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Now that’s a funny looking banjo….

In my early 40s I had this idea that I should learn to play diatonic button accordion. I was living in a Portuguese-Canadian area of Toronto and from time to time I heard some of the old Portuguese folk/dance tunes – corridinhos, viras and so on. I loved the sound and thought it would be fun to learn some of those tunes. I also enjoyed cajun and zydeco music and I guess you could say the sound of the squeezebox resonated with me. Triple row button accordions only have 31 buttons on the right side (OK, some of them have a couple more buttons). How hard could it be?

I bought an old but well-maintained Hohner Corona II button accordion after contacting a woman who played German polkas on a different sort of buttonbox. She had this thing sitting in her closet and she agreed to sell it to me at a modest price if I was serious about learning to play. It turned out to be a beautiful instrument and I still have it today. I’ve replaced the bellows tapes and I also did a modification to the buttonboard so the buttons didn’t sink so deep (in my opinion it was a Hohner design flaw I was correcting).

There was a storefront music school on College Street and I went to see a guy named John. He’s an Italian guy from Argentina who was teaching Portuguese kids Portuguese folk music on piano accordion. What an interesting fellow He also did voice-over work, such as Spanish voice over for video games and he could speak Spanish in several different dialects.

John didn’t play much button accordion but he assured me he had a system for teaching it. It turned out this strange situation worked well for me. I had to work out a lot of the fingering myself but John taught me the feel of the music. I’d work on a tune and play it for John and he’s say mmhmmm. Then he’d pick up his piano accordion and he’d say, this one should go like this, and he’s play it for me. I’d go back to the drawing board and work on getting it right.

Along the way, I did learn a lot of Portuguese music, but all kinds of other music too. The instrument had a steep learning curve because each button played a different note depending on if you were pulling or pushing air through the bellows – in other words it was bi-sonoric, sort of like 3 harmonicas stacked together on the right side, with a rudimentary bass system on the left. Once I got the hang of it, I learned fairly quickly. The instrument is set up to make it easy to play folky-dolky dance music and that was what I wanted to learn.

I happily played button accordion just for fun for years and would have continued to do so if it weren’t for the dreaded banjo. My brother had started playing clawhammer banjo. This amazed me because he had never talked to me about music and I kind of thought he didn’t even like music. I really enjoyed old time music and thought it would be fun to maybe learn some clawhammer banjo. How hard could it be? I made an instrument from an ebay neck and an oil can and taught myself to play, eventually buying myself a nice banjo (ok a few nice banjos).

I fell hard for the banjo and the more I played, the less I touched my accordions. Eventually they sat around, sadly gathering dust. It couldn’t be helped. I was determined to learn clawhammer well and I put a lot of time into it. I’ve decided it’s time to devote a bit of time to the accordion again so I’ve committed to pick it up every day, even if just for a few minutes.

A lot of the tunes I used to play have fallen out of my memory and my chops are rusty, but I discovered with a little effort, it comes back quickly. Here’s a tune called The Leaving of Liverpool. It’s also called Fare Thee Well my Own True Love. It’s been recorded many times and was a hit for The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem in the 60s. It’s a fairly simple tune, so a good one for a guy with rusty chops.

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