By Zamná Ávila, Assistant Editor
Though the July 6 San Pedro Squeeze: An Accordion Festival at Grand Performances in Los Angeles is billed as an evening “that celebrates the accordion music from the many communities that call San Pedro home,” none of the featured artists actually have roots in that community.
“The San Pedro Squeeze was really meant to showcase accordion music from some of the many cultures and cultural communities that have called San Pedro home – Mexicans (Joel Guzman), Croatians (Jelena Milojevic), Italians (Cory Pesaturo) and Filipino (Gee Rabe),” wrote Regina Cabrera, a spokeswoman for the Grand Performances.
And, that shouldn’t dissuade you from treating yourself to the talents of these great accordion artists who explore the possibilities of the instruments across genres.
Joel Guzman, one of the accordion performers, is a perfect example of talent. The artist has been playing the accordion since he was 4 years old and professionally since 1960.
His father used to teach the accordion to youngsters in Washington. Guzman learned just by looking.
“One day, after a rehearsal, he told me I picked up the accordion and I started playing a song that he was teaching these kids, and he told my mom, ‘Well, we can stop looking for an accordion player,” he recalled. “I thought all kids played like that.”
Though Guzman, whose family has been part of the United States for several generations, considers himself a traditionalist, his music ranges from traditional northern Mexican ensembles to Tejano tunes, the tropical sounds of cumbia and salsa, and even country and jazz.
His parents were originally from Texas, who migrated in the mid-40s to Washington to find work, where there were more opportunities and less discrimination. He said music has helped kept him close to his roots and open to new styles.
The fact that we do have our roots in traditional music is what brings a real humbleness when you are trying to learn new styles,” he said. “The fact that we live in a society which stresses assimilation to function … there is a message that is not being delivered. But by emphasizing traditional music in the family you have a better change of kids being a little bit more curious about the language, about the tradition.”
Born in the state of Washington, he moved to Texas in 1978. In his youth he spent times playing music in northern California, in places like Watsonville, Milpitas and San Jose, following the crop workers.
“The California that I know was northern California, playing where there was a lot of agriculture,” said Guzman, 56. “Conjunto (which means ensemble in Spanish), before, was known as music to the working class. So we would follow the crops, pretty much.”
He said his influences run deep. Richard Galliano, a chromatic accordion player from France; Angelo DiPippo, also from France; Tony De La Rosa, a stylist from the 50s whom like Guzman, played the diatonic accordion; and Esteban Jordan, also a diatonic accordionist that Guzman compares to Jimmy Hendrix, are among the accordionists he looks up to.
“I’ve kind of pushed myself to pursue music, challenge myself, across genres, without losing the beauty of conjunto and the soul of traditional music,” he said. “That’s pretty my story.”
He said the one thing that connects all types of music is the story. As such Conjunto is all about the message, much of them — similar to country music — speak of heartbreak and longing.
“Overall, it makes you want to dance,” he said. “It could be a sad song but you are out there dancing, smiling.”
These days, Guzman often combines the sounds of his accordion with his vocals, and/or those of his wife Sarah Fox.
Expect instrumental songs, original compositions, cumbias and, of course conjunto music. Keep your ears open for one of his best songs, “Canción Mixteca,” as well as some of his newer songs such, “La Reina” and “La Chimosa.”
And, though he may not be from San Pedro, his performance promises to keep you dancing.
“I can put in a good show and I love to see people having a great time, moving to the music,” Guzman said. “I’m looking forward to the festival mainly because the line is going to be awesome.”
You’d never know this just by looking at her but Gigi Rabe, affectionately called “Gee,” is very, very shy.
Rabe, known as “The Accordion Diva,” enjoys working with different projects and vocalists. Though she is in the process of recording some of her own original materials.
“I guess my preference has been more to work with other musicians,” said Rabe, whose ethnic background includes Filipino and Chinese on her mother’s side, and German, French and English on her father’s side. “I’ll do solo work but, I guess my preference is to work with other people and collaborate… For me it is more fun to create music with other people than just do it by myself.”
Rabe, originally from north Long Beach, said she fell into playing the accordion, thanks to a door-to-door salesman in 1975. Back then, door-to-door salesmen would go around neighborhoods offering accordion lessons, she explained. Her parents signed her up for a four to six week program. At the end, she took a test and passed with flying colors, 99 percent.
“And, I didn’t get a perfect score because the teacher said I played way too fast,” said Rabe, said Rabe, who turns 47 on July 3.
Rabe wanted to continue taking private lessons and her parents bought her a new accordion.
“It was March 8, 1975, I had my first private accordion lesson and I just stuck with it,” said Rabe, a resident of Culver City. “People ask, ‘Why do I remember that?’ and I don’t know. I love the accordion so much … I just kind of kept track of it. This is like an anniversary to me.
Her love for the accordion persisted. She competed for several years and, in college, she majored in music, and continued. Her style of music ranges from European styles, to cumbias, to norteñas, to polka, country, zydeco and even classical. But her diversity comes with a price.
“Say I have two or three jobs one day, and they are all completely different. Then, I have to switch the different accordions that I play for each different kind of music. So, sometimes it can be kind of difficult. That’s why aside from just trying to get some practice time in, I also have to do a lot of listening to these different styles, so that I can be able to play these styles authentically.
Her master degree in ethnomusicality has helped her to understand that the accordion is used all over the world.
“Most Americans associate the accordion with polka music only, and polka is a really fantastic, fun music to play, but accordion is used all over the world and there are so many great kinds of music out there,” she said. “I really like exploring some of these different kinds of music as an American accordion player and share what I am able to do on the accordion with those who may not be so familiar.”
And share she will. She will be leading the band this time rather than being on the side as an instrumentalist.
“This time I’m kind of fronting the band as the leader, so that will be a little different. I’ll also be exploring some music that I have been wanting to develop toward my own group… It’s going to be a little like jazz or swing … with some Latin stylings … more along what you might have heard in the 1950s or 60s, kind of a retro thing.”
In addition, expect some bossa nova type of sounds.
Check out her website at www.geerabe.com.
Cory Pesaturo is known in the accordion circles for his jazz, Eastern European music, klezmer. He also classical and modern types of music.
“It’s not that I strive to sound like any of these people but that they’ve inspired me in many ways,” Pesaturo said.
And though he loves to improvise and modernize the different styles of music these days through cover songs that show people what the accordion can do, he said his Italian culture often is present in his music.
“I don’t know if it directly influences, but it’s there, because there are certain things that I am going to play that if you really got into analyzing every note I play, if you went into it you’d definitely find Italian influences,” said Pesaturo, who lives in Cumberland, R.I. “I play all of the Italian music … So, it’s definitely embedded in my fingers … It’s there and I want it to be there.”
Similar to Guzman and Rabe, he started playing the accordion at a young age. He also was 9 years old the first time he touched an accordion. His father used to play the accordion for leisure when he was young and one day, he took out his old accordion and asked his son to play.
“’Yeah, OK, I’ll play. Sure, I’ll play accordion,’’ said Pesaturo, now 24. “I was too young and stupid to think why would I ever want to play the accordion. Had he pulled it out when I was 12, I probably would have said, ‘Oh hell, I don’t want to play accordion. I want to play guitar or drums.’
“So, because I was younger, I said, ‘Oh, OK…’”
But unlike Guzman and Rabe, Pesaturo’s love for the accordion did not flourish until later in his life. He’d already received multiple recognitions, including becoming the youngest person to win the National Accordion Championship and performing on four occasions in the White House. Not unlike most teenagers, he was thinking about video games when he would go home, not playing the accordion.
“I did it but I was forced to practice and I never loved to do it,” he said. “It wasn’t until really found jazz and really started doing a lot with improvisation in all styles, when I was 16 and 17 … that’s when I started to love the accordion and realized how versatile it was… I didn’t really like it until then, I just kept doing it because I knew I had a really big talent, so I knew it be a waste for me not to do it.”
“For right now I’m trying to show what the accordion can do on songs that people already know,” he said.
These days he is motivated to bring back the accordion.
“You know, just trying to show what the accordion can do, bring back the accordion in a new light and always try to bring great musicians to the forefront,” he said. “I’ve always been called, ‘the rebel,’ and that feels good. I’m always trying to push the boundaries.”
For example, he modified an electric accordion he plays with a full, flamed, vinyl skin and mid-sequenced LEDs in the grid, which are connected to the keys in a symmetric pattern.
Expect to presence the accordion on July 6. He said he’s surprised that the show will take place in such a big venue.
“I’m just so excited about the location,” “We are right next to One Liberty Tower, it looks like. We are dead in the center of the city. So, hopefully a lot of people can swing by and see what this crazy accordion can do.”
He planned to play solo, but now, he plans to find talent to play with him as a group at the Grand Performances.
“I’m trying to figure out what to do because I got to make this a big deal,” he said. “And I’m probably going to go out there and play some modern stuff, play some heavy duty, jazz and … keep it up beat.
To learn more about Pesaturo visit his site at www.corypesaturo.com
To see him rocking with his modified accordion visit http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QjTp1cVz3cg
Read more about these and more artists at www.randomlengthsnews.com