When it comes to the accordion in this country, people's impressions likely start somewhere around Lawrence Welk, and, if they're somewhat knowledgeable about music, move through fuzzy images of Tom Waits, a scene from the movie Amélie, and perhaps to a few modern musical acts today that are bringing the instrument back into rotation.
But let's be honest: Many start and stop at The Lawrence Welk Show, which is not to disparage Welk's immensely talented polka-playing accordionist Myron Floren. The tradition of polka is indeed a huge part of the accordion's past, present, and future, but the versatile instrument has a few more tricks up its bellowed sleeves than many realize.
As a slightly omnivorous musician, I find a certain appeal in the accordion and its patchwork past. Inspired to pick up the instrument by the music of Waits, Tin Hat Trio, and other ensembles that leaned toward Old World styles, I initially played it during weekly jazz gigs in Charleston with Ron Wiltrout and Kevin Hamilton in a trio called Kopaja. But soon after acquiring one, I had the good fortune to start playing folk music in Charleston with people like Bill Carson, Johnny Gray, Cary Ann Hearst, and Evan and Matt Bivins. Old American country songs in wine bars ensued, as did old Cuban songs, then a French waltz or two, then the advent of the Bivins' popular Cabaret Kiki show. Within a year of purchasing a used accordion, not only had I paid for it many times over (it was a cheap instrument, mind you), but I had also fallen in love with all kinds of folk music from all over the place, with the accordion as my guide.
This Spoleto season, audiences will have the chance to see two distinctly different styles of Brazilian music that rely heavily on the multifaceted talents of the accordion. On Sun. May 29, Brazilian accordionist Toninho Ferragutti will perform as part of the Wells Fargo Jazz Series at the College of Charleston Cistern. Playing with a string quintet, Ferragutti will focus on what is called choro music, while the night before, on Sat. May 28, former Charlestonian Clay Ross will bring his band Matuto to the JAC Jazz Series at McCrady's Restaurant, featuring New York accordionist Rob Curto. Matuto has all kinds of influences, but it's the forró music of northeastern Brazil that figures most prominently.
So how did the accordion get to Brazil in the first place? Invented in the middle of the 19th century in Germany, the instrument resulted from a flurry of invention involving the free reed. Traced back to instruments such as the Sheng in ancient China and the Sho in Japan, the free reed led to the advent of organs, harmonicas, and accordions, all pushing air past a single reed, causing it to vibrate in a regular measured fashion. Harmonicas took sets of these reeds and allowed you to blow over them in order to make sound. Accordions took the equivalent of a handful of harmonicas for each hand and put a nice set of bellows in the middle with which to pump air over the reeds manually.
Think about it. Now you can play melody, you can play chords and harmony, you can provide rhythm, all rather loudly and, most importantly, in a portable box that you strap to your torso — the original "band in a box," if you will.
With such portability and versatility, the accordion quickly traveled around the world. Invented in Germany, the Italians perfected it, and then the French used it to create a unique musette sound. It became integral in the folk music of Eastern Europe and Russia, moved westward into Spain and Portugal, and then hopped the English Channel to infuse the jigs and reels of English and Irish music forever to come. (Not in that particular order, mind you.)
The story of the accordion in Brazil also benefits from the instrument's jet-setting tendencies. Portugal colonized much of Brazil in the 16th century, clearing the path for various elements of European culture to migrate and mix with a myriad of other peoples already melting together in Brazil. African slaves brought their rhythmic structures; Europeans brought their waltzes, polkas, and mazurkas; and the Carioca residents of Rio de Janeiro, versed in the samba and indigenous rhythms, took a stab at putting it all together.
Choro music is a wonderful amalgamation of European dance forms and African rhythms, all played with a relaxed lilt that seems to infuse much of Brazilian music. Think of playing a lovely Bach fugue with your feet propped up on a chair on a warm sunny day. While requiring a sort of relaxed virtuosity, choro also adheres to a fairly strict classical rondo form. There is improvisation, but it isn't necessarily the focus of this music. Think of how ragtime relates to jazz in America. It certainly borrows from and in some ways represents certain tenets of jazz harmonies and sensibilities, but it has a few more buttons buttoned up, if you will. It lilts where jazz swaggers, floats while jazz swings.
Choro music was born out of Brazilian cities, mainly Rio de Janeiro, and is often considered the classical music of Brazil. But don't expect tuxes and stuffy champagne receptions either. The Brazilian singer Aquiles Rique Reis once said, "Choro is classical music played with bare feet and calloused hands."
Literally meaning "cry," the name choro comes out of the traditional ensembles that performed it, usually one or two rhythm instruments, with a single melody instrument, such as the violin or clarinet, "crying" over the rhythm of the guitar. The accordion wasn't originally included in a choro ensemble, but with a wave of German and Italian immigrants in the 19th century, the instrument quickly became more prevalent in southern Brazil. With its dashing good looks and impressive talents, the accordion quickly was adopted into choro music in the cities and also the more rural music of the gauchos in the southernmost state of Rio Grande do Sul.
Toninho Ferragutti, born in the countryside outside Sao Paolo (exactly between Rio de Janeiro and Rio Grande do Sul) and raised by a saxophone-playing father, chose the accordion early on. Surrounded by the sounds of the local "rodas de choro" — literally a "wheel of choro," a jam session where one chorinho bleeds into the next in a spontaneous display of repertoire — Ferragutti quickly learned his way around the instrument. Steeped in folk music from all over Brazil, he went on to study music at a conservatory, developing a sophisticated voice on his instrument that draws upon both of these musical upbringings. On May 29, Ferragutti will play compositions that reflect both his informal upbringing and his more formal musical training and incorporate sounds of the choro, gaucho, and forró. This music is meant for the concert hall, lush with harmony but with a rhythmic thread that stretches through the entire country of Brazil.
If choro is the classical music of Brazil, forró is surely its country music. Most popular in the rural northeast part of the country, especially in the Recife, forró music is a little less concerned with form and a lot more concerned with making you dance all night. And interestingly enough, the original forró band consisted of only an accordion, a triangle, and a large bass drum called a zabumba. Notice the ratio of percussion to pitched instrument in that equation.
Meant for the outdoors more than the indoors, forró is a lively, joyous dance music, constantly churning out rhythms to make you move. It's also relatively new to the world — only coming into practice in the middle of the 20th century, codified by an accordionist named Luis Gonzaga. While originally from the northeast, Gonzaga enlisted in the military and found himself in southern Brazil, where he was introduced to the piano accordion. Taking his knowledge of music from his home, as well as that of the south of Brazil, he created a new type of music that quickly spread in popularity once he returned to his home in Recife.
On May 28, Clay Ross and Rob Curto will perform with their band Matuto, which takes a unique approach to forró and other North and South American folk music. Ross, born in Anderson, S.C., and Curto, born in Queens, N.Y., both bring an amazing array of musical experience to the table, and they want nothing more than to cook up a stew that includes it all.
While Curto was also raised by a saxophonist, his father was Italian-American, and his upbringing was focused mainly on piano, jazz, and American swing music. Inspired to pick up the accordion later in life after watching a performance by Buckwheat Zydeco (and getting a last-minute call from someone needing an accordionist for a recording session), Curto has gone on to become one of the most sought-after performers in New York City. Having traveled to Brazil many times and lived there for long stretches as well, Curto has absorbed the country's music into his playing, and he's an appropriate heir to the tradition created by Gonzaga and others in the 20th century.
Matuto, literally "country bumpkin" in Portuguese slang, takes the threads of Brazilian music and stretches them all the way up to the Appalachian mountains. Unable to ignore the commonalities in the rural sounds of forró and the rural sounds of Appalachian bluegrass, Clay Ross started experimenting with singing old American folk songs over Brazilian samba percussion, and likewise playing Brazilian choro music with a bluegrass backbeat. With two types of music so infused with energy from every corner, it wasn't hard to make the two work together, and Ross has done just that since the inception of the band. With a record now out on Ropeadope Records and a busy touring schedule at festivals all over the world (including many in Brazil), Matuto has found their stride, creating a cross-pollination of party music from both of the Americas.
By no means musical purists, both Curto and Ross make pains to describe the music they play as very much alive and evolving. Says Ross, "Forró music is still so young. America and Brazil are still so relatively young. This music is constantly evolving and becoming something different, so that what we do with Matuto is not necessarily taking static elements and putting them together, but rather continuing the evolution of all the kinds of music we play."
Both in terms of the music and the accordion, do yourself a favor and be a part of this evolution. Whether in the concert hall with Toninho Ferragutti or the dance party that will likely ensue with Matuto, you'll likely gain a fresh perspective on the amazing accordion. I'd like to think Mr. Welk would approve.
Nathan Koci is co-founder of the New Music Collective and is currently a freelance accordionist and hornist in New York City.