Photo: Globe staff photographer David L. Ryan
A QUIRKY INSTRUMENT IS THEIR MAIN SQUEEZE
By Lauren Smiley, Globe Correspondent
Jon Knoff figures he must have unknowingly checked a box in the registration materials that signed him up for this gig, but he's game.
Here the Norwegian stands, amid 30-some fellow enthusiasts straight off buses from the American Accordionists' Association Festival, milling in front of Quincy Market yesterday minutes before squeezing out the "Cheers" theme. Meanwhile 11-year-old John Moceo rattles off a tarantella from "The Godfather" with a toothpick between his teeth. "What's this all about?" asks a tourist, recording the scene with his JVC camera. "I'm kind of surprised Weird Al isn't here," says another. A City View Trolley Tours ticket seller observes from the kiosk: "This just makes the quality of my day go down about tenfold."
A reporter explains to Laura Krawczyk, on vacation from Maine, that it's Accordion Week in Boston, declared by Mayor Thomas Menino himself.
"Is he Polish?" she asks.
Accordionists, meet the public. This was not the haven they found at the Quincy Marriott, which since Sunday has claimed the temporary distinction of "accordion capital of the world." Case-wielding pilgrims have besieged the mecca, a place that's free of jokes about the Stomach Steinway, where a 10 a.m. seminar on "The Art of the Bellow Shake" doesn't draw snickers, and where "I've got a $7,000 Borsini in my trunk" sounds dangerously close to a come-on.
Mention the old joke about the accordionist who discovers his car has been broken into only to find that instead of seeing his instrument missing, there's another abandoned by its side, and Linda Reed will tell you someone stole her $6,000 accordion out of her Isuzu Trooper in SoHo. Ask about the Pepsi commercial, played during the Super Bowl, in which a young Jimi Hendrix nearly chooses the accordion over the guitar, and Steven Shuman, 35-year accordion veteran, speaks out: "We're here to stay, America."
Although a festival in Minneapolis two years ago attracted a whopping 1,000 players - due to the large Scandinavian and other accordion-steeped outposts in the Midwest - organizers say this year's gathering hosts about 400 players, who tend to hail from Italian, Polish, and Portuguese communities. It's still enough to lure a recruiter from the Air Force band. It's Sunday, and he has been combing the crowd at the Marriott looking to replace an accordionist who retired two years ago. The lone accordian player for the US Army, Manny Bobenrieth, is judging contests this week. He can also be seen on the front of his CD - debonair eyebrow arched, accordion in arms - beside the "Hug an accordion" bumper stickers in a makeshift gift shop at the hotel.
A rendition of "Skip to My Lou" grinds through the chandelier-lined corridor outside the President's Ballroom. Sonny Tirpak of Orlando - after three bourbons - squeezes out "New York, New York" to the families in Kilroy's Irish Pub before walking through the lobby and propositioning the front desk attendant. "Are you going to hire me yet?" he asks.
"Not yet," she replies dryly, hardly glancing up.
This week, the hotel is an accordion player's world, the hotel staff merely bemused spectators. Trina Guzman, working the gift shop register, said she resisted an elderly man's serenade - "That's not my style," she said. Rich O'Brien, part of the catering staff, stopped asking questions as soon as he stuck his head into the Abigail Adams room at 6:30 a.m. to find an accordionist already warming up.
Behind the bar, Tony Bianco stands unoccupied - it seems that not a lot of the graying folks who are watching a dozen child accordionists play "La Bamba" for the "Giant Squeeze Off" like to drink.
Across the hallway, the 23-year-old 2002 World Cup Accordion Champion, Russian Alexander Poeluev, jerks his head back and forth, violin-maestro style, as he finesses the last strains of "Bossanova" for a radio broadcaster's microphone. He's dressed, head to toe, in black.
"Vhen will I play?" he asks a convention coordinator afterward. Poeluev's got 10 minutes till stage time. Before he goes on, he explains that although many don't recognize him during his 10-city US tour, he's popular in music circles in Russia. Does the instrument attract the ladies?
"Yes. Yes. Yes." He pauses. "Yes."
"Sometimes I have a problem," he says. "So much girls."
Bianco comes over to ask Poeluev if he wants a drink. When he hears his accent, he asks where he's from. After Poeluev answers, Bianco barks, "RUSH-AHH," in his best Soviet impersonation, smacking him with a military-style straight arm on the back. Poeluev doesn't laugh.
Oh, the life of an accordion superstar. You get no respect. In this country, it may seem that outside of zydeco, accordions are doomed to be forever stigmatized as the source of bad jokes thanks to Steve Urkel and "The Lawrence Welk Show." But in other cultures, the squeezebox is considered downright sensual. Think of "Lady and the Tramp" slurping their spaghetti without an accordion serenade at Tony's Ristorante. Where would Mexican music be without the accordion? Where would the Argentine tango be without the instrument's first cousin, the bandoneon?
But frankly, one of the only employees at the Marriott who seemed to enjoy the company of the hundreds of accordionists was Ramon Cruz, the assistant maitre d', who's from the Dominican Republic. In a perico ripiao - or merengue band - in his native country, "The guy that's playing the accordion is the big guy," Cruz says.
In this country, the festival may be one of the few chances for an accordionist to bask in the limelight. While Brent Buswell, 23, pumps out "It's Only a Paper Moon" on his red rhinestone-encrusted Bugari Armando in the vestibule - an impromptu performance punctuated with a few well-timed knee bends and sweat dripping down his forehead - his mother, Sylvia, hands out business cards: "Brent Buswell, Accordion For All Occasions." It's not every day you see a blind accordionist, but neither do you hear repartee like this:
"He's got rubbah fingers." "It's just a disgusting shame what they've done with music in this country." "Play some Art Van Damme." "No, no, he's better than Lawrence Welk."
At least one plaid suit coat was spotted in the room, and the toupee count was two (with a suspicion of three), but a good chunk of the accordion aficionados had yet to sprout facial hair. Take Moceo, the 11-year-old from Staten Island, N.Y., who busts out the entire "Godfather" medley from memory. Moceo's not from a musical family, but as soon as he saw his kindergarten music teacher take out the accordion, he was hooked. He told his mother he wanted to play.
"I said how about piano? Or baseball?" Deanna Moceo recalls.
Nope. Six years later, he knows 245 songs by heart, their living room overflows with trophies, and his parents go to his gigs at New York restaurants.
Then there's 14-year-old Anthony Falco from Johnston, R.I., who, in his Billabong cap and knee-length skater shorts, is the accordion world's answer to the geek stereotype. Falco regularly jams to Ozzy Osbourne's "Crazy Train" and Black Sabbath's "Iron Man" with friends at his house, and he laments missing Monday's Ozzfest for the third year in a row because of the festival.
He got used to hearing "Come on Amadeus, catch that ball!" on the freshman football team. But for now, he says, he's retired from the sport. "I didn't want to break any fingers," he says.
Back at Quincy Market, the accordionists finish
their "Cheers" encore. One lady requests, " `Lady of
Spain'! `Lady of Spain'!" A tourist walks by and gapes. "All
those people have accordions." And they're proud of it.