Featured Article - "Cotati Accordion Festival" by Len Wallace

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There comes a time when every "folk music" performer at a festival thinks, "Why am I here? Why did I travel so many miles? Why do I subject myself to broiling in the heat, the dust, fast food, and Porta Johnnies? Why do I do what I do?"

I was out in Cotati, California for the annual Accordion Festival. Yup, accordions. That's my instrument. All forty pounds of it.

My home town is Windsor, Ontario. My plane from Detroit airport was three hours late getting into Oakland, an entire country away. I arrived at 1:30 am. All I wanted was a bed for the night so that I could travel on to the festival next morning. I was forced to take a rip-off shuttle bus to a decrepit Motel Six, the kind where the receptionist is bottled inside a room protected by four inches of bullet proof glass. "Ah, America!", I thought. I got my room, double bolted the door.

The former transient's boxer shorts were still left lying in a heap in the corner of the shower room. I took my heavy accordion case and placed it in front of the door, an extra barricade of protection. I could almost see the headlines, "Canadian accordion player shot in cheap hotel... Robbery suspected motive." Of course, my accordion would still be left behind beside my bullet ridden body.

Morning couldn't come too soon and a bus ride to the motel originally booked for me near the festival site. On the morning of the festival, I hugged my case of recordings, towed in my squeezebox and change of clothes through the park. I planted them behind the stage and set out to scope the turf.

Ringing the festival perimeter were booths selling accordions, old and new, button boxes, piano accordions, concertinas, melodeons, big and small, black, red and blue mother of toilet seat. People were gathering. Blue haired ladies, new age flower children, guys in lederhosen, retired factory workers, teenage wanderers with eyebrow and nose piercings poked around, fingered keyboards, trying to steal a bit of the magic squeeze.

All around there sounded a cacophony of sighs, moans, groans, whines as people breathed life into their instruments. There were t-shirts with stomach steinway designs, ceramic mermaids playing accordions, tapes, CDs, sheet music.

From center stage a mass gathering of fifty accordion players played "Lady of Spain" followed by "The Beer Barrel Polka" as twenty white doves were set loose to fly above the crowd. On-stage one accordionist played complex Balkan melodies, followed by a guy dressed up in black cowboy hat, leather vest and boots (he was from Belarus). Polkacide was there to render its frantic punk polka.

I got my chance to perform that afternoon. My set cut a bit short for time. How was this crowd going to react to a Canadian performer with his own style of Celto-Slavic fusion with radical political content? I tried the humorous approach and told the crowd that I came from a country far to the north where the people are all Reds - we got national health care! The audience actually applauded! Carried away in the middle of a song written by friend Chuck Angus about a militant northern Ontario miner, I growled out a "Workers of the World Unite!" to even greater applause. After the performance, I was mobbed by people wanting to buy my recordings. I sold them out. People wanted my autograph, my e-mail, told me their own stories of work, their political beliefs.

When I finally made it backstage, legendary Tex-Mex accordionist Santiago Jimenez and his band were getting the audience up dancing to some hot sounds. He saw me, tilted his head inviting me up to join him on-stage. He didn't have to ask me twice, it was an honor. He swung the microphone to me and we played off each other, button box to piano accordion, belly to belly, bellow to bellow. The crowd responded with a roar.

Next day, I vacated my hotel room at noon, took the bus ride in to Oakland airport and waited, and waited. The plane wasn't leaving for another nine hours. My fingers ached from dragging the accordion around. It was going to be a another long day of hauling bags, perpetual boredom and bad airport food. Was it worth it? You betcha it was!

Len Wallace e-mail: lwallace@mnsi.net
Homepage: http://lenwallace.homepage.com/Len.html

"For there's no gods and there's precious few heroes, but there's plenty of dole in the land of the leal. And it's time now to sweep the future clear of the lies of the past that we know were never real." - Hamish Henderson