Breathing New Life Into OC’s Accordion Culture Is No Easy Task

The Sqeezinator. Photo courtesy Jim Gilman

Jim Gilman is ready to rage.

Playing to a crowd chomping on schnitzel and gulping down lagers in the dining room of Old World during the weekend of Karneval (the German equivalent of Mardi Gras) on a recent weekend, Gilman, a.k.a. “The Squeezinator,” is sporting lederhosen, long green socks and a traditional German hat. A gold-plated accordion strapped to his chest, the tall, grayhaired Yorba Linda resident conducts a two-hour set of German waltzes, polkas, pop covers, and a slightly boozy rendition of “Do-Re-Mi” from The Sound of Music.

“To be a real Oktoberfest song, I had to change the lyrics just a little bit,” Gilman explains. “When I point to you, you’re gonna say the magic word. You know what that is?”

The crowd responds in unison: “BEER!”

“Dough, the stuff that buys me . . .”

“BEER!”

“Ray, the guy who sells me . . .”

“BEER!”

“Me, the guy who drinks the . . .”

“BEER!”

“So, I think I’ll have a . . .”

“BEER!”

You get the picture.

One family of German guests who drove from Carlsbad to hear the Squeezinator is singing along at the top of their lungs. Kids dragged into the restaurant with their parents suddenly stop to stare at Gilman when they hear the sound of the accordion; they look gobsmacked, probably hearing it for the first time.

Despite the stereotypes, there’s a reason why Gilman calls the accordion his main squeeze. “People laugh, but I almost consider the accordion the perfect instrument: bass, chords, rhythm, melody, non-electric and portable,” he says a few minutes before his regular weekend set. “The guitar comes close but not quite because you can’t do bass, rhythm and melody all at the same time. Nowadays, if you want a guitar player or a drummer, you can find ’em any place, but if you want an accordion player, you gotta look pretty hard.”

Gilman has made a career of being ready with his accordion whenever called upon—from his days at Knott’s Berry Farm in the ’70s, performing for $1.85 per hour, to playing at an odd wedding on a plane flying over LA, aboard cruise ships to Puerto Rico, a cameo on an Oktoberfest episode of Jimmy Kimmel Live! and everything in between. Several years ago, he even hosted an accordion festival at the Orange County Fairgrounds called the Big Squeeze; founded by Jill Lloyd in 2009, it went on until 2014.

Part of keeping the history of anything going is the will of people to keep it going. Nowhere is that truth more apparent than with the accordion. Outliving cool for the sake of tradition and the warmth it brings is what inspires players in OC to go above and beyond to preserve the sound of their ancestors. Many accordion players in OC are invested in seeing the instrument continue to survive, bringing the instrument into the 21st century through a variety of genres, from polka to punk. They have a special connection to it. For Gilman, being one of the few players in a small scene has its financial perks, as well.

“If you play the accordion, know a few polkas and got a pair of lederhosen, man, October is your month,” he says gleefully. “It’s like Christmas, baby! You’re workin’!”

 *     *     *     *     *

Akrabolt! Photo courtesy Frank Mlakar

There are two types of instruments in this world: the kind that define coolness and the kind that outlive it. The accordion, almost by definition, is a survivor. We’ve all heard the jokes, the enduring ridicule of the squeezebox from the rock & roll generation that made a God out of a guitar (now replaced by the laptop). But looking deeper, past its unjustly maligned existence, through a toothy jungle of reeds, bellows (the “accordion” part that expands and contracts), levers, buttons and keys, there’s a miracle in every breath of its sound. It has the power to put you somewhere—usually at the center of a party.

Just as there are two types of instruments, there are two types of accordions. Diatonic accordions function and sound akin to a harmonica, the chords triggered by pressing an array of small buttons on the right-hand side. The push and pull of the bellows makes two different notes. Then there’s piano-style accordions, with keyboard-style fingering on the right. Though they look similar, for most players, they’re worlds (and countries) apart.

Accordions are sized according to the number of bass buttons on their left-hand side—12, 48, 72 and 120 being the most common configurations. Reeds in the accordion are tuned by scratching the metal, which decides if the note goes up, down or middle.

Inside Fred Mlakar’s Irvine living room, a row of accordions are lined up on a coffee table. Each represents a different era of his family’s accordion lineage. As a third-generation polka player, the old instruments are a reminder of his Eastern European roots.

Mlakar’s family came to the U.S. as Slovenian immigrants after World War I; they were the cheap labor in the iron mines of northern Minnesota. They brought music from Europe, playing their accordions in bars and at church picnics and weddings. Both of Mlakar’s parents belonged to Slovenian American clubs, and they immersed their sons in the culture. “Some people just wanna get past their ethnic roots and want nothing to do with them; some people embrace it and keep it going because it’s meaningful to them,” he says. “That was my family.”

Kaiser Steel Mill, built during World War II, lured many European groups to Fontana including Italians, Czechs, Poles. Mlakar’s family was no exception, and when they moved to the San Bernardino County city, they found a Slovenian American community with a hall where they had parties.

Mlakar’s father ran a tavern that had musicians playing accordion while immigrants drank and danced to polkas and waltzes. “I either had to run away from town and get away from it, or just embrace it and go with it,” Mlakar says of the music. While their friends were starting rock & roll garage bands, the Mlakar brothers had a polka garage band that would become known as Akrabolt! They recorded a few albums that were released on a Dutch label.

“It was fun,” Mlakar says. “It was party music, and the rockers weren’t making fun of us because we were getting more gigs than they were.” Folks of their parents’ generation hired them for wedding receptions and dances. They eventually expanded their repertoire to include rumba, cha-cha, swing and American country. “After a while, you get out of your ethnic community,” he says. “You get to learn a lot and be versatile.”

Mlakar touts the greatness of squeezebox pioneers such as Frank Yankovic, the Polka King (no relation to Weird Al). After WWII, this Slovenian performer hit it big with a cover of the Shelton Brothers’ country song “Just Because.”

“[The original] didn’t go anywhere, so [Yankovic] picked it up and made a polka out of it, and it went straight to the top of the charts,” Mlakar says. “It was on every jukebox in the country.”

It’s rare that accordions get passed down within families. But for Mlakar, performing at places such as Old World or the Claremont Folk Festival means embracing the older models—including the chromatic button accordion his grandfather played in the ’30s. “When you show up with the vintage instruments, it’s cool,” he says. “People wanna talk about it. It generates a lot of interest in the craftsmanship, the sound. . . . It’s a conversation starter.”

Unlike guitars, most accordions don’t retain their value. But their cultural and stylistic value keeps Mlakar fixing up his family’s relics, to the chagrin of his local accordion repairman, Jeff Iacono. “[Jeff’s] very good at repairing old ones, so I come to him with some of these old accordions, and he goes ‘Why do you wanna fix up these old accordions? Why don’t you just buy a new one?’” Mlakar says. “But I always say, ‘Jeff, this is history! They don’t make ’em like this anymore!’”

An accordion player himself, Iacono is a bit different than most of the musicians he knows in the scene. “The polka guys don’t really understand me,” he says.
Leaning over a sterile workbench in his garage, Iacono spends a recent rainy Wednesday morning performing triage on an old accordion. For the past decade, he has sold new accordions and run a repair shop, Maestro Accordions, from this garage. (His wife, Angelina, a seamstress, also works out of the garage, with her work area next to his.)

For today’s repair job, all of the pieces of a reed block—through which air passes to give the reeds their sound—are laid out next to an office light and a magnifying glass. Judas Priest’s “Hell Bent For Leather” rages quietly on the stereo in the background.

“This is a monster job today,” Iacono says.

To build an accordion from scratch takes four to eight months and requires more than 1,000 parts comprising its frame and guts. “It really smokes guitar building,” he says.

“The work and knowledge and expertise that goes into building an accordion is like a guitar times 10,000,” Iacono continues. “It’s a very complex animal.”

He makes some small accordions from scratch himself, but sends the majority of his pieces to Italy.

In fact, some new accordions have just arrived from Italy, still sheathed in plastic—everything from vintage-style wood-grain wonders to freshly painted button boxes with flames painted on the grates. “Look at this guy,” Iacono says, unveiling a wood-grain beauty with a lacquered finish and fresh ivory keys. “Just beautiful craftsmanship.”

Iacono trained at the Borsini factory in Castelfidardo, Ancona, Italy, where all the world’s best accordions are still made. (It was forced to close in 2014 after declaring bankruptcy.) Each individual piece of an accordion made in Castelfidardo is worked on by an expert in that part. Generations of Italians crafted keyboards and front bodies (known as the “cassotto”), fashioned and refined reed blocks. “Everything’s gotta be airtight in an accordion,” Iacono says.

Iacono’s unlikely obsession began after a lifetime immersed in rock & roll. In the ’80s, he moved from Chicago to LA, chasing hair-metal stardom as the singer for a band called Gun Shy. They opened for bands such as Poison, Warrant and Guns N’ Roses during the heyday of the Sunset Strip. “I would hand Guns N’ Roses our flier, and they would hand us theirs—that’s how long ago it was,” Iacono says.

Eventually, he started playing jazz. At the height of his career, he recorded with Frank Sinatra’s last band. During a session with them, his arranger suggested adding an accordion to a song he wrote. Iacono was captivated by the sound made by the musician they hired, Frank Marocco, a world-renowned accordion player for legends such as Dean Martin and Pavarotti. “[His playing] made me realize I love the accordion,” Iacono says. “I never heard anyone play like that.”

A jazz accordion player who fancies the beauty and precision on new accordions, it’s hard for him to convince players that older accordions are typically not as big of a commodity. “Most players . . . are playing a 50-year-old accordion,” he says. In the ’40s and ’50s, many American households were visited by door-to-door accordion salesmen who charmed and often scammed their way into selling the instrument to parents with young children. This led to many old squeezeboxes sitting in attics and basements across the country. “They have no idea how good they could sound and how nice it is to play a new instrument.” Because there are so many parts inside an accordion, its monetary value is kind of like that of an old car—it plummets. “You’ll never see an old accordion on my chest,” Iacono says.

Over the years, Iacono has been in charge of fashioning top-of-the-line accordions, custom jobs with a multitude of features, hybrid electronic parts sprayed and detailed with sports-car paint, etc. He even created an accordion exhibit for NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants), whose show descends on the Anaheim Convention Center every year.

He shows off photos of a button box for one of his clients; it’s painted with flames and resembles something that might have a V8 engine purring inside. “Our painter is friends with the guys at Lamborghini,” Iacono says, “and they put Lamborghini paint on an accordion!”

 *     *     *     *     *

Scotty Young, Photo courtesy Vinnie and the Hooligans

Rowdy, fast, and loud: This is the kind of accordion playing that makes a band like Vinnie and the Hooligans tick. With his tattooed arms pushing and pulling the bellows of his vintage squeezebox, Scotty Young’s style encapsulates the vibe of a raucous, smokey Irish pub where anything goes after midnight. In high school, the South County musician found the instrument a perfect vessel to transmit his love of such bands as the Dubliners and the Pogues.

Though he started his music career on guitar, learning the accordion wasn’t as easy as he thought it would be. Not only did Young have to find a teacher, but he also had to find an accordion and learn how it works. In San Diego, he discovered an old Italian man to whom he was referred by an accordion virtuoso he found by searching YouTube for local accordion players. “This guy was at least 80 years old,” he says. “He and his wife lived in this tiny historic home on the coast that doubled as his business.” The home, according to Young, was completely set up for business. “All they did was repair and sell accordions,” he recalls. “It was wall-to-wall accordions, guts of accordions everywhere—it looked like the workshop of a shoe cobbler from the 1800s.”

Young bought his Hohner piano accordion off the guy for $800. Later, after joining Vinnie and the Hooligans, he had it appraised and discovered it was built in the ’40s. “I was walking around in the crowd, having beer spat on me in really rowdy environments, and here I am, playing this old accordion,” he says.

Now the owner of three accordions, Young says that for his style, playing an old-sounding instrument is part of the charm. The rich depth of its old bellows give it a vibe he says no new instrument can match. “If I could paint a picture with what I want to do with the accordion, it’s not so much about getting better at playing it, but rather being in an atmosphere,” he says. “Can I be a character in a pub smoking, drinking beer, being a little bit rowdy and sentimental, too, and playing music that reminds you of the past?”

 *     *     *     *     *

Ramón Ayala. Photo courtesy Randy Miramontez

In the world of norteno music, the party is king. For decades, Mexican dance music popularized by giants such as Ramón Ayala has thrived on the energy, rhythm and sound of the accordion. In the ’60s, diatonic accordions were getting tricked out with rhinestones and candy-colored paint jobs, with designs such as the Mexican flag imbued onto the bellows.

Luis Rodriguez, owner of Gulf Music Sales, a wholesale accordion distributor in Orange, has seen his share of flashy accordions over the decades, with some garnering well more than $10,000. “There’s a terminology I have amongst my friends. . . . Payaso is a clown; the clownier it is, the more they like it,” Rodriguez says. “The more rhinestones, bells and whistles you can put on it, the better.”

Selling a mix of brands of diatonic accordions to the Latin market—mostly Alacran and his in-house brand, SofiaMari, named after his daughter—is a business he fell into unintentionally. “I’m a musician, but to be honest with you, I play all this stuff,” he says, pointing to percussion instruments.

Growing up, the Puerto Rican New Yorker was more into cumbia and salsa than norteno. As a salesman, he represented the company Latin Percussion and Sabian cymbals, but after moving to OC and getting requests from local vendors for accordions, he switched things up. He took a trip to China, where accordions are mass produced, and started distributing them back in the States.

Working with wholesale giant Musician’s Friend, he supplies stock for big chains including Sam Ash, as well as mom-and-pops such as Constellation Musical Instruments in Santa Ana.

“Getting into accordions gave me something I could call my own,” he says, leaning back in an office chair, with his headset perennially on as he fields sales calls and customer orders all day.

At 75, Rodriguez has no plans to retire. “I got a niche,” he says.

As the number of brick-and-mortar music stores declines, finding new, top-shelf accordions is an increasingly harder task.

Photo and design by Michael Ziobrowski

Many of Rodriguez’s clients in the Mexican market looking for diatonic accordions come directly to him for squeezeboxes instead of buying from a chain store. “Hispanics like to buy from people they can talk to. A lot of times, they’re not treated the same way if they go into a store and the guy can’t understand what they’re saying,” Rodriguez says. “We sell a lot of products based on the fact we speak Spanish.”

When Constellation opened in 2004, it had only a handful of guitars and a single accordion. Manager Carlos Cancino was just a kid when his mom bought the once-failing store from a friend who needed to get rid of it. Today, the humble location provides lessons in guitar and accordion to young players. Doting parents occasionally poke their heads in to hear their kids’ progress playing the traditional folk songs.

As a Colombian teenager growing up in Santa Ana, Cancino picked up the accordion to learn styles such as vallenato and cumbia. “In Mexico, it’s more norteno; in my country, it’s vallenato, which is like corridos,” he explains, referring to the traditional Mexican rural ballad. Over the years, he has seen the hard work of maintaining the store pay off in the support it has gotten from regulars who come in to purchase their kids’ first instruments or to fix up old dilapidated ones.

“It’s thanks to the community that we’re able to even be here,” he says. “We’ve had a lot of support from schools in the area—them sending their students here to buy their instruments and [take] music classes—and a lot of people in the community come here to learn.”

 *     *     *     *     *

Photo courtesy Jeff Iacono

As with any other musician, accordion players have to do it for the love—or no one else will.

“One of the bad things about the accordion is that it doesn’t have any sustain,” Iacono says. “A guitar chord could ring out for a minute; pianos ring out forever. With the accordion, the second you stop moving, it stops. It is hard to play, in the sense you have to keep moving to do it.”

Once a month at the Phoenix Club in Anaheim, Mlakar assembles a group of accordion players to jam and trade folk songs from their respective traditions.

“It’s very informal,” he says. They take turns, and there’s usually a lot of folk musicians. There are a few German guys, one of whom was a merchant marine and brings his button accordion; another guy is Latvian, a novice who was embarrassed to play in front of everyone in fear of making a mistake. “I told him, ‘Get up there and make your mistakes—nobody gives a damn! Play your music,’” Mlakar says. “And he did, and he felt good about that. Good music comes from the heart.”

6 Replies to “Breathing New Life Into OC’s Accordion Culture Is No Easy Task”

  1. 🎶🎶 ‘Long Live the Accordion’ 🎶🎶
    Excellent article about the accordion and some of the players noted. Especially about playing wonderful polkas by excellent accordionists in the OC area. I liked the fact the late Frank Marocco, renowned jazz accordionist and studio musician was mentioned. There are other excellent jazz accordionists such as Frank Petrilli an excellent player not just in jazz, has expanded his repertoire in Brazilian, Tangos and gypsy style playing. Also, the classical accordion players and groups such as ‘ The Classical Four +1’. The group consist of all accordions and a cello accordion. And, added percussion which is the +1. Their repertoire of music they play is actually string quartet literature of Bach, Dvorak, Grieg, Debussy, Puccini, Mozart, Bizet, Piazzolla and other well known standards of music of Menken, Rota, Williams, Sousa, Lerner & Lowe and many others. This group is quite unique in their playing and versatility. They do have a nice following that enjoy hearing them perform. The group performs about 3 concerts per year. They primarily perform at St. Catherine’s of Sienna Catholic School in Laguna Beach. The Classical Four +1 will be performing with the Master Chorale of Saddleback Valley Concert on June 22nd, 2019 – “Mostly Mozart” at Geneva Presbyterian church in Laguna Woods.

  2. I love the accordion. I play the diatonic / button accordion. I am a beginner and play for self satisfaction and for family and friends in the Bronx, new York, Vancouver, British Columbia, canada and Baguio city, Philippines, places where I live and work.

Leave a Reply to Joyce Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *