Every time I put on accordion music with friends around, somebody asks that question. Indeed, for most of us the accordion conjures up only an image of a French cafe or perhaps a wild dance in some Italian country village. There is, however, a variant of the good old accordion in most countries in the world, and its roots go all the way back to an ancient Chinese bamboo instrument called the sheng. So basically, its everywhere but finding a good recording can be a challenge if you don’t know where to look. This week on the Listenover Three – it’s a trio of international squeezebox wizards with very different approaches to the instrument.

1.    “Swing Valse” – Gus Viseur – 1930s

It’s perhaps natural, given the Western perception of the accordion, that we go straight to Paris for our first recording. The French button accordion (yep, circular buttons on both sides) was developed as a louder replacement from the bagpipe-like musette that dominated dance music at the turn of the 20th century. Viseur was the hippest of the accordionists in the first half of the 1900s, because he managed to combine the more traditional musette dances with swing-era jazz. You can hear his skill in the bubbling phrases, dynamic surges that mimic the human voice, and his relaxed sense of swing. 

2.    “Red Square Dance” – Farmers Market (Stian Carstensen) - 2008

Never mind that Norwegian button accordionist Stian Carstensen was a child prodigy on his instrument at age 9 and is one of the most accomplished players in the world. He’s also a virtuoso guitarist, banjoist, and brilliant composer with a wicked sense of humor. He spent lots of time in Bulgaria collecting folk music from the country’s deep history and learned the specific accordion techniques of the culture. Instead of playing that material by the book, he blends it satirically with other styles country, funk and punk rock in the group “Farmers Market.”

3.    “Libertango” – Astor Piazzolla - 1974


The bandoneon is the long, fiendishly difficult to play, national instrument of Argentina. While technically closer to a concertina than an accordion, the music of one of its greatest practitioners, Astor Piazzolla, is too important to skip in this edition of the “Three.” When he transformed traditional tango music into nueva (new) tango, the cosmopolitan composer received death threats in Buenos Aires. The frantic, dark and strange music doesn’t sound much like the stereotypical tango music that you’d see sweeping the ladies swept off their feet in old black-and-white movies.


AuthorSteve Mossberg