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.”

MIM 1

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.

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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.

 

 

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14 thoughts on “How cultures unite in the multiple stories of their music

  1. Deborah,
    I loved the pictures. What a great idea to have a slide show!
    As the semester comes to an end, this will be my last post.
    I could see three stories:
    1) Your family and the accordion. What a lovely story. I got a little emotional as it reminded my of my family. My grandfather did not play an instrument and neither did my father, but they loved playing solitaire. The Dining room table was always full of cards that we could not touch! Hours and hours staring at this very cumbersome mix of numbers, letters and colors. Great memories!
    2) The non-european accordion
    3) The danger of a single story (article)
    In your blog you referred to the Accordion (1) and the different accordions in the museum, (2) which were connected somehow. Yet, I did not see how (3) tied with (1) and (2) Maybe if you had a subtitle?
    I like that you added the silde you right before it, but I think you need something else.
    Besides that, this was a great blog. I wish you all the best in your studies and have a wonderful summer.
    Lia

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  2. Hi Deborah,
    I really enjoyed this blog and felt the personal connection you have to the accordion through your father. This particular entry felt like it had a more personal touch than some of the others and your love for your father and the museum really came through.
    One connection that was a little unclear though is if you were saying you have a single story to the accordion and the museum helped you expand on it or if you thought the museum could help others who have a single story. You also make the comment that the museum is family friendly and it is tied to the sentence with the headset – I am not sure how they relate. Maybe a period instead would set them off as two different thoughts.
    One thing I thought could add to your story was your son’s thoughts on the accordion. Did they change when you went to the museum or are they still the same and did he get to accompany you on this trip?
    -Melissa

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    1. Hi Melissa — The writing was easier on this one, given my personal connection. But I do need to be more precise as far as tying in our readings. Thanks for your thoughts on that.

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  3. Hi Deborah

    Your blog this week really hit home for me. My dad grew up playing music and loving its connections and passed that idea onto me. My dad had the opportunity to go to a professional recording studio in Tennessee and cut an album, he was on the radio, and even received his play time check from the radio station. Keep in mind each one of these events has its own story. I can remember being little and my dad picking me up from school and on our way home his song came over the radio. Growing up in a small community, when I introduced myself, I am often met with the words “I know your dad” and “his music.”
    What I truly love and appreciate about music is the stories it creates. I can think of countless examples of sitting round with musicians and hearing their stories. Each person adding on to the story or trying to one up each other. In all of your picture of the accordions, the same thought kept coming to my mind, “The stories they could tell if they could talk.” I think we can understand that stories are not just relegated to people but also to objects and places.

    – Josh

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    1. Hi Josh — Thanks for sharing your dad’s story with me. How cool that his music made the airwaves. I think you’re so right, about the stories behind precious objects like musical instruments. Sometimes when I’m trying to engage someone I don’t know well in a conversation, I can hone in on an object in their home that can get them to talk. Certainly we could use that strategy as travelers to foreign cultures, to get to know that culture better.

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  4. Deborah,
    I am always fascinated by “biographies of things”, the histories of artifacts or places that tie in cultural perspectives and impressions. It was a great, unexpected pleasure, then, to read your exploration into music – each song and instrument is cast into new lenses for different cultures and travelers. This museum seems to highlight the best facets of music’s varieties and interpretations, and your personal inflection into that was really touching! The accordion, in particular, is an excellent symbol for this study. In your use of class readings and images, you are able to provide greater context for how you made this journey specific to your travel and also your family history. I agree with my fellow commenters on the structure of the post, and also think that you should see if your writing could be shared with the museum – I think they could get some great material from it!
    Thanks,
    Justin

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    1. Thanks so much, Justin. If I hadn’t been so concerned about the word count, I might have added that singer Tony Bennett, on billboards around Phoenix, says, “MIM is my favorite museum in the world. Everyone needs to see it.”

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  5. Deborah,
    Your reflections resonate your title throughout your entry, and the introduction clearly states the focus “My father’s life was a collection of multiple stories” and supported by multiple examples. The traveling accordion compliments your assignment and is the thread to a bigger story: “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 to MIM last week, the third stop in my summer staycation.”

    The details of your MIM tour are informative and inviting; it is apparent that your discovery of the accordion was in full bloom as well as its connection to so many cultures—an extension of yourself. Your research poses an interesting question: “whether our sometimes parochial attitudes about unfamiliar places stem from ignoring or belittling the multiple stories from those places.” The tour answered Chimamanda Adichie’s question more than once.

    Thank you for sharing such relevant and beautiful images. Your conclusion echoes the purpose of your blog: “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.”

    Beautiful!

    Janise

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  6. Hey Deborah,
    I love that you took a new approach to the single story idea by incorporating music, but I had a bit of a tough time making the connection. I wonder if there’s a way to connect it further with the story of your father? I love that your blog has such a personal feel, and as a returning reader it was cool to see that you have a clear purpose and audience. The way you incorporate the museums of Phoenix and a bit of advice on them into your narrative is really cool. I can’t wait to read next week!
    -Kimberly Strong

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  7. Deborah,

    You have such a pleasant tone–to the extent that it could be described as musical! Is this the instrument you play–a writing instrument? That is one detail that left me curious at the end of your post–what instrument do you play? At one point you mentioned your purpose for visiting these museums–to redefine yourself. If that’s so, how were you redefined in this visit. I know it’s difficult to be so open and bare to an unknown audience, but I find that most intriguing, your personal stories and understandings. By sharing them, you help your readers redefine themselves through validation or examination.

    Embedding visuals in the text was a nice touch. They accordions and their many styles supported your theme so well, and using visual evidence to underpin textual evidence is particularly powerful. I wondered why you didn’t include a photo of your dad, though. In that way, your blog becomes its own museum, documenting and storytelling for others.

    Many blog entries use textual choices to highlight or hyperlink particular elements, and I think this would add more value to your text. Of course, with blogging, you can always update a post and republish it, so each could be a living document, but I would like to follow my own train of thought and connections through your hyperlinked resources to see and hear the music and instruments of different lands, the land of my ancestors, for instance.

    Thanks for sharing!
    L.

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    1. Thanks so much for your comments, Leslie. I did consider sharing a photo of my dad with his accordion but, as you said, it’s a little hard to reveal personal things in a new blog. I might add the photo down the line, because updates are so easy, as you rightly point out. — Deborah

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  8. Hello Deborah,
    I enjoyed reading your approach to discussing the development of a single story, and how your single story of the relevance of the accordion was expanded by visiting the MIM. As a travel blog, I really liked how you incorporated data on the logistics of the museum itself, mentioning the layout of the museum and what a visitor could expect to find there. Having lived in Arizona all my life, I’ve heard great things about it, but still haven’t found the time to go; after reading your blog, I’m more determined than ever to visit it soon. Since you were both able to reconnect with your identity through viewing the accordions and expand upon your impression of its significance worldwide, it makes me wonder what aspects of my culture could be represented there, and how my interpretations may change. Thank you for sharing!
    Kiersten

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    1. Hi Kiersten — Thanks for your note. The MIM is a great place to take company, and everyone can see it at their own pace. There’s also a nice area called “The Arizona Sound,” for all of us Alice Cooper, Gin Blossoms, etc. fans.

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