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Accordions Are Cool at Jazz Fest

April 25, 2002

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) _ Zydeco star C.J. Chenier admits the accordion doesn’t have the mystique of the saxophone, his first instrument.

``You can tell they’re thinking, `Accordion? Man, that’s not cool.′ But they’re wrong, it’s one cool instrument,″ says Chenier, a performer at this year’s New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.

The accordion, the instrument that calls up memories of lederhosen, Lawrence Welk and bubble machines, has been embraced by some of the hottest groups headed to the festival, which starts Friday and lasts for a week.

The accordion will not only be played on stages around the annual music festival, it even decorates the festival’s Hawaiian-style shirt that has become a symbol of the annual event.

``Accordions define hipness,″ says Bud Brimberg, president of BayouWear, which produces the shirts. ``People in Minnesota might think of Lawrence Welk and polkas and think they’re not very cool, but if you look inside Louisiana culture you get another picture. People there know how an accordion can wail, how it can add depth and color, how it can do things you won’t believe in the right hands. They know it’s the coolest.″

When Chenier straps on his accordion, people no longer wonder why he plays it _ not when he starts pumping out zydeco, funk, blues, jazz and ballads.

``Accordion is king in Louisiana,″ says Steve Riley, whose accordion gives the Mamou Playboys much of their sound. ``It’s such a part of the music in the southern part of the state that it’s always been cool in my lifetime. It’s just when you get outside of Louisiana that people think it’s just to play polkas on.″

Riley’s accordion wanders from happy to moody, from bluesy to upbeat but never goes near a polka.

Glenn Hartman, the accordionist for the New Orleans Klezmer Allstars, says: ``People have a tendency to giggle when I tell them what I play. Of course, initially I thought the instrument was a little silly. It took me awhile to realize it wasn’t easy to play.″

He describes the Klezmer Allstars as a New Orleans bar band, but it’s a bar band that adds a New Orleans twist to the music from Eastern Europe that is associated with Jewish celebrations.

``We beat down all the myths,″ Hartman says. ``So why not the myths about accordions being uncool as well?″


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