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Ethnic/World

Squeezeboxin'

Due to a long history and love affair with the instrument, the Motor City might really be the eye of the accordion storm

MT Photo: Doug Coombe
John Castiglione holding hte tool of his trade in Warren.
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Published 3/17/2010

In a quiet office plaza off the I-696 corridor in Warren, John Castiglione sells accordions. The showroom's small and sort of corporate; there are no flashy displays, diamond-encrusted instruments or autographed posters for show, no polka music piped through the speakers. There aren't even that many accordions in plain view: a Roland electronic model, a few black-and-white Castiglione-brand piano accordions, some stands and stray amps, and a few racks of sheet music. 

It's not the rickety palace of wonder this writer was expecting — no rustic, wall-to-wall stronghold crammed with intricately decorated treasures. Castiglione is not a sorcerer. He's a businessman. And on first survey, his accordion store isn't much to look at. Unless you know what you're looking at: the largest accordion dealership in America, and probably one of the best. 

Castiglione just got back from lunch, and his phone won't stop ringing. 

"Where are you calling from? Las Vegas?" He interrupts a talkative customer. He's a one-man switchboard, picking up line after line to say I know you're waiting, be right with you. Three or four calls blink on hold at a time. An elderly accordionist in Kansas City who needs a repair. A guy in Denver who bought a lemon. A woman who's buying a custom tricolor conjunto chromatic button accordion that looks like a spangled Mexican flag. She wants to haggle over the price again.

Since its invention in Germany in the early 19th century, the accordion has circumnavigated the musical, and physical, globe. It's a versatile instrument that turns anyone with two hands into a roving one-man band, and its portable size has encouraged nearly two centuries of migrants to pack it up and take it on their travels. As a consequence, you'll hear accordions in a swath of cultural musical traditions: Eastern European Romani folk music, zydeco, klezmer, Brazilian baiao, Tex-Mex border music, classical Italian balladry, sea shanties and tangos, and endless iterations of the polka.  

And one chapter of the world's great accordion tome was written in Detroit. It starts at the turn of the 20th century, when the last massive wave of immigration from Europe began.  

Castiglione's father Vincent came to Michigan from Italy sometime around 1918. He had no intentions of starting a music store — he came for manufacturing work — but at a gas station one day, he pulled an accordion out of his trunk, played it for a few onlookers, and sold it to a guy who offered him three times what he'd paid for it. 

"That was two and a half weeks' wages, working six days a week," Castiglione says. So Vincent bought more accordions. He sold those too. Castiglione Accordions was founded on the east side of Detroit in 1933 — just in time for the accordion's American "golden age."  

"In the 1950s, the accordion was the number one selling musical instrument in the country," Castiglione says. He estimates that for 10 to 15 years, more than 500,000 accordions were imported into the country annually. Bubbly bands fronted by handsome accordionists and bandleaders like Dick Contino, Lawrence Welk and Horace Heidt were on prime-time TV. Parents everywhere signed their kids up for lessons. 

Detroit's sizable population of Italian immigrants once supported several small but strong accordion factories and dealerships on the city's east side. The International Accordion Company, founded in Detroit in 1922 by Castelfidardo, Italy, native Nazzarreno Zoppi, made a few hundred accordions a year. Nazzarreno's son founded his own company, Gus Zoppi Accordion Manufacturing, in Hamtramck in 1934. The present-day Gus Zoppi Music Center, an all-purpose music store, is located in Sterling Heights and owned by Gus Zoppi's son-in-law, Tom Chuldzinski. 

What happened? Some have blamed the decline of the accordion in pop culture on the guitar, others on generational destiny. Jennie Knaggs, a multi-instrumentalist who plays the accordion (and three other instruments) in her band Lac La Belle, wonders if the accordion was rejected by people who grew up with immigrant parents.

"These people were polka kings and queens from Germany who came to the U.S. with these instruments, had kids that became teenagers, and those teenagers just didn't want to be a part of it," she says. Before long, "the accordion was for dorks. The only people who were able to embrace it were people who were dorks. I mean, Weird Al Yankovic? They Might Be Giants? They were dorks."  

But Castiglione says it's all about business: The accordion, which is usually imported and involves a huge amount of hand labor, just isn't a money-maker.

"Accordions are expensive to make. Margins are small. Guitars are cheap to make. When the Beatles showed up, guitars were sold by the millions. And some of those millions learned to play. Why work your buns off selling accordions?"

Lucky for Castiglione, the more music stores that switched to a guitar, bass and drum kit business model, the bigger the niche he could fill. 

"You have to have all sorts of experience. You have to know everything about everything," Castiglione says about his business. "Manufacturing. Importing. Distributing and selling. In places like Kansas City, or in the middle of Tennessee ... there's just nobody there" who can do it all.

Castiglione, who has shipped accordions to Japan, Australia, Norway and Korea, and who once sold an accordion to Bruce Springsteen, is one of the few in the country who can. 

When I ask him if he is an accordionist himself, he shoots me a little grin and says, "Let me show you something." 

We go to the warehouse, where row after row after row of accordions, concertinas, bandoneons, bayans and diatonic jewel boxes are stacked. At a workshop table, one of his repairers, Yakov, is tinkering with an accordion that belongs to the band Flogging Molly. 

Castiglione  digs through a filing cabinet and pulls out the Johnny Mazurka, written by Vincent Castiglione in 1941. On the cover is a grainy old photograph of Vincent with his son. They both hold accordions. The one in the young Castiglione's hand looks about as big as he is. 

"Yeah, I play the accordion."


This isn't really
a story about the accordion's "comeback." The accordion "came back" in American pop music at least 15 years ago, nudged back into the limelight with a little help from Tom Waits, Sheryl Crow, Los Lobos and Bob Dylan. Today it enjoys big-league indie respect — think Arcade Fire, the Decemberists, Beirut. 

This is about the enduring magic of a strange and marvelous musical beast. Accordions struck Jennie Knaggs' fancy after 10 months traveling through Europe and seeing gypsy bands in Poland, Ukraine, Romania and the Balkans. Jennie's grandfather was Macedonian — "He played the accordion," she says. "But we haven't found it yet."

In Lac La Belle — an acoustic trio that plays woodsy Americana and traditional folk music — she plays the accordion because it "draws from a different canon. It connects your music to another world." 

Accordions are common in bluegrass and Appalachian music, but Jennie finds that it just captures listeners' imaginations.   

"Whenever I bring out the accordion, people get excited. It doesn't matter where I am. And I'm not amazingly good. But people still think it's awesome. I mean, they are in awe of the accordion." 

She got her accordion from a friend, who'd bought it online. It was too small, so he gave it to Jennie. 

On the day we met for coffee, Knaggs couldn't remember the name brand on her accordion, but promised she'd go home and check. 

"I think it was made in Detroit, though," she told me. 

She e-mailed me a few days later. It's a Castiglione. 


Julien LaBro moved
to Detroit 10 years ago from Marseilles, where the accordion never suffered from a sudden and crippling hemorrhage of "cool."

"In France, the accordion has always been popular. Here, older people say — with a bitter taste — that before the guitar, the accordion was number one. The accordion has a baggage with it, or at least it did in the '80s or '90s. To me, though, it doesn't matter. People could care less what you play, as long as it sounds cool."

When he was 9 years old, he saw an accordion player on TV. He knew he wanted to try it. 

"I was fascinated with that guy, moving his fingers, moving the bellows," LaBro says. "I was intrigued by the whole thing. My parents were a little confused at first, but ... shortly after I started, I said, I want to make this my life."

His obliging parents rented an instrument and got him some lessons. Now the 29-year-old musician is an international star. He came to Detroit to study with accordion master Peter Soave at Wayne State. At the time, "only a few universities [in the United States] carried a program in which you could become an accordion player, I guess because of the unpopularity that happened in the '80s," he says. 

LaBro plays a chromatic button accordion, also called a bayan. (In France, he says, "Most people are taught on button accordion. Until several years into my career, I hadn't even seen a piano accordion.") LaBro, a jazz enthusiast, is a member of the Hot Club of Detroit, a band inspired by the music of the Gypsy guitarist and Paris habitué Django Reinhardt. It's a project LaBro never saw coming.

"I knew about the music of Django Reinhardt, obviously, being French," he says. "In Europe that music has never really died, and there are hot clubs everywhere. [But] I really wanted to play jazz on the accordion, and even though Django is obviously a jazz icon, I was listening to Chick Corea, Charlie Parker, Herbie Hancock." 

When guitarist Evan Perri, also a Wayne State student, asked LaBro to join the band, he was taken aback.  

"I'll never forget it," LaBro says. He heard the music and "flipped out. They were doing these early, French, accordion-based waltzes. In Europe I was checking out American artists and recordings. I come all the way to Detroit, and I hear an American guy playing Django Reinhardt.

LaBro embodies the versatility that the accordion allows. He plays chamber music, is featured in the Oblivion Project, which pays homage to Argentinean tango composer (and bandoneón wizard) Astor Piazzolla, collaborates with traditional jazz musicians in New York and Brazilian ensembles in Chicago. 

"Back in the day, you had to belong," he says. "You had to have a sticker above you that says this is what I do. It's better this way. 

"It's not going to be The Lawrence Welk Show, where the accordion's the front piece, but who needs that? It has its role, and if it's used correctly, what's the problem?" 


If you think
about it, Detroit could really be the eye of the accordion storm. Just as it did in the '20s and '30s, the city has the right cultural forces at work for the instrument: indie kids, Eastern European families in Hamtramck, the many accordionists reared in the Welk era who still perform all over the state, and the roaring Hispanic community on Detroit's southwest side. 

On a Friday night, the dance floor at the Blue Diamond is surrounded by dangling icicle lights. Things don't really heat up on the weekends until late, so we have a seat at a table dressed in a simple red cloth and order a round of Modelos. 

Lansing's La Corporación plays the Blue Diamond at least once a month. Their sound is a crowd-pleasing cut-time jukebox of ranchera, border-region Tejano, merengue, Afro-Cuban rhythms and the unmistakable accordion-driven conjunto, a peppy polka-like two-step. The Blue Diamond has the feel of an old-fashioned social hall. Older couples are dressed in suits and stately dresses with pump heels and perfect coifs. Younger kids come in Stetsons and short, flappy dresses.

The accordion — and the polka rhythm — came to Mexico with German and Italian immigrants in the late 19th century. Since then, it's mingled with American rock, swing and country, Mexican folk traditions and a few generations of music history to generate a whole family tree of new accordion-borne sounds. 

La Corporación's accordion player (he also plays keys and sings) is Pablo "Kookie" Hernandez. He learned the accordion from his father when he was 7 or 8. Now he owns six or seven accordions, all German and Italian-made. (Over the years, he's purchased at least a few of them from Castiglione.)

Hernandez tells me that in the Mexican music community, too, the accordion saw a brief loss of favor as effects-heavy keyboards took over from the big brass sections and multi-instrumentalists that had turned party bands into "small orchestras." But the adaptable, catchy accordion never lost its edge entirely. 

"The accordion has always been there," he says. "My dad used to say, 'I heard that sound 20 years ago, and we'll be hearing it for another 20 years.' And it will probably be popular until I die."

Detroit's the perfect place for the accordion, and it's perfectly clear on a night like this. Everyone's dancing. Tables are filling up. Hernandez has a full-time job; he plays in La Corporación because he loves it. He estimates there are at least a dozen other bands like his in Detroit — probably more.

"Detroit has that style," he says. "There are so many different cultures here — Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans." And all of them would miss the accordion, he says, if it were gone. 

"The world turns. Styles change. Technology changes," he says. "But the accordion is always there."

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