Kaylene Lehr sits on a swing with her piano accordion in the backyard of her parents’ house in Ventura, California.
It’s Thursday night at a packed Tam O’Shanter’s, and the Ploughboys, the kilt-wearing Celtic house band, is getting ready to play its weekly set. Among the steaks, the ale, and the tartan that lines the walls of Los Angeles’s oldest restaurant, however, the music is ending before it’s really begun.
The Ploughboys’ vocalist, Mark Romano, is onstage with an accordion strapped to his chest that will not play. Its bass keys have collapsed, rendering the instrument a cacophonous nightmare. “There’s a piper down!” Romano yells in a Scottish accent, bemoaning the demise of his instrument.
A bit later, Dave Caballero walks in. Romano recognizes him immediately. “So, you’re having a problem with your accordion?” Caballero says. He’s the “Accordion Doctor,” and fortunately for Romano, he makes occasional house calls.
For an accordion player, whose instrument is a constant companion, a breakdown is inevitable. With thousands of interconnected moving parts, accordions are temperamental creatures. Play it too hard, and reeds will break. Store it flat, and the leather valves will become permanently damaged. Leave it in your car on a hot day, and the wax holding the instrument together will melt, damaging it beyond repair. The precautions a musician must take to prepare an accordion for travel are too numerous and complex to list. And they literally don’t make them like they used to.
China was the birthplace of the accordion’s antecedent, the sheng, an ancient free reed instrument invented during the reign of the legendary “Yellow Emperor” of China, Huangdi. The accordion was thought up and patented in 1829 by Cyrill Demian. It was quickly perfected to its current, mostly unchanged form in Europe before the end of the century. From then until not very long ago, accordions were finely crafted instruments.
But China reclaimed a role in the accordion’s history by turning accordion-making into mass production, although plenty of handwork is still involved. This dropped the price of accordions, but it also decreased their quality and put artisans out of work just as demand lagged for the instrument. China is now the largest manufacturer of accordions in the world. An Italian village that was once the epicenter of accordion-making employed 10,000 people at the task in 1953, the peak of the industry; now, about 300 craft them.
The demand persisted for more well-crafted and vintage models, however, and new ones are understandably expensive. Which means that instruments that had spent years or decades in humid basements and musty garages were unearthed and sold, and needed overhauling. It remains hard to find high-quality replacement parts for new and old models alike.
And even when an accordion is in perfect condition, it needs tender, loving care from an expert to remain in fine fettle. There aren’t many experts around these days. Caballero is one of them.
Accordions to rent and purchase at Dave’s Accordion School
The show must go on
“If I had been in Nebraska, I would have been screwed,” Romano says. He knows there are only a handful of places he’d be lucky enough to find a skilled tech like Caballero during an accordion meltdown. Los Angeles, home to Dave’s Accordion School, is one of them.
It was a matter of arranged serendipity that Caballero, 68, just happened to waltz in. Caballero’s daughter had been in the audience celebrating her wedding anniversary, and she called her parents when she realized Romano’s accordion had malfunctioned.
Caballero pulled out a Swiss Army knife and a flashlight as he inspected the instrument. As the audience watched, he opened up Romano’s accordion and revived the bass keys. One by one he reassembled the instrument’s parts. It took less than 10 minutes.
Entering Caballero’s shop in Atwater Village, a trendy, bustling LA neighborhood that was once a hotbed of gang activity, is like stepping back in time. Accordions of all sizes, shapes, and makes are stacked everywhere, and a soldering iron, used to remelt the wax that keeps an accordion’s myriad parts working smoothly, smolders away.
Young assistants, who are on their way to becoming the next generation of accordion repairers, staff the workshop, and people come from all over the world to take lessons, have their accordions fixed, or simply jam with Caballero on a Saturday afternoon.
Over the years, he’s worked on the accordions of everyone from mariachi bands to immigrants from the former Soviet Union bearing East German–made vintage Weltmeister accordions. His clientele includes Weird Al Yankovic, the Pogues, Foo Fighters, and the Dixie Chicks. Celtic, Norteño, Italian, or Cajun, they all leave their CDs for him as souvenirs; he has boxes full. Even NYC-based Gypsy punk band Gogol Bordello has frequented the shop.
The onslaught isn’t stopping any time soon. Caballero’s shop is busier than ever, thanks to a major accordion revival brimming in the contemporary music scene. “I think it’s great,” he says, unsticking the keys of a 1940s Italian accordion that had come in from Montclair, some 40 miles away in San Bernardino County. “It’s my favorite instrument. I’ve only been playing it for 59 years.”
Dave Caballero in his accordion repair workshop
Caballero’s musical and repair careers came about as the result of an earlier wave of accordion popularity, which, when it crested, permeated mass entertainment. At the turn of the 20th century, famous vaudeville accordionists Guido Deiro (who was married at one time to Mae West) and his brother, Pietro, helped spread appreciation for the instrument. Pietro even called himself “the Daddy of the Accordion.”
But much of its public image was shaped by Lawrence Welk on his eponymous family television show, turning the accordion squarer than it already, literally, was. Welk coined the term “champagne music,” a nod to his light, airy, and repetitious sound — as well as to the large bubble machine he had onstage with him while he played accordion.
Immigration was a key to the accordion’s popular appeal. The Deiro brothers were from Sicily. Welk was born to German immigrants from present-day Ukraine and even spoke with a distinct accent, though its origins were difficult to guess.
German immigrants from Texas brought the button accordion with them as they moved south into Mexico, playing their waltzes and polkas when they weren’t working on the railroads. Soon, conjunto groups across Latin America were using button models too.
Working-class immigrants from Norway, Italy, Poland, and Russia settled around Lake Superior, further spreading the instrument. These days, the accordion’s use spans a multitude of genres, from zydeco, originating in 20th-century Louisiana, to klezmer, the musical tradition that Yiddish-speaking Eastern European Jews carried to America. In its modern reincarnation, the accordion is even being used in rock ’n’ roll. It helps that those discovering it today are more or less oblivious to the accordion’s stuffy, somewhat tainted past.
When the Beatles invaded America, George Harrison’s guitar riffs eclipsed Welk’s relentless polka playing, and the accordion began falling by the wayside. Classically trained accordionists hoped it was a temporary music trend. But by the late 1960s, rock ’n’ roll had put the accordion into the closet, and young musicians were more likely to pick up the less fussy guitar, which only requires learning a few chords to get started.
Marion Jacobson, author of Squeeze This: A Cultural History of the Accordion in America, says the time is ripe for a re-emergence. “It helps the accordion’s cause quite a bit that it’s been hiding under the radar for three decades,” she says. “After being saturated with synthesizer sound, many of us children of the 1970s and ’80s are immediately drawn to the squeezebox. It sounds so fresh, authentic — simply lovely.”
Gigi Rabe plays her accordion at a Mardi Gras event in Downtown Disney, Anaheim, California.
Stretching to a new audience
The expansion of indie folk music into the mainstream has proven to a new generation of listeners that the accordion is more than just a polka-playing machine. Bands like Beirut, the Decemberists, Flogging Molly, and Mumford & Sons have instilled popular culture with a new consciousness of the accordion. The instrument has made appearances on Mad Men, and according to Caballero’s wife, Veronika, who teaches beginner accordion, even sheet-music publishers have begun printing more copies of books for accordion players.
The public has taken notice. In Orange County, the Big Squeeze, an annual accordion festival, attracts diverse crowds who come to hear award-winning bands and accordionists playing jazz, funk, Cajun, and tango. Up north in Sonoma County, the Cotati Accordion Festival (about to celebrate its 24th year) welcomes thousands of visitors each year. (There are so many festivals, the names even overlap. There’s a Big Squeeze down in Texas, too.)
In North Dakota last year, the Norsk Høstfest, North America’s largest Scandinavian festival, attracted more than 200 accordionists representing 20 states. In a more obscure but visually delicious display, Finnish accordionist Kimmo Pohjonen toured America with his performance art group in 2012, reviving the art of accompanying wrestling matches, which was popular in Finland in the ’40s and ’50s.
Helena Simonett, author of The Accordion in the Americas, says the revival has spread not only in the United States but also in Europe, thanks to a new generation looking to get back to more musically organic roots. “Although it’s one of the most popular instruments in the world, it’s still an outsider, and I think many people turn away from commercial or pop music because it’s sleek — they feel the sound of the accordion has soul,” she says. “Young people today, they go to a folk festival and hear some zydeco or tejano music [because] it’s their way to find or discover the accordion. It doesn’t come with that cultural baggage from the ’50s.”
Musician Ben Karmelich has been playing guitar in bands for most of his life, but he switched to accordion three years ago after buying one at a garage sale. In addition to playing the accordion in his band the Virtual Campfire, he’s been hired by six other bands hoping to add the same kind of sound.
“I love the accordion, and that instrument has taken me more places than any other instrument,” he says. “The stage presence of an accordion in a rock band is unique and has put me in demand.” He’s even had Caballero install a pickup so that he can amplify his accordion. While Karmelich’s introduction to the accordion is relatively recent, lifelong accordionists — those who never left the instrument during its dip and subsequent rise in popularity — are benefiting too.
Gigi Rabe is one of them. Known as the “Accordion Diva of LA,” Rabe was a young girl in the ’70s when an accordion salesman knocked on her parents’ door, offering lessons at his studio. She was instantly hooked. Winning the Accordion Federation of North America’s Virtuoso of the Year twice, she was soon on her way to squeezebox stardom. During college at California State University, Long Beach, however, things went awry.
After her teacher passed away, she was told she should consider changing her major. “I thought, oh no, I can’t do this. I can’t change now. I can’t switch to piano; I’m not a piano person,” she says. She was the last accordion major the school accepted, but the classically trained Rabe didn’t give up.
Thanks to the revival, she’s constantly booked for gigs and has performed across the world with Grammy-nominated bands in a slew of different genres. She’s also appeared on the soundtrack for the animated films Puss in Boots and Ice Age: Continental Drift. Throughout her partnership with the instrument, she’s helped tear down even more of its squareness, changing perceptions that it’s exclusively a man’s instrument.
There are women who play, Rabe says, and they’re very serious about it. That includes young women too, like Kaylene Lehr, a 15-year-old with a contagious laugh and an almost obsessive love for the accordion.
“My mom says I have the accordion gene,” she says, and that’s a fact: her uncle, a traveling polka musician, once played on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show. When her grandfather showed up to drop off an old accordion one day, Lehr picked it up and began playing immediately. That was about six years ago. She’s now taught herself how to play everything from classic Irish medleys to Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball.”
One balmy Wednesday afternoon Lehr spends hours testing out accordions in a back room at Dave’s. Her birthday is coming up and she’s in need of a gift. An accordion is strapped to the body for long periods of time, and players describe it as an extension of themselves. The instrument must not only fit right but feel right.
After numerous attempts, she chooses a ruby red Italian Soprani that has a beautifully detailed outer shell that is a testament to its handiwork — and she can’t seem to put it down. It’s a more than fine replacement for her old Hohner, which was bought off eBay and had a missing key.
Rabe, who has a handful of accordions waiting for repairs at Dave’s, owns over 25, including a bright pink one she bought on the spot when she came in to see Caballero one day. She likens choosing an accordion to dating. “It’s kind of like you meet ‘the one,’” she says. And when you meet the right accordion, you tend to fall hard.
Caballero’s guess as to why the accordion was so loved and also so loved once again is as poetic as his personal story of true love. When Veronika wandered into his shop 43 years ago looking for lessons, the attraction was magnetic. He was the only teacher in town willing to give instruction to adults. After her first afternoon lesson, they switched to an evening time slot, practicing their favorite instrument together ever after.
It’s the greatest acoustic instrument in the world. It’s one of the few instruments you can caress,” Caballero says with a mischievous smile, disappearing back into his workshop. “You hold it,” Veronika says, with her arms against her chest. “You hold it close to yourself.”
Photos by Keegam Shamlian.1
Liana Aghajanian is a freelance journalist who frequently writes about immigration, subcultures, and international issues from Los Angeles to London. Her work has appeared in the International New York Times, Mental Floss, Foreign Policy, and LA Weekly.