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When Accordion Music Ruled the Airways
by Cookie Curci
My Nonna Isolina was a whiz on the concertina (a musical instrument similar to the accordion, but with buttons instead of a keyboard). She played it as a child in the streets of her hometown of Abruzzi, in the province of Pescara, Italy. She beguiled me for hours with her wonderful stories of the old country, how she and her little band of musicians would roam the cobble stoned streets of her town playing their tunes for tips and handouts. Playing the concertina was not only a way for grandma and her siblings to earn money, but, more importantly, it was a joyful way for them to express themselves in a lifestyle that was often filled with economic suffering and political suppression. So, it was only natural, when these children of Italy made that courageous journey of a lifetime to the new world that they took with them the musical instruments that had given them so much comfort and pleasure.
My grandparent's taste in music was simple. They shared the same musical philosophy as famous accordion man Lawrence Welk who once said, "If they can't hum it after I play it, then it's not for me".
Most Italian immigrants found it difficult to keep a job or to find career prospects. For many, the ability to play the accordion or concertina served as a way to increase their income by playing in little bistros and cafe's.
Like most Italian American's, who grew up in the 1940s and '50s, the accordion was more than just a musical instrument; to me it was like a piece of household furniture as familiar to us as our grand Philco radio or Packard Bell TV set. In a way, it was an extension of ourselves, our family traditions and our heritage.
Our Italian ancestor's talent for playing the accordion shouldn't be compared to the abilities of professionals such as Lawrence Welk or Dick Contino. Instead, they should be judged by the amount of joy and entertainment they brought their family and in that sense, their talents and contributions were immeasurable.
My grandmother, like many who came with her across the sea, planned many times to return to her homeland, but world events or the economy prevented her from ever going home again. I remember how Grandma would sit alone in her room, for long hours, playing her concertina. By the look of contentment that shown in her eyes, I suspect she was returning, again and again, if only in memory to her home and family, to the beautiful coastal region of Pescara, Italy, and to the echo of music made by a little band of musicians skipping down the cobble stoned streets of Abruzzi.
My grandparents are gone now, but sometimes, on warm summer nights, when soft, southern breezes blow, I think I can still hear their timeless rendition of "O Solo Mio" echoing through the neighborhood, reminding me of a special time in my life, of love and family bonds that will never fade away.
Today, we diehard fans of the accordion can still fondly remember the days when the concertina was one of our favorite instruments and its melodic music was tops on the modern music charts.
Soft relaxing sounds played by recording stars such as the unforgettable "Three Suns" secured accordion music a lengthy say on the 1940s and '50s top tune music charts their beautiful rendition of the enchanting and romantic, "Twilight Time."
With a flashy, energetic style, accordion virtuoso Dick Contino wooed audiences across the country with his powerful rendition of 'Lady Of Spain and Return to Sorrento." Contino's accordion was much more ornate than others of his elk. His accordion shimmered and sparkled brightly under the stage lights adding glamour and excitement to his performances and to the accordion. Dick Contino is an exceptional talent and a beloved Italian-American icon whose fans will tell you that he can make his accordion almost sing, and that his fast moving fingers play the many pearlescent keys and buttons like a fast moving hummingbird, just too fast for the eye to see. I was fortunate enough to attend one of his concerts in San Jose and I can verify their opinions of this tantalizing entertainer.
Inspired by Contino's success on the accordion it didn't take long for every Italian American household to own an accordion of their own, with the profound hope and desire to also become famous.
When I was a kid, Just about everyone had at least one relative who could really play the accordion. The rest of us just picked out tunes and struggled with those heavy bellows.
In my family it was my Aunty Ann Furduto who possessed that kind of talent. She was honored to take lessons from the popular musical instructor Louis Figone. in 1939 when the World's Fair came to San Francisco, she performed daily with Mr. Figones' most talented students. Later, in the 1940s, she and her group, known as the Quintets, played at concerts on the beach at Santa Cruz, CA, and were featured weekly on the San Francisco radio station KGO am and KFRC am. In those days if you played the accordion you were well respected. but as sought after and esteemed as accordion music once was, sad to say, like many of those popular instruments we once loved, it has become just another thing to lose favor with the fickle public. The era of the accordion will have to remain just a happy memory , a time to wistfully look back on and remember with a smile, along with our banjos and xylophones boxed away in attics and closets across America.
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