My father’s life was a collection of multiple stories: growing up Jewish in a huge extended family in southwestern Germany; escaping the Holocaust as a teenager in 1938; and eventually marrying and settling down in the United States. Throughout life, he didn’t care to talk too much about Germany, but there was one constant in his journeys: his accordion.
According to my grandmother, my father, Eric, started entertaining family and neighbors on various small instruments when he was just three. His accordion made the boat trip out of Germany with him — it was the first in a long line of accordions he owned as he embarked on a career as a musician — but was eventually sold. Remarkably, Eric continued playing gigs until he was 85, and passed away about five years ago.
His last accordion is in storage, waiting for my son to retrieve it whenever he’s ready to hoist it onto his shoulders and try playing a few chords. Jason and I talked about Grandpa when we toured the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix a few years ago, and he let me linger over the accordion displays until the museum closed for the day.
So it was with a bit of melancholy that I returned by myself to the MIM last week, the third stop in my summer staycation as I explore and write about museums whose displays have the potential to bring me closer to defining my own identity.
I know I already said, “Ya gotta go to the Heard,” but may I expand on that? “And while you’re in Phoenix, check out the MIM.”
Just six years old, the MIM is gathering a reputation as an essential place to learn about music from all around the globe — music’s history, cultural contexts and social importance. The exhibits on the second-floor are basically divided by continents; visitors to the European gallery, for instance, can see instruments from every region between Iceland and Sicily. In addition, the MIM is incredibly family-friendly. Young or old, everyone wears a headset so that as you move from one display to another you can hear samples of music from that region, even interviews with musicians. The first floor is even more interactive, with a variety of instruments laid out for visitors to play. My son and I must have tried out three different sets of gongs. As you can see, the MIM mixes lively audiovisual displays and hands-on activities while reminding visitors of the joys of music. A large quotation along a wall puts it succinctly, “music is the language of the soul.”
Applications to travel writing
The readings for my travel writing class have surveyed the various literary purposes of all kinds of travelers. “A Book of Travellers’ Tales,” assembled by Eric Newby, rounds up travel accounts from the famous, like Lewis and Clark, and the not-so-famous, such as 17th-century American settler Hannah Swarton. In “Writing Home,” Mary Suzanne Schriber sheds light on the cultural contributions of early American women travelers. I knew that to be the travel writer whose purpose was mining identity, I needed a narrow focus as I re-explored the MIM. So I lingered over those accordions again … and I must have taken photos of three dozen of them. To narrow my focus even further, I concentrated on accordions from non-European countries. It’s true that many accordions in use around the world since the 17th century have been the handiwork of German and French manufacturers, but this recent visit clued me in on how those accordions traveled to unexpected places.
Mexico makes sense — accordions are a staple of Tejano and Norteño folk music, which blends Spanish, European and indigenous influences. Also making sense is the popularity of accordion music in Venezuela, where many Germans immigrated during the 20th century.
But my surprises about non-European accordion music included the Cape Verde Islands in western Africa, where pickup bands play lively gaita-style accordion with guitar, mandolin and percussion accompaniment. In Chile, button accordions are an integral part of street bands called banda de pasacalles. In Argentina, you can’t dance the tango without the sounds of the bandoneón concertina accordion. In Egypt, the larger piano accordions that are imported from Europe are re-tuned to accommodate traditional Arabic maqām melodies. By the time I hit the MIM’s European galleries I had already seen dozens of accordions.
Continuing with my accordion obsession was irresistible by this point: in the Russia display I saw a harmoschka button accordion; in Estonia, a lõõtspill button accordion; and in Finland, a harmonikka button accordion adds a Finnish flavor to the country’s folk music, jazz and tango traditions. The accordion of my father’s that I kept is a small piano accordion, made in Germany.
In the Americas section, I learned about the accordion’s ubiquity in polka bands, klezmer music and zydeco, and even in “chicken scratch” music — also called Waila — played at social dances of the Tohono O’odham tribe of Arizona.
Contrary to popular visions of accordions as just black-and white, the instruments come in a variety of colors and often have ornately designed bellows and keyboards. No doubt there are multiple stories as to their creation.
More applications to travel writing
One of the questions under consideration this week in my travel writing class is whether our sometimes parochial attitudes about unfamiliar places stem from ignoring or belittling the multiple stories from those places. Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie calls the phenomenon “the danger of a single story.” A related question is, does listening to multiple stories have the power to change attitudes? In the context of the MIM, spending time with its rich stew of exhibits is the equivalent of listening to multiple stories. The fact that cultures all around the world engage with music is a pathway into knowing more about them. An introductory video playing on the first floor explains that music often translates what words cannot express, and that is so true.
Naturally, I was in a pensive mood as I left the museum. It occurred to me that there are so many stories in the world that become highly accessible through studying indigenous music. But I think one of the best outcomes is that the exhibits reignited many fond memories of my father and his multiple, endearing stories. Just as important, the MIM helped cement my identity as the daughter of a lifelong musician who happened to play one of the most versatile and beautifully constructed instruments in the world — the accordion.