Accordion Babes Put Big Squeeze On O.C. Market Place
A Woman's Squeeze-ability is Equal to Any Man's
Linda uses "it" for ballroom dancing. Diana was Miss December with "it." Alicia won a champion title with "it." Gee demands respect for "it".
"It" is an accordion.
Though diverse in styles, these women share a love for "it" and are forces to be reckoned with in the male dominated accordion world, distorted in image synonymous with Lawrence Welk.
You can be rest assured they didn't play the Lady of Spain when these four as featured accordionists performed at The "Big Squeeze": the 3rd annual Orange County Accordion Festival on October 9 at the Orange County Market Place in Costa Mesa.
But, the Festival won't squeeze out the champagne music crowd altogether.
Linda Herman, who has been playing the accordion over 50 years, has made a career in this niche, and it is still thriving. A resident of Leisure World in Seal Beach, Herman makes a living performing ballroom dance music for senior citizens at many venues (like San Gabriel Elks).
Raised on an Iowa farm, an eight-year old Herman was chosen to play the accordion when door-to-door lessons came a-knocking at a bargain price. After learning her first songs, "Batter Up" and "Jingle Bells," she did just that - went to bat playing in a local dance band as a junior in high school and jingling cash from playing local gigs. She has been playing ever since.
"It is unusual for a musician to earn a living just by playing the accordion," she said "And the fact I am a woman doing it is even more unusual. I count myself very fortunate," she added.
She believes that people live longer with music and dancing. "Recently I played for a lady's 100th birthday - she still dances…and drives," she added.
But it is today's youth who will be playing the accordion in generations to come.
Enter Alicia Baker.
The 20 year-old world champion is currently a triple music major at Oregon State University studying music education, piano and vocal performance.
Growing up in a musical family she was destined to have a life filled with music, with two parents as middle school and high school choir directors. Playing the piano from age 4 was just the start. Later that same summer her family vacation landed in Kimberley B.C. Canada in the middle of the Kimberley International Old-Time Accordion Competition, which lead her to her first accordion lesson on the spot with a Hohner 12 bass from Carl Heintz. And she has been playing ever since.
Little did Baker know she'd be back years later to the same event as a competitor, winning the "Happy Hans Open" in 2007, 2010 and 2011.
But winning isn't everything.
Baker likes to make her own arrangements with techno songs like "What is Love" by Haddaway (from the movie Night at the Roxbury) and her own rendition of the French musette theme from the Pixar movie "Up." While she loves playing this broad range of music, as well as polka jazz, opera, classical she has a strong determination to introduce the accordion as a mainstream instrument for all genres of music and younger audiences.
"I'm all about making the accordion popular again, and bringing more sanity to it. I want the accordion to be loved by everyone," states Baker.
Now a product specialist for the Roland Corporation, she sees that as a great way to spread the joy of accordion music and "increase the popularity of this wonderful instrument."
For Gee "Gigi" Rabe, making the accordion popular is secondary to seeking some respect for it.
"I want people to know that I am a serious, professional musician who plays the accordion. I don't treat the instrument like it's a circus act or novelty. And it's nothing against those who do- but it seems that much of what I see is a lot of "shticks" - whether the accordion is used as a prop, or it's more about songs with a little bit of accordion playing stereotypical "oom-pahs," states Rabe. "On one hand, it's nice that people like the accordion, but on the other hand, I don't know how much respect the instrument gets, nor does it help the general public's perception of the instrument."
Though she was given the title L.A's Accordion Diva, it doesn't take long to see Rabe is much more than that. She's won plenty of national and international awards, has contributed music for television shows and Disney rides.
From Culver City, she has a M.A. in Ethnomusicology from UCLA where she has also completed her PhD work, a B.M. degree in Performance/Commercial Music from CSU Long Beach and teaches world music at CSU Northridge. She is also the Director of the Cal State Northridge University Steel Drum Band, where for sixteen years she's been a lecturer, starting their steel drum band programs.
At the Festival she will also teach providing a free piano accordion lesson to the public before performing with Grammy nominated Lisa Haley and the Zydekats, a Cajun-Zydeco band she joined last year and has since toured with them throughout the world.
She has researched, lectured on and written papers on subjects ranging from Americana and sub-cultural music to Balkan and Caribbean music and draws on all of it in her accordion playing. She's as comfortable playing jazz and Argentinian tango as she is Bulgarian, blues or zydeco.
Like Herman, Rabe was first exposed to the accordion by a door-to-door salesman offering free trial music lessons. She took to the instrument instantly and, after pledging to her parents that she'd stick with it, they bought her first accordion. "I asked for pink, but had to settle for red," she said. (Ok maybe just a little bit diva)
At her first meeting with a prospective teacher, Rabe was given a test to determine her aptitude. "I was given a score of 99.9.9% - not a perfect score because I played all the songs too fast!"
Shortly after learning to play, Rabe began competing in the Accordion Federation of North America music festivals, where she won the virtuoso and virtuoso jazz categories in 1984 and 1985.
"I'd say the biggest challenge in being a female accordion player is that we don't fit the accordion player stereotype. I've gotten many calls over the years for TV and film just to get called back to hear that they want a man," she adds.
"I don't know if the stereotype will ever change, I can only try to be as visible as possible," said Rabe. She'd really like to be an accordion playing sidekick on a late night talk show, particularly with Craig Ferguson.
Being visible on a pinup girl calendar is one way Diana Hobstetter draws attention to the accordion, which she perceives as "very sexy, rich and dynamic." She was Miss December 2010 and Miss January 2011 in the Accordion Babes Pin Up Calendar, a project created by San Francisco accordionist Renee de la Prade, who indicates the women "are not just models; they're damn fine musicians, playing one of the world's greatest instruments."
Mrs. Hobbs is her "nom de musique," but she too was labeled a diva.
Flavorpill, an online culture events guide, called her a Post-Pop Cabaret Squeezebox Diva.
Hobstetter is rather new to playing the accordion.
"Six years ago, I spotted a toy accordion in a store and suddenly felt I had to have it," said Hobbs, who lives in Santa Monica.
She graduated to a Hohner 3-row button accordion to a piano style given to her from a fan and is 100% self-taught, learning to play rock-n-roll songs from Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones and The Velvet Underground. "Becoming comfortable on stage has been a huge personal achievement. My love of music and the accordion continually pushes me to grow as an artist and an individual," shares Hobbs. She believes living in France for a few years helped the accordion seep into her subconscious to influence her playing.
"I love the diversity of the cultures it is a part of. It always makes me happy when I hear people say they 'never knew the accordion could sound like that,'" shares Hobbs, who performs with the band Ketchup Soup.
The band's music repertoire is more like a Mulligan stew covering a full spectrum of folk, blues, jazz, cabaret, gypsy, Americana, French chanson and her own original song "I Met The Devil" which she loves playing because the crowd loves it.
And if the crowd loves "it" that's half the work.
"I want people amazed at the versatility of the accordion and strongly feel it could fit well in any pop, jazz, country and maybe even R&B group. It's most definitely not just used to play Lady of Spain, and the beer barrel polka- that's a big message that needs to be sent," declares Baker.