Category Archives: accordions

Los Espacios–What Rises From the Music of the Heart

Me he creado un espacio para mí misma, y es mi propio espacio.  Vea – no tengo ni origenes ni raíces.  Me siento como si fuera perdida en la marea.  Mi mente es mi espacio. Es mi único lugar.

Accordion music is the grandest of inspirations for me, and I wish others could understand why.  It’s a versatile instrument that can simultaneously breathe happiness and sadness.  How can it evoke both emotions at once?  I believe it’s in the depth of sound that a wind instrument produces, a wind instrument that’s capable of depth because of its size, and the manner in which it’s played.  The Columbia encyclopedia gives this description of an accordion: “musical instrument consisting of a rectangular bellows expanded and contracted between the hands. Buttons or keys operated by the player open valves, allowing air to enter or to escape. The air sets in motion free reeds, frequently made of metal. The length, density, shape, and elasticity of the reeds determine the pitch. The first accordions were made in 1822 by Friedrich Buschmann in Berlin. Bouton added a keyboard 30 years later in Paris, thus producing a piano accordion. The accordion is frequently used in folk music.”

This begins to get at the heart – or the lungs to be more exact – of the accordion.  “The air sets in motion free reeds,” says Columbia, and this is mainly responsible for the unique sound that gives me insane rushes of joy, feelings of wistfulness, and nagging sorrow.  Also, as this encyclopedia points out, accordions are frequently used in folk music.  This is entirely because of its diversity in sound.  The accordion can take the place of an entire band – one musician is less costly than four or five.  And, after being established as a sound that encompasses the existence of regular people, it can never be removed from its place there.  It will always appeal to peculiar elements of North American society – in Louisiana, in Scottish Canada, in little pockets of Czech and German settlements, and in Spanish-German Texas and Mexico.  In the latter, the Norteño and Tejano, I discover my favorite use of the accordion.

My obsession for the accordion has led me to write insanely long research papers on Tejano music, to run away to Mexico for little trips, and to waste all my money in order to take my family to San Antonio for vacations.

And here is a lasting image of an accordion in my mind: The San Antonio river walk was strung with lights in November, lights that waved and rippled in the water.  The air was muggy, warm with little breezes that moved the palm leaves.  Along the walk, hundreds of people sat in the patios of restaurants, eating food and drinking beer and coffee.  Down the river, guides drove quiet tourist barges full of weekend people.  I had come to San Antonio to experience the culture of ‘Texas,’ which includes the Alamo and many types of people, but that also largely includes Texas and Spanish settlements.  For example, one night, we ate in a mom-and-pop German restaurant and listened to polka music, and the next, we ate in an over-priced Mexican restaurant along the river walk.  

But I’ll return to my image: We took a ride on a river boat, and the evening was just chilly enough to be pleasant, yet held warmth in its core.  We listened to the guide and learned that Jennifer Lopez stood on that bridge in the filming of the movie “Selena,” which is (as you know) about a Tejana superstar who popularized the Cumbia within the traditional Tejano conjunto.  

A fine white mist rose from the water and appeared as billows under the lamps.  After living in the harsh desert southwest for several years, the beauty and gentleness of San Antonio mesmerized me.  I looked out, and the people drifted as misty to my eyes as the fog did. I was overwrought from night after night without sleep.  My mind was numb.

And then I saw the true ghosts, a band of men who emerged from the fog as specters might have risen from a moor.  They were under a bridge – three men – one with a bajo sexto, another with a single drum, and a third that filled the air with the breath of the accordion.   It was one pure moment of magic – and gone, like that!  We drifted past, and I had fleeting thoughts of jumping from the boat and swimming to shore so I could listen for a few minutes more, and also to make sure they were real, but I didn’t, even though I knew the water was only a few feet deep.

That was that, a complex beginning and ending a la vez.  I can listen to accordion music anytime on my radio, play the CD’s of my favorite bands.  Still, though, there are things that are unattainable to me, so far out my reach.  I think of a song by one of my favorite accordion players, Ricardo Muñoz; I can hear his deep, melodious voice in my head singing, “Eres aire que da vida, y mi alma te respira; eres aire que me alienta, una brisa que alimenta.”  That’s what I have to sing to el acordeonísta: you are the air that gives me life, and my soul breathes you; you are the air that encourages me, a breeze that feeds me.    


¡Ay, acordeonista!

The big black case rests
in my room sometimes,
in a dream with butterflies
that sleep in chrysalides.
Loas develop there,
sonnets from the mist,
wet lilies from graves,
and songs that fountain the flow.

The waves, once open,
pour over docks,
the sound and breath spin me,
the powerful cup
of liquor fills my longing
through reeds that vibrate my air,
hands that open my voice,
and bellows that fill my lungs.

It’s a taste, sweet to my mouth;
it’s nothing except death
that slips in and covers my skin.
The clasps have closure
in shadows without sonnets.
My dreams don’t touch me.
They weep into ballads
before I suspend them.

I don’t want the flow to cease,
or the music to desert me,
or the accordionist to leave me
among broken words;
but the black case disappears
like a vapid friend
whose fingers are made of air,
spectral to my couplets.

I originally wrote this poem in Spanish in corresponding syllabic lines of seven and eleven, and with an assonant rhyme scheme–all even lines rhymed and all odd lines rhymed. I translated it into English because I’m a little too shy to post my Spanish stanzas online. Plus, you know, my English audience will be able to understand it this way.


Hold on to Nothing, Except Grasp the Accordion

Nunca te olvidaré; vives aquí en mi ser.

I frequently listen to David Gray’s album Sell, Sell, Sell when writing. I can’t tell you why–his mood is dark and fatalistic and, therefore, doesn’t lift me from my own chronic fatalism. Then I arrive at the song with the repeating line, “There’s no way to write it, there’s no way to write it, there’s no way to write it down.” Sing that line ad infinitum, and you will get the gist of the song. There’s no way to write it down, apparently, which means it (whatever “it” is) must be sung. 

I envy singer-songwriters because their pursuits are both literary and physical at the same time. As a musician, I’m a colossal failure. Still, as you see from the photo at right, I’m trying to be exactly that. I’m waiting for the elevator that will take me from my head down to my soul, or my soles, whichever you prefer. I’m still attempting to write it down AND play it on my diatonic accordion. Between my head and that place where poetry and artistry reside, lies a dark and drafty shaft. The elevator stopped running years ago, and here I am–waiting, waiting.

But do you see that Spanish line at top–the one I typed in bold so you wouldn’t miss it? Literally, it means, “I won’t forget you. You live here in my being.” That must be true of music and poetry. I believe it’s true because I knew it was true a long time ago.

This post is to give an update on my learning to play my Hohner accordion. As with anything else, there’s this enormous gap between what I want to play and what I can play. I hear it–I feel it, but my fingers haven’t learned to finesse the buttons yet. On the other hand–well that’s the same, if you want to be literal. I’ve learned the bass buttons no better than the diatonic scales. But in a figurative sense, and, on the other hand, I have to admit I’ve improved greatly since the accordion first shipped.

Sometimes, I’m overwhelmed by the idea that “there’s no way to write it down”. And “it” is so ambiguous as to create this illusive image of a light flickering in the distance–of a ghost gliding away, a lantern bobbing in her hand. I can’t quite see her, or the light. She’s too far away from me. 


Accordion Adventures—> Yo con mi acordeón

When my husband randomly purchased me an accordion the other week, he made certain it was of the same style that Flaco Jiménez plays (same style, but beginner price). This is because my love for the accordion began with Tejano and Norteño music. The Tejanos generally either play Hohner or Gabbanelli instruments–the Mexicans seem to prefer Gabbanellis. Flaco happens to prefer a Hohner Corona; in fact, he has a signature model created for him by the Hohner company.

What this means is that I’m learning to play a three-row diatonic. If you look closely at images of Flaco, you’ll see three rows of buttons to his right hand. These are diatonic scales G-C-F. On the left hand are twelve bass note buttons. If that isn’t confusing enough for you, the accordion plays different notes depending on whether you pull out or push in on the bellows.

In the random picture my husband took of me with my Hohner (he’s a random kind of guy–buying me accordions, taking my picture–you know the type), I’m attempting to read the tablature and translate it to the three rows under my fingers. I’ve never been instinctive with music. I’ve never been instinctive, period. Notice how set my jaw is. I have to come at everything with study. For example, in order to write poetry, I have to understand metrical and syllabic conventions. By extension, in order to create music, I must study the instrument and its form. I’m forced to conclude that I’m not much of an artist and never will be (not that I care).

However, I do have a talent for recognizing physical and sonic beauty. Diatonic accordions blend those two qualities together in stunning, yet small boxes. My new accordion makes lovely music. It isn’t the most gorgeous accordion out there–those are out of my price range–but if the bellows weren’t closed in the photograph, you would see they’re red. So it’s still snazzy and sleek, black and red and chrome.

Here’s a list of my favorite accordionistas (or the bands that have them): Ramon Ayala, Flaco Jiménez, Intocable, Los Palominos, and Los Tigres del Norte. And, of course, there are many other historically great accordion players from Texas, aside from Flaco: Valerio Longoria, Juan Lopez, Narciso Martínez, and Tony de la Rosa. I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing both Ramon and Flaco live in concert.

Ramon Ayala is, hands down, my favorite accordion player to date. His is the music de mi alma. My head is spinning, as well. What a tradition to follow. I think I’d better log out now. See you al otro lado del porton.


Nighty Supper Special: Nightgown of the Sullen Moon

Yesterday was one of those days. Maybe you don’t know about those. It wasn’t the type where everything goes wrong–it was the type that doesn’t seem to exist, at least not for me. I’m not connected to it–I might, due to a glitch in my atomic make-up, not exist. My spin might be wrong, my magnetic moment lacking. On days like these, I accomplish little and, if I try, my attempts are worthless. TMBG captured this feeling in their song Piece of Dirt, and because of that, I know I’m not the only person who feels this way: I find myself haunted by a spooky man named me. I wish that I could jump out of my skin.

Despite my disconnect, I took my first afternoon as an independent scholar at the local college library. My research, however, didn’t go very well. First of all, it was limited to a two-hour slot because I’m not officially a student or teacher. So, not only was I an independent scholar, but a temporary one, as well. And I didn’t feel like a scholar of any kind due to my lack of search term results on JSTOR. But that’s the way research goes; I already know this. James Boswell, my research subject, eluded me. I have an important quantum physics question: If my mind is not dwelling in my physical body, why can’t it time travel to 18th C England where I might meet Boswell at a coffeehouse? Then I could be done with JSTOR.

Before my two hours passed, I remembered I had to meet my husband at—to sign a plethora of paperwork. If affirming one’s existence by signatures doesn’t work, I don’t know what will. But who is that person with the bad handwriting, I ask? Who is she? I have no idea. After we were done, we collapsed across the street at the coffee shop over doppios. I wanted to continue with my failed research project, but my husband wanted to discuss my animus. I don’t know what he looks like, I admitted to him–he tends to wear many faces. I only know that, albeit a figment of my subconscious, he’s connected to his (non)physical form in a way I’ll never be.

At that point, I dashed off a quick blog post, only to have it disappear into my nether world of nonexistence. Either that, or the internet sucks at the coffee shop. Frustrated, I stared at my empty espresso cup before glancing at the wall-mounted menu for help. I needed something to tether me to earth. That’s when I noticed the coffeehouse was advertising a Nighty Supper Special. For some reason, imagining the young male baristas in Rainbow Brite nightgowns further distanced me from the day and the moment. And please don’t ask me what kind of nightgown my animus wears; he doesn’t wear one. Trust me.

I’m sure you can guess the rest: my husband and I split from that establishment. Boswell may have loved such a coffeehouse, but we weren’t so sure. Something about it being our eighteenth wedding anniversary cropped up in the conversation, and we ran home to care for our children before going out once again for a dinner date. It turned out to be open mic night at the plaza restaurant and, while listening to musicians sing and play instruments, I bemoaned my lack of an accordion.

“Someday,” I wistfully breathed, “you’ll have to buy me an accordion, Darling.”

He touched his magic phone. Yes, he has one of those. I think it might be called a smart phone, but let’s not wrangle over details. “Done,” he said. He held up his phone and showed me a picture of a Hohner diatonic.

I might have banged my head against the wall a few times to convince myself I was actually in that restaurant, actually drinking a glass of real wine, actually looking at an accordion on my husband’s phone face that would arrive via mail at my doorstep in a few weeks.

Although I firmly believe love tethers me back to earth, I didn’t feel back in my body again until later that night. This morning, I checked to make certain the previous night wasn’t an illusion propagated by a cracked mental state. My husband’s Facebook comment cemented its reality: “Well, I did promise to love and Hohner you till death do us part and I take my vows very seriously.” Yes, he’s that kind of husband. That kind.