did not stop John's creative juices
from flowing. In 1962 his Colonial recordings gave him the opportunity
to further popularize and expand the Val-Taro sound through a series of
tremendously popular and successful albums titled Sing Along in Italian.
The well-known accordionist Walter Ericksson can be heard with John on
Over the years, John wrote dozens of songs, many of which were never
published or recorded. I was recently given a box of his original manuscripts
and found fifty such songs. Among these are waltzes, polkas, tangos and
ballads. Many of the songs also contain Italian lyrics that John wrote.
Scud'lein's musical legacy has become internationally acclaimed and his
music and style have inspired many fine accordionists worldwide. On October
21, 1973, John Brugnoli and Pete Delgrosso were honored by the American
Accordionists' Association at Glen Island Casino (in New Rochelle, NY)
for their outstanding career achievements.
Throughout most of his career John is said to have used only one accordion,
which probably dated back to the early 1930s. It was an Excelsior Concert
Master with four and five sets of reeds. It had two palm switches, and
each switch produced two sounds. John rigged the accordion so that full
master switch was on at all times. This accordion was donated to Dr. Carl
Restivo Jr., an accordion collector, by John's daughter, Mrs. Tina Feci.
As an ardent fan of this music I'm constantly impressed by John's creativity,
musical taste and genius. To some extent he has become an icon for Italian
musette music. I sincerely hope that someone someday will have all the
Val-Taro recordings converted to the CD digital format so that all future
generations of listeners and musicians can enjoy this very joyous, lively
and creative musical style.
John (Scud'lein) Brugnoli died July 4, 1988.
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Peter Spagnoli was born November 1, 1921, in Borgo Val di Taro, a little
town nestled in a picturesque valley in the Apennine Mountains of northern
Italy. Peter was the second son born to Emilio and Ernesta (Dellapina)
Spagnoli. (The Dellapina family was better known by their nickname, il
Gein). Two years later, in 1923, Emilio, Ernesta and their two sons,
Aldo and Peter, crossed the Atlantic and landed in the promised
land, the USA. After passing through Ellis Island, the Spagnoli
family made their new home in New York City, a far cry from the quiet
countryside of the Borgo. They found an apartment on 60th Street, overlooking
the 59th Street Bridge on the east side of Manhattan. It was there that
Peter would later enter his destiny as a professional musician and devotee
of Valtaro music.
When Peter was 10 years old, a friend of the family came to live with
them. His name was John Brugnoli, affectionately known as Scudlein.
Scudlein, an accordionist and composer from Borgo Val di Taro, offered
to teach Peter the accordion in exchange for room and board. Peter took
to it like a duck takes to water, so his parents bought him his first
accordion -- a secondhand one that cost about $25. Scudlein taught
him to read music and to play by ear. Most of the music Peter learned
was folk songs from the Valtaro region, but many of these tunes were not
written down. He learned by hearing them sung, listening with a keen ear,
and then by playing them with his teacher.
Peter played his first gig at the age of 11 having all of
three songs in his repertoire. This was arranged by a family friend, Johnny
Valentini, who took Peter to play the accordion for the military at Governors
Island. What remains indelible in Peters memory about this night
is that for some unknown reason, Johnny bought him a Spanish costume and
had him wear it to play the gig.
It wasnt long before Peter had a bigger repertoire and was using
his musical skills to earn a little spending money. For $3 Pete would
play all night at a local bar, the Emiliana, and also at some
little holes in the wall, as he puts it. Peter continued his
music lessons for four years in the accordion studios of Pietro Diero.
There he honed his musical skills, as he received instruction in accordion
technique and classical training.
In 1936, Scudlein and Pete DelGrosso, also known as Filumena,
opened up The Valtaro, a cabaret on Second Avenue and 46th
Street. It soon became popular for the dance music of their home town.
Scudlein and Filumena were the standard duo, but Peter and other
accordionists, like Emilio Chiesa, played there as well. The unique sound
of the Valtaro music was created by having two accordions playing a duet
one the melody, the other the harmony. The waltzes, mazurkas, and
two steps from the Valtaro region were the mainstay of their repertoire.
Eventually, Peter would play at The Terrace, a cabaret that
his father, Emilio, and Scudlein bought in 1939. It was located
uptown on Second Avenue and 59th Street. The Terrace came with two in-house
and excellent musicians, a pianist, Norma McFeeters, a black woman from
the West Indies, and a drummer, Willy Wohlman, who was Jewish. Before
long, the two of them were playing Valtaro as if it were part of their
own DNA. Together with accordionists Mindie Cere, Scudlein and Peter,
on occasion, they became a tight-knit band, and The Terrace became a stomping
ground for Valtaro aficionados. The place also became a local employment
center and marriage bureau. Many paesans came together to
enjoy the music and dancing and some had the extra bonus of meeting their
In 1943, during World War II, Peter joined the Air Force. For the next
three years he put away his accordion and became a navigator for the B24
bomber and later the B29. He returned to civilian life in 1946 and went
right back to playing at The Terrace on a steady basis. It was during
this time that he, in fact, met his own girl of his dreams, Dilma Viotti.
They tied the knot on Easter Sunday, 1947.
The accordion has the distinct reputation of being the instrument that
characterizes the folk and romantic sound of the music of Europe. Peter
so desired to impart his knowledge of the instrument of his homeland that
he became a teacher at the Elsie Bennett Accordion Studio in Brooklyn.
He taught there for several years until he opened up a studio of his own.
Through word of mouth and because of his good reputation, Peter amassed
quite a number of accordion students.
Peter continued playing at The Terrace, with Norma at the piano, until
the 1960s. During this time he expanded his repertoire to a more diverse
and international flavor. Other bandleaders would ask him to play gigs
like weddings. At these affairs he was able to meet and share the bandstand
with other excellent musicians. Peters reputation preceded him and
was well-deserved. His musicianship and flare for knowing how to stir
a crowd resulted in his becoming a well-known and popular bandleader,
providing music for weddings, formal affairs, political dinners, charity
fundraisers, communions, and even Bar Mitzvahs. Some of his clientele
included Metropolitan Opera singers, political figures, actors, and clergy.
His talent indisputable, whether performing solo or with a ten-piece band,
Peter played music of all kinds -- from big band, Latin, pop, to rock
n roll, but his signature style was the beloved Valtaro. Valtaro is what
he was best known for. Valtaro is where he came from. Many of Peters
accordion students caught his love for this music, thus passing it on
to the next generation. One such student, Dominic Karcic, a gifted accordionist
and bandleader, is dedicated to keeping the music of Valtaro alive and
During his career, Peter recorded two long-playing records with his respected
teacher, Scudlein, featuring folk songs of Valtaro.
Balliamo e Cantiamo Con Valtaro: Cantano I Due Menestrelli
(Fiesta Records FLPS 1542) and an instrumental, Valtaro Musette:
Popular Italian Favorites (Fiesta Records FLPS 1515).
Peter has been recognized for his excellence and years of service in
the field of music. In 1996 he was named Man of the Year by
the Valtarese Foundation. Peter was also honored by the Committee of Berceto
Foundation & Xaverian Missionary Fathers (1994 and 2003), Il Comune
di Borgo Val di Taro (2003), and The American Accordionists Association
(1996), to mention a few.
After an illustrious career of over 50 years, Peter officially retired
in 1995 but did not put away his accordion for good. He currently makes
guest appearances at places like Magnanini Winery and other
venues where the Valtaro music is featured. His latest guest appearance
was at his granddaughters wedding in June 2005. He opened the Valtaro
set with what has come to be his grandchildrens favorite, Tutti
Mi Chiamano Bionda.
Today, Peter lives in Whitestone, Queens, with his wife of 57 years,
Dilma. They have two married daughters, four grandchildren and a grandson-in-law.
His musical legacy did not stop with him, but was passed on to one of
his daughters and two grandchildren who have followed in his talented
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As you step on to the grounds of Magnanini Winery in Walden, New York
and take in the breathtaking view of the vineyards, you think for a brief
moment that you have stepped into Italy's Chianti country. And this is
what makes Magnanini Winery the perfect setting and gathering place for
the Valtaro Accordionists Reunion.
The reunion featured three generations of accordionists noted for the
music of a small town in northern Italy, Borgo Val di Taro. Owners Ricky
and Rachel Magnanini hosted the annual event, founded by late accordionist
Gelso Pellegrini. This year's dinner and dance marked the 17th such reunion.
On Aug. 20th, more than 250 accordion aficionados packed the hall to enjoy
a feast of fine northern Italian fare. However, the real draw was to hear
eight accordionists play the familiar strains of music called Valtaro,
the music that sets your feet a'dancing.
The talented and seasoned accordionists that made the day were Frank
Carozza, Manny Corallo, Dominic Karcic, Ray Oreggia, Ralph Romano, Pete
Spagnoli, Mario Tacca, and Frank Toscano. Our Master of Ceremonies this
year was Dominic Karcic. Taking the helm, Dominic gathered a band of accordionists
of all ages, drummers, and several illustrious singers to put together
an unforgettable program of classical accordion music, operatic arias,
Italian classic melodies and most certainly, traditional renditions of
Valtaro sets for dancing and singing.
Valtaro gets its name from the town, Borgo Val di Taro, where the folk
music of the region was born. Nestled in the valley of the Appenine Mountains,
this tiny burg's claim to fame rests on its original music only in part.
It is a widely known fact that the "Borgo," as we affectionately
refer to it, has produced some of the finest, most gifted accordionists.
It was in the "Borgo" that both homegrown and accomplished accordionists
composed songs and dances expressly for the accordion. The music has a
unique style and is an art form in itself. The distinct sound and festive
character possess an energy that has become its hallmark. The Valtaro
repertoire consists of waltzes, mazurkas, polkas and some paso doubles
- all very singable and exceptionally "catchy" tunes. Listeners
find themselves tapping their feet, swaying to the music. It makes you
want to dance (even if you have two left feet!).
One of our favorite waltzes from the region caught the ear of Peter Ilyich
Tchaikovsky while on a vacation in Italy, and made its way into his orchestral
composition, Capriccio Italian. Tchaikovsky ingeniously incorporated the
song, "Trecce Bionde", which gave his Capriccio it's distinct,
unmistakably Italian flavor. It is very possible that you might have even
swayed to or hummed the lilting melody of this lighthearted waltz.
So what makes this music unique and contagious? It's the "lilt,"
my father, Pete Spagnoli, says and he learned his craft well. His teacher
was the great John Brugnoli, the "Father" of Valtaro. Pete,
one of the oldest living Valtaro accordionists with 75 years of this genre
in his fingers, always points to the importance of the lilt in the music,
the proper phrasing, correct speed and a steady beat that gives the music
that cheerful, light, danceable sway. I've heard my father often say that
the accordionist cannot be heavy handed and that he must "feel"
the music. He lamented that not even the most technically proficient accordionist
could rightfully play Valtaro.
All of the accordionists I spoke to at Magnanini agree. The music and
style produced by the gifted Valtaro player is innate.
"You have to grow up in it, with it," accordionist Manny Corallo
said. Manny started to learn Valtaro at the age of six.
Veteran Valtaro players, Frank Toscano (Manny's teacher) and Dominic
Karcic (a student of Pete's) concur: anyone with great talent and excellent
technique can perform Valtaro, but the spirit of the music would be conspicuously
absent. Accordionist, Ray Oreggia said that even before he was born he
was listening to Valtaro. Ray's mom, a devoted fan, would travel far and
wide to hear the music. At home, she listened to Valtaro recordings which
helped her get through the day (and her pregnancy, too!). At the age of
four, Ray would listen to those same recordings. By the time he was eight,
he began accordion lessons but learned to play Valtaro on his own, by
ear. Ray attributes the music of Valtaro as his inspiration to learn the
accordion. As one of the younger players, he is dedicated to taking this
music style to the next generation.
Marion Jacobson Ph.D, Assistant Professor of Musicology at the Albany
College of Pharmacy, attended the annual Valtaro reunion to record and
document this ethnic phenomenon. She describes Valtaro as dynamic and
celebratory of everyday life.
"The music pulls you out of your chair," she said.
Dr. Jacobson commented that the music speaks of the individual soul and
draws you in with sounds unique to the folk style of the land and its
people. From a classical accordion perspective, the music is "embellished,
ornamental and fancy." Her observation of the Valtaro musicians was
complimentary: "they represent the best of the classical accordionist."
Having studied and researched music of diverse cultures and traditions,
Dr. Jacobson found that the only form of music close or similar to Valtaro
is Klezmer music, the technically difficult, celebratory folk music of
eastern European Jews. She asserted that like Klezmer, Valtaro has become
a subculture to those of us brought up in this local, ethnic tradition.
From my own personal experience, I can testify to that.
The Sunday afternoon reunion was well represented by associations committed
to seeing that the accordion and this musical art form have a future.
Some of the notables in attendance were Linda Soley Reed, President of
the American Accordionists' Association (AAA), Dr. Carmelo Pino, former
president and current First Vice President of the AAA, Marilyn O'Neil,
President of Connecticut Accordion Association (CAA), Franco Capitelli,
President of the Valtarese Foundation and Aldo Mencaccini, founder of
Bell Duo Vox Accordion. Also present was Disc Jockey Joe Farda of Italian
radio fame. Joe was honored with an award from the AAA for his dedication
to preserve and maintain the ethnic and traditional music of Italian heritage.
Knowing the culture and people up close and personal, I can say with
certainty that most of the Valtaro aficionados already have their calendars
marked for 2007. Personally, I look forward to the Reunion with the hope
that the baton of Valtaro will have been passed to the next generation
and generations to come.
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