November 27, 2003

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The Accordion and The Brain Drain
By Charles Crawford

I claim the accordion has faded in Vancouver and prospered in Seattle because, depsite our cultural diversity, our culture lacks depth.

I muse upon the accordion, the nature of sophistication, the brain drain, and multiculturalism.

Back on the Prairies, when I was presophisticated, I listened to Hank Williams, Frank Yankovick, Don Messer, wanted to learn the accordion, and drank Australian red wine from gallon jugs. Later, when I became sophisticated it was progressive jazz, the opera, and single malt scotch that satisfied my desires. If I had taken up a musical instrument during this phase of my life, it would have been the flute, the cello, or the classical guitar. But recently I have begun thinking of myself as post-sophisticated - like an old lady who wears purple - someone who can again enjoy Hank Williams, Frank Yankovick and their ilk. I can now learn the accordion as a retirement project.

Why, you ask, would anyone, even someone who is post-sophisticated, choose the accordion when there are so many other instruments? First, I like it. The accordion has a zest and energy few other musical instruments can match. Because it is strapped to your chest, its energy seems to permeate your whole being as you play. Second, I could already play it a bit. Back in 1974 I was on sabbatical leave in Boulder, Colorado. The fellow in the next office talked me into taking accordion lessons with him. We found a wonderful teacher who accompanied our efforts on a big string base. He could make almost anyone sound good. By the end of the year we both thought we were pretty decent accordionists. Finally, my great grandfather, my grandfather and my mother played the accordion.

But I needed a new accordion. I decided to indulge myself with the best - Excelsior, a Giulietti, or maybe even a Pegini - the Steinways of the accordion world. I knew Vancouver music stores would not carry such instruments. They must be specially ordered from Italy and take a year to build. I decided to order one from Vancouver's leading music store.

I navigated my way to the sales counter through a maze of guitars, synthesizers, drum machines, and other paraphernalia of rock music. The young man at the counter was reading a guitar book. He looked up. I asked to see their accordion catalogues. He said, “We don't carry accordions,” and went back to his guitar book.

I decided to try the internet. Within five minutes I had located Petosa Accordions in Seattle. Their website claimed they designed and manufactured fine accordions. It mentioned an accordion museum and advertised 400 pre-owned accordions. My son and daughter had been at the Bumbershoot Festival in Seattle a week earlier. They reported accordions in jazz and folk bands at the festival. I decided to take my business south.

But, I needed music lessons. I called the B.C. Music Teachers Association. They had only two names. One seemed promising. She said she taught the piano and, as well, both the traditional and modern free base accordion. I quizzed her about her accordion training. Piano and accordion technique are quite different. Since the piano is a percussion instrument, pianists strike the keys. If they transfer this technique to the accordion the quality of the tone is poor. Accordion keys must be pressed.

She was just what I needed for a long retirement project. But, she said she would be leaving for the United States when she completed her master's degree. When I asked the reason for this brain drain she explained that while there was considerable interest in accordions and accordion music in the U.S., there was none in Vancouver. If she settled here she would become an ordinary piano teacher.

Vancouver was once a vibrant centre of the accordion. We had outstanding accordion performers and teachers, such as Alf Carlson, Bob Dressler, Joe Morelli, and Ernie Rilling. The Bordignon family built accordions in Vancouver for 75 years. Their skill was such that they repaired accordions and other free reed instruments for the Smithsonian. Why had the Petosas prospered in Seattle while the Bordignons faded in Vancouver?

We had a rich repertoire of folk accordion music brought to Canada from all over Europe. What happened to it? We have modern composers, such as Barbara Pentland and Murray Schaffer, who write for the modern art accordion. Yet, our one remaining accordion teacher was planning to fly south.

I claim the accordion has faded in Vancouver, and prospered in Seattle, because despite our cultural diversity, our culture lacks depth. Although it has diversity, many of the groups that comprise it are small, culturally anemic, and lack coherence and vitality. Let me develop my argument using ethnic restaurants as an example.

Our multiculturalism has given Vancouver a wonderful variety of ethnic restaurants. There are two minimal requirements for the survival of a quality ethnic restaurant: chefs with expertise in the preparation and serving of its particular food and an appreciative clientele sufficiently large for its owners and employees to prosper. If either number drops below a critical value the restaurant may fail. If enough restaurants of a particular genre fail, the food genre vanishes. When the number of knowledgeable chefs and clientele is small the food culture is very vulnerable to invasion and cultural drift. For example, only a slight change in either the number of good Afghan chefs or aficionados of Afghan food could result in the disappearance of Afghan food from our city.

Moreover, when the restaurant culture caters to a large number of small groups it is vulnerable to cultural invasion. One wonders if our small ethnic coffee bars can survive the Starbucks invasion, if quality French restaurants can survive the onslaught of Italian food, and if jazz and ethnic music can survive the rock music roller coaster. We lost the accordion to the rock guitar, and almost lost the trumpet and saxophone as well.

But there is still another possibility, and it is the one I worry about the most. It is possible for the ethnic chefs to be mediocre and for their customers to lack sophistication in taste.

If this were the case restaurant diversity would remain, but most restaurants would be mediocre. However, we wouldn't know it. To return to the accordion, such a scenario would mean that we would have some accordion players and teachers. They would be poor accordion musicians, but we wouldn't know it.

I claim similar logic applies to cultural traditions, such as Scottish and Ukrainian dancing, bonsai and haiku, as well as playing the accordion. A high level of proficiency in arts such as these takes up to two decades to develop. The proportion of any group with the talent, energy, and determination required to achieve the level of performance required to maintain them at a high level of achievement is small.

Therefore, these arts are vulnerable to cultural drift and invasion. Our culture has variety. But the departure of the last accordion teacher makes me wonder if it is becoming a collage of mediocre and attenuated remnants of disparate cultures, and if it has the depth to resist McDonald's, Starbucks, and rock music. Finally, how much cultural diversity can a nation of 30 million people spread over the second largest country on the globe support?

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